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2016 Mainebiz Nonprofit Business Leader of the Year: University of New England President Danielle Ripich

Photos / Tim Greenway University of New England President Danielle Ripich in her office on the Biddeford campus.
PHOTo / Tim Greenway University of New England President Danielle Ripich talks with Dylan Turner, a double major in marine science and aquaculture, about his aquaponics lab, which converts fish waste into plant fertilizer in the Marine Science Center on the Biddeford campus.
PHOTo / Tim Greenway University of New England President Danielle Ripich talks with student Matt Scheuer about an underwater robotics project in the Makerspace on the Biddeford campus.

Since becoming president of the University of New England in September 2006, Danielle Ripich has scoured the state and beyond to pull in new students, whose ranks have swelled 70% to more than 10,000, including a new campus in Tangier, Morocco, seven new buildings on two Maine campuses and three new colleges, including the new College of Pharmacy in 2009 and the College of Dental Medicine as well as the new Oral Health Center, which both opened in 2013.

In 2010 the university received the largest gift in its history, $10 million from the Harold Alfond Foundation, which it matched to build a new athletic facility, as well as about $200,000 in cash and in-kind services from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2014 to develop competency-based education. Last year, the university forged a competency-based education effort with Bangor Savings Bank so employees could brush up or learn new skills through distance learning, a new focus for the university. And it jumped into an important growing force for the university by signing an agreement to help sponsor the New England Ocean Cluster House on the Portland waterfront and adding an interdisciplinary minor in climate change studies.

In all, Ripich has increased the university's operating surplus by $127 million.

But those aren't the achievements she points to when asked what she's most proud of in her career. It's the smaller moments when she can see where all the work has made a difference. Like the Big Blue Bang event in January, when UNE's hockey team finally beat USM's and students were cheering and singing the school's song while fireworks lit the sky in the background.

“It's one of those perfect moments,” she says. “Something is always going sideways so it's these moments that mean the most.”

She relates another moment during the recent economic downturn where a student's parents had both lost their jobs and he didn't have money to pay for a room at school, so he pitched a tent in the woods across Route 9.

Ripich says staff didn't know for a while because “kids don't come through here expecting a handout. We got him a job in the dining hall to pay for his room.” Another example was a construction worker on the now-completed dental school. It turned out he had received his acceptance letter at the job site for the school he helped just helped build. He is now studying at the dental school.

The family business

Born in Ohio, Ripich says she went into the family business: both her parents were teachers. She received her PhD in speech pathology from Kent State University and both her bachelor's and master's degrees in speech pathology from Cleveland State University.

Ripich also was chair of the department of communication sciences and associate dean of the college of arts and sciences at Case Western Reserve University. She subsequently became dean of the college of health professions as well as a professor in the college of medicine's department of neurology at Medical University of South Carolina before joining UNE.

It is at UNE where she says she's ahead on a 10-year strategic plan that finishes in 2017.

“We've surpassed many of the goals,” she says. One of them was to gain national prominence. Along those lines, in January UNE's School of Social Work was recognized for offering one of the top Master in Social Work Online programs in the nation by Go Grad, an online platform. The university also was named to Forbes' list of America's Top Colleges for 2014, which was released in 2015, based on output and return on investment.

Ripich says UNE has one of the lowest default rates nationally on student loans at only 2.5%. About 95% of students at the university, where average tuition runs $31,000 for a four-year undergraduate degree, take out loans, Ripich says.

Last June UNE ranked tops by the Brookings Institution among Maine universities and colleges for its ability to increase students' career earnings. Brookings researchers looked at five main traits of schools that are strong indicators of students' future earnings: the value of the curriculum; alumni skills; a science, math, engineering and mathematics orientation; completion rates; and student financial aid.

Planning Decisions Inc. also estimated UNE's 2013 annual economic impact on the state at more than $738 million, up from $560 million in 2010.

Under Ripich's leadership UNE also created centers of excellence in research and scholarship around the university's strengths in marine sciences, neuroscience, humanities, interprofessional education education and teaching.

The university also won the 2009 Economic Achievement Award from the City of Portland and the 2010 Robert R. Masterton Award for Economic Development from the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce. She also was a 2011 Mainebiz Woman to Watch.

Giving a second chance through online learning

Last July UNE formed an online professional development program with Bangor Savings Bank that started last fall under which the bank's employees can take online “competencies,” including customer service training, via online computer courses designed by UNE to hone their skills.

Ripich says we're in a lifelong education society now in which high school and college students as well as adults can brush up on skills, learn new ones or even get the basic courses going in order to change professions. The program will be assessed after its first year running, but she hopes to expand it to students, baby boomers and others. It consists of competency modules that students can complete anywhere, at their own pace. The modules aren't complete courses, but aim to enhance competencies, such as handling conflict resolution, or helping someone who wants to move into a different department.

“You can get a badge or a certificate for taking these specialty online competencies,” says Ripich. It can be daunting or too expensive for some students to switch majors or for laid-off workers to go back to school, so these modules offer them an alternative to try new disciplines.

She says the program was sparked by the Gates Foundation Breakthrough Models Incubator grant, which aims to develop competency-based online education tools to get people into the workforce and/or enhance their skills. A second part of the grant falls within the Gates Foundation's Next Generation Learning Challenges initiative, which offers workshops and national access to training experts.

Already, some one-third of UNE's students are online, especially in the Master of Social Work, Master of Public Health or Doctor of Education programs. The school will offer an online graduate degree in the burgeoning field of health informatics this year with business partners, which Ripich calls a “new way of teaching and learning.”

UNE is looking to educate at all levels, and will give advanced placement and full freshman year credit to high schoolers at Maine School of Science and Math in Limestone and Washington County Community College in Calais. In both cases the students completing their studies successfully will be able to enter UNE as a sophomore.

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