Locate Finger Lakes Business Journal

Dr. Robert Nye: From Serving His Nation to Serving His Community

It’s a good thing Dr. Robert Nye listened to his wife. If he hadn’t, Finger Lakes Community College (FLCC) would have missed out on a dynamic president, and the region would not have gained a fierce advocate. 

Dr. NyeIn 2016, Dr. Nye was happily employed as Vice President for Academic Affairs at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He and his wife were in the middle of looking for a new home to cut down on his long commute. Then, he received an email from a search firm recruiting for the President’s position at FLCC. 

“When I saw it that January morning, I immediately wrote back and said, Thanks, but no, thanks. I’m not interested. I’m not going farther back North. I’ve lived in Ithaca, Watertown, and Alaska, and I’m going farther south for my next step,” he recalled. 

His wife, Suzanne, had a different perspective. She told him that if they were going to move again, she would rather move to Canandaigua than Lancaster. She had fond memories of the Finger Lakes when they had visited for concerts, arts festivals, and wine tours while living in Ithaca. “She kept at me for a month, asking if I was going to apply. A couple of days before the window closed, I did. Thankfully, she saw something in me that I didn’t.”

The Road to President

What Suzanne saw was that her husband was ready to take the next step in his career. She knew how much he enjoyed leadership positions and believed it was a natural progression to become president of FLCC. Just like he had confidently moved from a distinguished military career to a civilian one, she knew he had what it takes to lead the college into the future.

A 30-year veteran in the U.S. Army who retired as Colonel, Dr. Nye was deployed to the Republic of Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq and served as Chief Strategist for the Deputy Commanding General of U.S. Forces in Iraq. During the later stage of his military career, he  joined the faculty of the Army War College, where he taught courses such as strategic thinking and leadership, and eventually moved into administration as Deputy Dean and Deputy Provost.

His time at the Army War College gave him a different perspective on leadership that served him well when he joined Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology and FLCC. “I joke that sometimes I had a lot more control in a combat zone than I do in a college. When you’re in the urgency and exigency of activities, you can say, ‘let’s do this,’ and we go and do it. In a college and other environments, you need to be able to develop coalitions of folks, influence and persuade, and help build momentum. It was all about transitioning from doing active leadership to being more of an influential leader.”

The Appeal of Community Colleges

Dr. Nye was drawn to community colleges because of his belief that they make a bigger difference proportionately in society, helping people raise themselves up to improve their lives and the lives of future generations. “I went from serving my nation to serving my community, trying to be a good servant leader, and helping bring as many students as we can to FLCC. We are creating the strongest partnerships and connections to make a difference not just for the students but for the residents of our community.”

Dr. Nye with FLCC student

The appeal of leading a community college was also rooted in his own personal story. He grew up in tough circumstances after losing his father in seventh grade. His family had some difficult times, which resulted in him attending four junior high schools and three high schools. “I did a lot of stupid things and was not a good student. Then I got a DUI. I knew I had to turn my life around, and in the process, took community college courses in English composition and college calculus. That’s where I experienced the power and value of community colleges.”

His plan after graduating from the University of Arizona was to serve three years in the Army, gain leadership and management experience, and then earn an MBA so he could make a fortune on Wall Street. Three weeks before graduation, his finance professor invited him and a few other students over for dinner. 

“I was a poor college student, so I would always take a free home-cooked meal. I showed up slightly underdressed, and it turned out that the dinner was an informal recruiting and mentoring session with five bank Presidents. It was the first time somebody really said that I had potential.”

That small gesture changed the trajectory of his life. “I wanted to be like my professor. I wanted to teach and do community service. So, I got my master’s while teaching ROTC at Cornell and then my doctorate in public administration while at the Army War College. I eventually realized that I could make the most impact in administration.”

He said he was lucky to spend 27 additional years in the Army because he learned how to be flexible, adaptable, imaginative, and creative. “Those skills are really important in a community college environment, especially as we’ve gone through economic, health, and social challenges with COVID and social unrest. There were parallels to some of my experiences in the military. I knew that as a leader, I had to help people see a vision, something to help them through their difficulties.”

