Writing any article about Fairleigh Dickinson University (FDU) becomes increasingly difficult because there are so very many roads to go down and to explore, so many spheres of excellence. So too is it with its Anthony J. Petrocelli College of Continuing Studies alone—why there are literally hundreds of subjects worthy of their own features.
But at this particular juncture, one man alone—one of FDU’s longstanding and visionary leaders—is especially worthy of the spotlight: Kenneth T. Vehrkens, dean of PetroceIli College of Continuing Studies.
He, his 47 years of service and his extensive contributions are, therefore, our objective epicenter, but still, we begin with some brief words about a handful of FDU targets, initiatives and headlines.
A truly global mission
The largest private university in New Jersey, FDU was founded by Dr. Peter Sammartino and his wife, Sally. From its very inception in 1942, its mission was to be a global institution. As such, a unique and vital relationship with the United Nations (UN) was implemented while the college also welcomed and provided a pathway to the future for returning World War II veterans. These two relationships have stood the test of time, as FDU continues to enjoy a unique NGO status with the UN — and its service to veterans remains strong.
Only recently, Petrocelli College’s International School of Hospitality and Tourism Management was invited to join the UN’s World Tourism Organization, only the second university in the United States to be so designated and honored.
With a large community of international students enrolled at FDU, the University’s commitment to educate global students is manifested in dozens of programmatic initiatives. And its U.N. Pathways Ambassador Forums provide students with a global perspective that is unique among colleges and universities in the United States.
Ambassadors from literally every corner of the globe visit its campuses to meet with FDU faculty and students to explain how their nation views the world and to explore the challenges that it faces. From Rwanda and Sierra Leone and Turkey and Greece and Iraq and Afghanistan and Ireland and Germany and Australia and Vietnam—and dozens upon dozens of other countries—they come.
The world literally comes to FDU where globalism and diversity are living, pro-active and mighty forces and not mere words on a website.
Veterans, partnerships & lifelong learning
And yes, FDU offers unique programs and services to veterans, including its Center for Psychological Services. The University’s veteran population is among the highest in the state of New Jersey—and Petrocelli College has written a whole new script on lifelong learning.
Its programs in sports administration; homeland security; administrative science; service, innovation and leadership; and hotel, restaurant & tourism management have all broken new ground and uniquely distinguish the college. Petrocelli College also has, under Dean Vehrkens’s leadership and as far back as 1995, been a pioneer in the development of online programs.
These are just some of the initiatives and programs of the Petrocelli College.
As is its Latino Promise program and its partnerships with several community colleges in the state; as is its partnerships with universities around the globe; and as is its partnerships with corporate leaders, nonprofits and public agencies. One thing Mercer County Community College, Verizon Wireless, universities across the world (in Israel, Korea, Germany, Italy and more), the National Guard, the New Jersey State Police, Hackensack University Medical Center, the National Football League—and a vast litany of others—have in common is Fairleigh Dickinson University.
But it is not just about FDU’s unique undergraduate and graduate programs — it is also about its Camp Discovery, a summer day camp for children starting grades 1st thru 9th, which celebrates its 20th year in 2016. The University also offers its Summers Scholars program for rising juniors, its Computer Teens summer program and the Gifted and Talented and Middle College Credit classes through as many as 100 plus high school districts.
It is ultimately about serving students from the ages of 5 to 90—and beyond—as extraordinary graduates at the ages of both 90 and 91 have recently received degrees from the Petrocelli College.
For the children, it’s about creative arts and theatre and natural science and for older adults who take part in Petrocelli College’s numerous programs. It’s about everything from Irish literature to the American experience to theology. For both young and old, it’s about taking a swim and utilizing the state of the art exercise and recreational equipment.
The vision of Dean Kenneth T. Vehrkens
I must confess that I have a strong personal interest in this story because I first met Kenneth T. Vehrkens at a local Hackensack restaurant (that is sadly long gone) to discuss my coming on board as an adjunct professor. That, rather remarkably, was almost 38 years ago and not long after Ken Vehrkens was first designated an academic dean.
