Todd Hutton once dreamed of becoming a dentist. As a young man, he favored long hair, sandals, and “garish green” neckties. He twice disguised himself as a member of UC’s football team and made it all the way through practice without being discovered. This summer, he’s planning to jump out of a plane.
Revelations like these were many in our candid—and sometimes emotional—conversation with President Todd Hutton. Reflecting on the past 18 years, Hutton opened up about his unlikely path to the presidency and the place he’ll “always call home.”
Pioneer: At this moment, your retirement is less than five months away. Has it sunk in yet?
Todd Hutton: For me, it’s more of a neutral feel right now. I’ve just been too busy, so I haven’t had time to feel yet. But there are occasions when it hits me. At the Heart Run and Walk, I was taking a photo with the student athletes in front of the banner. And for some reason, it hit me emotionally. Suddenly I realized this was the last time. So there are those occasional sparks of real bittersweet emotions. But for the most part, I’m just on the go. I know commencement’s going to be tough for me, because there will be some students that I know pretty well, a couple employees who are going to walk in this commencement. It’s emotional anyhow. I find myself tearing up at every commencement.
"There are those occasional sparks of real bittersweet emotions."
P: Traditionally, college presidents announce their retirement and spend the next few months tying up loose ends and slowly stepping back. You haven’t done that in the least. In September, you announced the tuition reset and made national news.
TH: Well, our signature line, “Never Stand Still” applies. The tuition reset was something that took on a life of its own. In the early conversations, my colleagues were able to convince me that it was going to be the right thing to do, regardless of the timing. I knew that I couldn’t allow my retirement to interfere with what would be something very important for this institution, for our students and campus. We were going to have to behave as though I were not retiring, and fulfill the promise of that possibility. So when I announced my retirement, I laid out for the board a very detailed three-year plan, quarter by quarter, indicating all the milestone dates, with all the big events occurring. I had a pretty good sense, and the board had a pretty good sense, of what was going to transpire over the next three years.
P: Is that typical of an outgoing president, to leave the board with a detailed plan that far into the future?
TH: The board said they’ve never seen it. The search consultants said they’ve never seen it. People have not done that. But that’s my personality. It’s just who I am.
P: What were your earliest career aspirations?
TH: I thought I was going to be a dentist. My dad was a dentist. I wanted to be a dentist from the age of 10. I was good at science in high school, but I was only fair at science in college. Chemistry and I didn’t get along all that great in college, and I realized that science wasn’t my passion, and therefore, dentistry wasn’t my passion. And I went to the opposite end of the spectrum; I found out that I was pretty good at English. I was teaching high-school English, but I decided to get a degree in school psychology. The doctorate was another digression, because it was a liberal arts PhD. Duke University allowed students to create their own PhD, to choose the courses, which is what I did.
P: Was the prospect of a college presidency even on your radar then?
TH: Not exactly. I remember my first job out of Duke; I was the director of a Federal TRiO Program, an outreach program for students. I still had pretty long hair, and I was wearing sandals and this garish, fluorescent green tie, and the assistant to the president at Frostburg State said to me, “Todd, someday you need to consider being a college president.” Now, I have no idea how he ever could have seen that in me, frankly, because, if you looked at me at that point in time, there was no way I looked like a college president. But he saw something. And I remember my immediate reaction to him was, “I wouldn’t want that job for anything in the world.”
P: What changed?
TH: Years later, I worked for the president of Austin College, Harry Smith. He was an ordained Presbyterian minister. He’d been the executive director of the Institute for Values in Higher Education at Yale before becoming president, and he taught me truly what a presidency could be.
P: What was that?
TH: A college presidency is “servant leadership.” Serving the people who’ve entrusted great responsibility in you. To nurture an organization as you nurture a human being, and help an organization grow, and fulfill some of its own promise. Harry Smith inspired me at that point in time to consider a presidency. And what goes along with that is the acceptance of a life dedicated to an institution. You go from having a career to having a lifestyle. That’s one of the quantum leaps from a vice presidency to a presidency. Your perspective also gets much broader, with pockets of depth. And there’s a responsibility to use that breadth of perspective. The college university presidency is a lifestyle. And that’s something that my peers talk about all the time, that whatever career they came out of, whether it be academic or enrollment or advancement, they all never envisioned the extent to which it becomes a lifestyle.
"The college university presidency is a lifestyle."
P: Was your father disappointed that you didn’t pursue a dental career?
TH: Actually, he counseled me early on not to be a dentist. Even though I don’t have big hands, he felt that I didn’t have the manual dexterity to be a dentist. So he was telling me when I was in high school, “You should think twice about that.” I had a congressional appointment to the US Naval Academy, and my dad was a career navy officer. He was a dentist, but he was a career navy officer. And I turned that appointment down to go to Davidson College. Davidson had mandatory ROTC, so I turned down the Naval Academy to go into their army, essentially. And my dad, I have to give him a lot of credit. He was very, very supportive of that.
