Alum Jeff Focht ’90 Shares Advice with Marketing Students
“Power is a gift. Be sure to use it wisely,” CCSU alum Jeff Focht ’90 told students in Professor David Fearon’s Fundamentals of Management class recently.
Focht, a former adjunct professor at CCSU, is now Vice President for Academic Affairs at Northampton Community College in Bethlehem, PA. His presentation to a class of sophomores was about marketing, human resources, and American business.
But at least a tiny part of that message came from an experience he had as a junior at CCSU, taking part in a Marketing Club trip to Beijing. There, he saw many students like himself— bright, excited, committed, optimistic, eager for change. They gathered in peaceful protest in Tiananmen Square, seeking economic reform and liberalization from the Communists. They waved a mock Statue of Liberty. They peered inside a small bus full of CCSU students and gleefully shouted, “America!”
Just two days later many of them—hundreds, maybe thousands—were massacred by their own country’s military.
The horror of it all still resonates with Focht today.
“The experience was life-altering. It gave me a new appreciation for my own life and the freedom we have that we often take for granted,” Focht said. “I came back with a softened heart. The Chinese students and the Chinese people were the kindest, most gracious people I’d met.”
On the day of the massacre, Focht and the CCSU contingent—nine other students and two faculty members—had moved on to a different part of China. Because the television stations had shut down, they had only bits of information until they returned to the US, but knew something terrible had happened in Tiananmen Square.
When they arrived at Kennedy Airport, “there were TV cameras all over the place,” Focht said. The CCSU students had no idea that their parents and college administrators were panicking over their safe return.
For Focht, that 1989 trip was his first out of the United States. “I came back a changed person,” he said.
Focht grew up in Monroe, CT, and was the first in his family to go to college.
“I can identify with the students at Northampton, many of whom are first generation to attend college, or have little financial backing. I try to give them as much encouragement as I can,” he said. “I say, ‘If I could do it, you can do it too. Don’t give me excuses. Don’t rest on the past, but look to the future.’ I understand their plight.”
Focht earned his bachelors degree in marketing from CCSU in 1990, where he also received the President’s Citation for Outstanding Leadership. He then earned his masters in liberal studies from Villanova University in 1995 and his doctorate in higher education management from the University of Pennsylvania in 2010. Of all his educational experiences, CCSU was paramount, he said.
“Central changed my life. I got very involved in activities on campus. I had lots of opportunities from my professors and other campus leaders, and I loved it. Central afforded me an opportunity I would never have had otherwise. It was the catalyst for some great opportunities in my life. It is very fond in my memory.”
Former CCSU President Dick Judd was among his mentors, as was Professor of Management and Organization David Fearon. Focht said Fearon was inspirational. “I recall his Management of Innovation class and being so intrigued by his teaching and the way he engaged his students,” he said. “I remember looking at him and thinking, ‘I hope I can be in higher education someday.’”
Fearon said that for his marketing students to meet a successful alum, who once sat in their seats, is more powerful than anything he can say. He describes Focht, and many of his former students, as bright people with more “heart” and compassion than most.
After graduation, Focht spent five years as a sales representative and then account manager for Unilever/Cheseborough-Ponds USA. He then developed an “entrepreneurial twinge” and became the owner of two Dollar Plus stores in New Jersey in the mid-1990s. He brought them from start-ups to businesses that, combined, netted $1 million a year in revenue.
“I made a living, not a killing,” he said. “It taught me that as a small business owner, you have to become an expert in everything, from finances to hiring. It was a 7-day-a-week job,” he said. He enjoyed the experience, but then realized he wanted to focus energy on teaching, so he sold the business in 2000.
He embarked on his teaching career at CCSU, first working as an adjunct and then in a temporary teaching position. While at Central, he was nominated for an Excellence in Teaching Award.
Focht later taught at University of New Haven, Post University in Waterbury, and University of Bridgeport. He taught marketing at Northampton for a year and a half before becoming Dean of Business and Technology in 2003. Seven years later, he became Vice President for Academic Affairs.
“I love it. Northampton is a great place. I have a big affinity for community colleges and what we do,” he said. “We have 11,000 students, so it is a big place with a great reputation.”
As the chief academic officer, Focht provides academic leadership, strategic direction, and innovation in the planning, development, and delivery of courses. He has 700 employees reporting to him.
He told the CCSU marketing students that a leader must have a clear vision and deliver it with a positive attitude and sense of excitement, in order to motivate employees and reach goals. “You can’t overlook how each and every person matters in helping attain your goal,” he said. “Push your ego aside. Power is on loan. Don’t flaunt it; use it for good.”
Live with “an attitude of gratitude,” he told the students. Focht, 44, was accompanied by his wife, Wanda, who also works at Northampton. They have three children and three grandchildren and are very family-focused, he said.
Northampton Community College’s largest programs of study are general studies, education, business, and criminal justice.
Focht said he believes higher education is a more complex business than ever, with education changing rapidly. Students are searching for accelerated education. They want to complete their education quickly and get into the workforce, he said. Community colleges are a gateway for students, many of whom come to get a certificate or credential and later return for a degree.
“I think colleges and universities have to be more strategic than ever. We have to look out 5 to 10 years. We have to look for innovative programs of study. For our students it is about getting in, getting an education. We are creating innovative programs that offer transferability (to other colleges) or a job at the end.”