Over the years, through thick and thin and ever steadfast, he has been a man of goodness and grace—and as good a friend as anyone on this earth could possibly have been.
From its inception, Vehrkens has served as the dean of the Petrocelli College of Continuing Studies, one of the 4 colleges of the University, with 5,000 credit bearing students and an equal number of non-credit students.
FDU operates on three campuses—Metropolitan (Teaneck, NJ), Florham (Madison, NJ) and Vancouver (Canada)—and they serve others through what are literally hundreds of partners and affiliates both in New Jersey and across the globe. Throughout his tenure, Vehrkens has fashioned a wide array of fascinating programs for children, teens and even the elderly.
Innovative, impactful and unique, Vehrkens is a giver and a doer and a star—and his hands and his blood, sweat and tears are all over the vast innovative initiatives that were but briefly introduced above.
Our mutual friend George D. Martin, an FDU alumnus and captain of the Super Bowl champion New York Giants, recently wrote a book titled Just Around the Bend. You ought to read it, for a great picture of Dean Vehrkens is poignantly painted throughout it. He singles Dean Vehrkens out as a hero, a mentor and as one of the most profound forces and influences in his life.
George D. Martin will tell you that Vehrkens is unlike any other man.
38 years as dean
Just imagine 38 years as a dean—when the average dean in the United States lasts little more than four years. Thirty-eight years in the highly demanding, frenetic and stressful world of the dean who is the most likely to be pulled by the administration, the faculty, the alumni, the benefactors and the students. That is, of course, when there’s a corresponding problem or demand. Thirty-eight years of ongoing, steady and relentless innovation and exploration. Thirty-eight years of genuinely humble and exceptional leadership.
By their deeds, you shall know them and we do.
“It’s time,” Vehrkens calmly says, in reference to his anticipated retirement date of June 30, 2016. “Karen [my wife] has fought and beaten cancer twice, but there’s always a price paid in a battle like that and I look forward to spending more time with her, my two children and my glorious three grandchildren. After all that retreat of ours in the Adirondacks misses us and will welcome our company.
“While my successor will be in complete control,” he added, “I would like and the University has agreed to allow me to stop by from time to time, and as a contributor only, to keep my hands in the midst of some of our initiatives. Believe me, I’m retiring and I’m letting go, but there are always ‘miles to go and promises to keep’. That’s how to look at it, for the only things I’m truly holding onto are a handful of promises.”
Vehrkens, a valued retention consultant at 25 major Universities, also is the author of more than 60 research articles and the educational consultant for the National Football League. He received the Pinnacle Award in 1991, one of the highest awards given to a University alumnus. He also was designated “Dean of the Year” on three different occasions and he was the recipient of the Elia G. Stratis Castle Award in 2006. He also was honored in 2007 with the Unsung Hero Award by Minority Athletes Networking. He was inducted into the Fairleigh Dickinson University Division I Athletics Hall of Fame. He was also named the Educator of the Year by the Meadowlands Regional Chamber in 2013.
“His shoes will indeed be difficult to fill,” said Sheldon Drucker, president of Fairleigh Dickinson University. “For 47 years, he has advanced the line and relentlessly worked to fashion the great University that Fairleigh Dickinson is today. His contributions are beyond legendary and we will honor him by striving to do justice to the legacy he leaves.”
Tom Swanzey, associate dean and professor of English, has worked closely with Vehrkens for some 40 of his 47 years. “It has been one of the great pleasures and honors of my life to have served for so long with Dean Vehrkens. A colleague, a friend and a brother, I am confidently assuming that he’ll continue to accept my calls and I will, of course, haunt him if he doesn’t,” said Swanzey with a smile. “All that I have done in a career as a servant of this University has been done with him. So close have we been that we share the same dreams. He will leave a monumental void.”
And as to that unsung hero bit, I’ll buy into that notion for that, most certainly, is what he has been to me.
By Rich Fritzky, retired President & CEO of the Meadowlands Regional Chamber and founding editor of Meadowlands USA.