P: What’s been the most important lesson you’ve learned over the past 18 years?
TH: Surround yourself with the smartest, brightest, most energetic people you can. It took me a while to build the team, and to build some depth in the team. Learning to take some time for self also is important. And then third, I think building a board that’s a strong, engaged, and consequential. No president stays in a job for a long period of time without a strong board, a strong relationship with that board, and a strong relationship with the chairs of the board. And I was blessed to have strong chairs who were very supportive.
P: How have you changed, personally, over the past 18 years?
TH: On a very personal level, I don’t perceive myself as having changed a whole lot. A lot of us, when we reach the age I am, you see yourself as being several decades younger than you are. You know, it’s that saying: It’s not how old you are, it’s how you are old. I’ve tried to live by that. It’s why I keep doing weird things. I’m going to jump out of an airplane this summer. With a parachute, I hope. I think I have mellowed. I’m less intense than I was. I still can be pretty intense at times, but I’m less intense. I’m more patient than I was. I suffer fools a little bit more leniently. I can’t suit up in a football uniform and go two hours in a practice with our football team anymore.
P: Please elaborate!
TH: I did that twice. The first time was with Coach Mike [Kemp], and the last one was two or three years ago with Blaise Faggiano, as they were practicing in the spring, getting ready to play in Quebec. I suited up and went out for a two-hour practice, the whole two hours. None of the students knew it, and they all thought I was a spy from Canada, because I had this black ski mask on to cover my beard. I stayed with the running backs, because there are more of them, and I let the kids know that I was out there. I said, “You’re going to have to help me. Lead me through the drills and show me what to do.”
P: So what was the big reveal?
TH: They all huddled in the middle of the field at the end of practice, and they’d do a “1, 2, 3, Go Pioneers!” They called [Coach] Blaise Faggiano back into the middle. So he had all the players with the space in the middle, and they pushed me out and said, “Take off the helmet!” I took off the helmet and the mask and Blaise just couldn’t handle it. He was in disbelief. It was so much fun.
P: Wow! What was the hardest part of the practice?
TH: The squat lunges, when we had to kind of lunge forward in a squat. That was the hardest because of my knee replacement. But I made it!
P: What will you miss most about Utica College?
TH: The students. I’ll miss colleagues a lot, but in this business, you absorb the energy of students, from having young people around you. That’s irreplaceable. And I’ll find other challenges. I’ll always have my colleagues here and my friends in the community. Those connections will be lifelong.
P: What are the individual moments, happy and sad, that stand out in your memory?
The deaths of people we’ve known, who I care about a lot, have been the saddest moments. One of the real surprising things about this job is the hundreds of funerals that you go to, that we’ve gone to, over an 18-year period. That’s including students, unfortunately. Joe Chubbuck, a student who passed, stands out. So you revisit those sad moments. But the happiest moments tend to be around things with students. There are just so many of them. Kwanzaa is a good one. Jennifer and I really enjoy Kwanzaa. We went to one of the student dinners and dances three weeks ago, and I danced a little. Alumni events are highlights for us. I really enjoy getting out and meeting people at alumni events.
P: How would you describe your legacy at Utica College?
TH: Well, the students asked me that last year, when I announced my retirement. And I get teared up a bit. But I said, it’s them. It’s the students. That’s part of what being a servant leader is. You take pride in seeing people grow. The college is an organism, and you take pride in seeing it grow up over an 18-year period. It still has a long way to go. But I hope that’s my legacy. There’s the other stuff --- buildings on campus. Yes, that’s nice, but buildings don’t mean anything unless something rich is happening inside, and that richness is growth and learning. I wrote in a vision statement back in 1999, that we’d be one of the finest small universities in America.
"Today Utica College is a small university. I don’t know that we’re one of the finest yet. We aspire to be. But we are a small university now."
P: What’s your advice for your successor, Laura Casamento?
TH: Be yourself. She’s funny. She has a great sense of humor. All the attributes that everyone sees that will make her a successful CEO, but I tell her to let people see her as she really is, herself. And then get to know students. And take time for herself. It can be a crushing job if you don’t take that time.
P: Ten years from now, how will you look back at this period in your life?
TH: I’ll cherish it. I’ll quietly stay in touch with the college, but this has to be Laura’s opportunity. This will be the institution for her to nurture for however long she stays. But I’ll take great pride, ten years from now, on what happened over that ten years. It’s going to be an exciting time in the college’s history with the changes, the economic changes, with nanotechnology. The reset is going to impact this institution in unintended ways. We don’t know exactly what that’s going to be. You know, having been a Navy brat, I don’t have roots. Anywhere I go, I hang my hat, that’s home. But here’s where we’ve put down roots. So this will always be home.