Passing the Baton

Retired Interim SVPAA Smooths Transition for Incoming Provost.

By Jane Dunbar with contributions by Jacque E. Day.

There is a point, during a well-executed relay, when two runners are perfectly in sync: speed identical, stride matched to stride in the exchange zone, before the receiver—propelled by the passer’s momentum—accepts the baton and accelerates into the next phase of the race.
Joseph E. “Joe” Byrne’s handoff of Norwich’s top academic job, to incoming provost and dean of faculty Sandra G. Affenito, has come off as a successful passing of the baton. After 44 years on the Hill, Byrne has retired from his latest post as interim senior vice president of academic affairs (SVPAA)—yet, true to his nature, has stuck around to ensure a smooth exchange.

“When you have the opportunity to be coached by someone who has so thoroughly lived Norwich’s mission, you seize it,” Affenito says.

She and Byrne are definitely in step. For one, they speak the same language: Byrne has a PhD in chemistry, Affenito in nutritional sciences. Both spent years teaching before joining the ranks of academic administration. And both have remained current in their respective disciplines as a reflection of their commitment to a teacher-scholar model of education.

Affenito discovered her passion for teaching early in her career. Specializing in medical nutrition therapy in the early 1980s, she served as a clinical educator and delved into research, which ultimately guided her pathway to higher education. “To be an effective teacher and mentor, it was imperative that I engaged in ongoing scholarship and in creating original knowledge to advance student learning,” she says. “That seminal experience informs my educational philosophy to this day.”

To say that Affenito is a force is no exaggeration. When she arrived on the Hill, she brought with her a palpable, contagious energy. A prolific researcher, she has published 60 articles on topics as diverse as nutrition, the theory and practice of medical education and its impacts on the U.S. health system, and leading change through shared governance. She served as a tenured professor in the department of nutrition at the University of Saint Joseph for ten years before assuming the role of dean and then associate provost. To stay abreast of contemporary inquiry, she maintains her credentials and fellowship with the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. With additional certifications in educational leadership from Wellesley College and Harvard Graduate School of Education, more than two decades of experience in academic administration, and a commitment to experiential learning, she possesses, Byrne reflects, “the knowledge and skill to guide Norwich through a rapidly changing higher-education landscape in ways that maintain the university’s currency, relevancy, and solvency.”

Byrne’s legacy of institutional transformation, and his dedication to academic standards, have well positioned Affenito to advance her vision for leading Norwich academics into its third century. His handiwork bears in nearly every improvement to academics at Norwich in his almost 20 years as associate vice president of academic affairs, which included an 18-month stint as interim provost and dean of the faculty. He once coordinated a team effort that created—in a record two weeks—an ESL program for 158 students from the United Arab Emirates. He doggedly pursued grants in support of Norwich educational endeavors. In close collaboration with President Richard Schneider, Byrne elevated Norwich’s visibility and reputation, both regionally and nationally, at a time when resources were limited. And, he freely offers credit where credit is due. For years, he served as committee chair for the Bowen Awards, which recognize staff who go above and beyond their duties. In 2017, the committee surprised him with an Honorary Bowen for his years of service.

Byrne has truly gone the distance. Throughout his time in Academic Affairs, he remained rooted in teaching at the ground level, maintaining a shared presence between his administrative office and his academic office in the Chemistry Department. True to his nature of going where needed, with the SVPAA office recently vacant, Byrne postponed his retirement to serve as interim until the position—since reclassified as provost—could be filled. During it all, Byrne did the hard, steady work of fortifying academics at Norwich, which now boasts what Affenito calls “the brightest, most dedicated teacher-scholars, motivated to excel in their work.”

As we extend a warm welcome to Sandra Affenito, who is already making great strides in this next lap of Norwich academic excellence, let us also bid a fond “bravo” to Joe Byrne, whom we hope to see often, and who can enjoy a restful retirement knowing that the momentum he brought forth, sustained, and passed on will endure as his legacy.


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