Adapting a Mantra

Dr. Nye has used mantras to keep his leadership team focused on critical activities. During the beginning of COVID, he adopted the phrase: “Flexibility. Forgiveness. Focus.” Flexibility was because COVID was fluid, and he knew leadership needed to be flexible on what and how they were doing things. Forgiveness was because they were not going to always get it right, so they needed to treat each other with forgiveness. Focus was so people would focus on the things they could do something about, as opposed to worrying about things they could not control. 

Now that life has normalized at the college, he has returned to a mantra he used at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology and pre-COVID at FLCC: Patience. Persistence. Positive attitude. When he shifted into academia, he realized that he could not do things as fast or the way he did them in the military.  “You have to be patient, but you have to be persistent. That’s really kind of an oxymoron, but you have to have both. You have to keep a positive attitude because you’re going to win some and lose some.” 

Impact on the Community

According to Dr. Nye, FLCC is a multiplier of providing services to people in the Finger Lakes to help them improve, learn, and make a difference. “We need to be flexible and adaptable to meet the needs and demands of the community. We need to be working closely with our businesses and local governments to create a synergy so we have more folks that wish to stay here. We’re a tool in our local economic toolbox to be able to help people grow, flourish and stay in our communities.”

To be that effective tool, FLCC has invested heavily in technology and faculty support to provide multiple modality learning opportunities that enable students to take classes online, synchronously remote, and in person. In addition to traditional two-year degrees, high school students can take classes for college credit; employees can engage in non-credit workforce development programs; people shifting or enhancing their careers can earn certification credentials in a variety of highly employable industries. 

Most recently, FLCC celebrated the opening of the Sands Family Center for Allied Health and the $7.2M renovation and expansion of its nursing wing with generous support from the Sands Family Foundation. The facility expansion makes room for new students, as well as the launch of a Licensed Practical Nursing (LPN) program starting in the fall of 2023, helping to fill a critical community need for nurses at area hospitals, medical offices, and skilled nursing facilities.

Additionally, the college’s facilities are used by the Finger Lakes community for various activities, and multiple learning events are open to the public. FLCC even runs ArtSpace36, an art gallery and creative project space in downtown Canandaigua. Personally, Dr. Nye makes an impact on the region by serving on theFinger Lakes Workforce Investment Board, the LOCATE Finger Lakes Board of Directors, CMAC, NYK Board of Directors, and the Canandaigua YMCA Advisory Board.

Last year, the College graduated 605 students in its degree and certification programs. “The majority of our graduates stay right in our region. We’re a magnet that keeps people here versus looking for opportunities outside the Finger Lakes. We help students to explore their passions, get a degree or certification, and then find great jobs right here in this community.”

While the numbers are important to Dr. Nye, what moves him the most are the stories he hears on graduation day. “At commencement, I get to celebrate the achievements of students. I know many of their stories and how much they’ve overcome to be able to get on that stage. The stories motivate me. I have a very personal stake in our mission.”

As for his wife, Suzanne is very glad her husband listened to her. She is currently Vice President of Finance and Administration at Willow Domestic Violence Center in Rochester. They’re a great team, and Dr. Nye says, “I’m very proud of her. She went from the public accounting field to something she always wanted to do, which was to be in a nonprofit. We are both doing work that gives back to the community. We are living a very good life.” 

To read more about Dr. Nye and FLCC, you can read the LOCATE Finger Lakes Business Journal article, FLCC president serving on SUNY Veteran and Military Action Council advisory committee. A map of Finger Lakes higher education institutions is available here: Colleges and Universities.

LOCATE Finger Lakes is a Finger Lakes economic development initiative designed to assist and foster collaboration among the established Finger Lakes economic development efforts with targeted, proactive marketing communications and networking. LOCATE Finger Lakes is focused on directing local, national, and international business leaders to Finger Lakes information and inspiring them to look closely at the region’s assets enabling their businesses, their families, and their employees’ families to thrive.

Maureen Ballatori is a LOCATE Finger Lakes Business Journal contributing writer and a member of the organization’s board of directors. She is the founder and CEO of 29 Design Studio, a creative agency for food, beverage, and agriculture brands. 

« View all posts