Cayuga Community College: Reviving the Entrepreneurial Spark

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With just over a half century of history to its name, Cayuga Community College is a youngster in a region sculpted by glaciers. But this relative upstart has taken on a major role in revitalizing the economic landscape. That's the goal, as Cayuga infuses entrepreneurship into its academics and outreach.

For college President Daniel Larson, a career in higher education led from Missouri to Michigan to the State University of New York (SUNY), a 64-campus network of nearly a half-million students. Since taking the helm in 2007 at Cayuga, one of SUNY's 30 community colleges, Larson has fostered an entrepreneurial drive that began with the prior administration.

Meanwhile, SUNY saw its own change in leadership, with new Chancellor Nancy Zimpher spearheading a comprehensive strategic plan. Unveiled in April 2010, the SUNY plan named as its first focal point, "The Entrepreneurial Century,' meshing neatly with Cayuga's outlook.

Cayuga Community College is in the city of Auburn, seat of Cayuga County, in a largely rural area of upstate New York amid the scenic Finger Lakes—ten glacial claw marks just south of the New York State Thruway that attract summer boaters and autumn leaf peepers.

Before the Civil War, the city was a stopover on the Underground Railroad, used by local icon Harriet Tubman to bring slaves northward to freedom. A century later, Auburn factories churned out shoes and steel, railway equipment, and automotive parts.

Big ideas originated there. The 1867 purchase of Alaska from Russia was the folly of William Seward, the Auburn lawyer who served Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson as secretary of state. In the 1920s, Hollywood's silent movies gave way to talkies after motion picture sound was pioneered by Auburn inventor Theodore Case. Check out Case's 1925 Gus Visser and His Singing Duck, a 90-second test film on YouTube.

Today, Auburn struggles to make its mark in a new century and a global economy. In 2007, civic leaders drafted a blueprint for the region's future. Addressing infrastructure, business, culture, education, and health care, the plan seeks to revive the can-do spark of famous local dreamers and doers, and use it to fire new economic engines.

The entrepreneurial initiative at Cayuga Community College is a key to the plan's success. Tackling the blueprint, a local foundation funded the college's Fred L. Emerson Endowed Chair in Enterprise and Innovation. Current incumbent Thomas Paczkowski helps faculty members build enterprise modules into courses across academic disciplines, with real-world projects supported through consortium funding by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

"First- and second-year students can take nine credits of coursework in business and social entrepreneurship," said Paczkowski. "Many of these students are themselves fledgling owners seeking the tools to succeed."

The drive toward an entrepreneurial future doesn't stop at the campus border. The regional blueprint envisioned a one-stop center where business start-ups could sharpen their competitive plans, share incubator facilities, and tap specialized expertise from the college. In August 2009, the new Stardust Entrepreneurial Institute was dedicated in downtown Auburn. As keynote speaker, SUNY Chancellor Zimpher underscored the business, political, philanthropic, and educational linkages that made the institute a reality.

Responding to needs and opportunities in the community has long been a part of Cayuga's mission. Besides delivering degree programs to a population of nearly 5,000 matriculated students, the college does a brisk business in workforce training for area employers. "We help corporations, government offices, and nonprofits innovate," says Carla DeShaw, dean of community education and workforce development, "and they realize better productivity, customer service, and employee satisfaction."

Services often begin with collaborative grant writing to secure state or federal training funds. Programs in such areas a clean manufacturing, process control, and supervision are tailored to the employer's business challenges. Benchmarks are set, outcomes measured, bottom-line impact assessed. Makers of medical devices, shipping pallets, and precision machined parts are among recent clients who significantly improved their competitiveness with Cayuga programs.

Expanding beyond local clients, the college has received a five- year contract to provide staff development and technical assistance for adult literacy programs across a 16-county region. One target for greater outreach is adjacent Oswego County. There, Cayuga has a branch campus in the city of Fulton, with student population rivaling that of the Auburn campus. Current plans to enlarge Fulton operations are critical to meeting increasing demand in Oswego County for academic and community programs. Coordinating the two locations, an hour's drive apart, will test Cayuga's ability to streamline operations while responding to local needs—challenges faced by any entrepreneurial organization in a growth phase.

Links to Cayuga Community College are evident as the region succeeds in leveraging the past. Bar stock rolls out of Auburn's Nucor steel plant, but now it is green specialty steel, forged from recycled scrap met. Mindful of the need for sophisticated technical skills, Nucor has funded renovations to help keep the college up to date.

New movies are still being created, including a 2006 film about two nearby lakes, one a pristine municipal water supply, the other a hazardous waste site. Made by a Cayuga documentary class, The Beauty and the Beast: A Tale of Two Lakes has garnered four national awards and can be purchased on DVD from a student-run production company.

Although the Underground Railroad has faded into history, travelers now flock to the Finger Lakes for its wine country and theater circuit. Cayuga is working with award-winning local vintners on specialized training for the industry. A musical theater festival is being planned by several area venues, with college and SUNY backing.

As the region identifies promising niches for the future, Cayuga Community College will continue to develop courses and collaboration to help those ventures flourish. It's a growth strategy founded on entrepreneurship to benefit both the college and the community it serves.