From RIT to the presidency of Thomas University

Gary Bonvillian ’74 (business administration), ’81 (M.S., career and human resources development) received a great education at RIT.

Nothing unusual in that. What is surprising, perhaps, is that RIT also launched Bonvillian’s career in education. His life’s work reached a peak in July, when he became president of Thomas University, a private university in Thomasville, Ga., with 800 students.

Bonvillian approaches his chosen field the way many RIT graduates approach the business world.

“I’m an entrepreneur within the higher education arena,” he says, “and I love both.”

Most recently, Bonvillian put those skills to work at Keuka College, a small, private school in New York’s Finger Lakes area where he has served as provost and vice president for Academic Affairs since 2001. He helped the college become the largest foreign provider of higher education in China, with 3,300 students enrolled through a partnership with a Chinese institution. Also under Bonvillian’s leadership, the number of Keuka’s satellite locations grew from one to 18.

His first job in higher education was as a student employee in RIT registrar’s office in 1972. Bonvillian joined the Army as a teenager and served in Vietnam from 1969-70, then went to Auburn (N.Y.) Community College. As a young, married veteran, he had planned to go to school for a few years and then get a job. Then he discovered RIT, and decided to continue his education.

“RIT was very friendly to transfers and particularly vets,” he says.

After graduating in 1974, he went to work for Boy Scouts of America in Auburn. Two years later, he got a call from RIT encouraging him to apply for a job in the registrar’s office. He stayed at the university for the next two decades, serving as an administrator, faculty member and associate dean in the College of Business.

In 1993, he received his doctorate in organization, administration and policy/higher education from SUNY Buffalo. Keuka College became the focus of his dissertation, which resulted in a book, The Liberal Arts College Adapting to Change: The Survival of Small Schools. The subject fascinated him.

“Right now in the United States, higher education is a buyer’s market,” he says. “Small schools are hungrier, nimble, they can make decisions quickly. They can be competitive because of that. I wanted to work my way to one of these small schools that had the potential, and help them be successful.”

The first opportunity came in 1996, and he left RIT for a unique challenge.

“I was part of a wave of administrators brought in to open Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers,” he says.

After serving as associate dean of the new institution’s College of Business and founding director of the Center for Leadership and Innovation, Bonvillian went on to become dean of business and health professions at Mesa State College, Grand Junction, Colo. He moved from there to Keuka College.

“I’ve built my portfolio on being an agent of change,” he says. “I’ve had quite a bit of fun these past 10 years launching and building these programs.”

His resume proved attractive to Thomas University, where the search committee reviewed 70 applicants before unanimously selecting Bonvillian.

“We were drawn to his extensive experience in small liberal arts colleges and work in economic development within universities and communities,” says Sharon Maxwell-Ferguson, chair of the committee. “He is a dynamic leader who understands the challenges facing Thomas University.”

His ties to RIT remain strong. His wife, Mary ’83, ’84 (business administration), and their son, Ryan ’00 (MBA), are graduates, and the family has fond memories and many friends from their years in Rochester.

“RIT was a great training ground,” Bonvillian says. “I worked for people who were extraordinary thinkers, who helped transform RIT. No matter where we go, RIT will always be close to our hearts.”

The University Magazine, Fall 2006