Editor’s note: This originally appeared in the Fall 2007 Alumni Record
Alumni Spotlight: Andy Griffiths ’58
Defined by his education, Andy Griffiths is an electrical engineer. Defined by his current occupation, he is a college administrator and part-time teacher. Defined by his life, he is a lot of different people. He has computer expertise and financial management experience. He co-founded a nonprofit business focusing on prison reform. He has worked for both state and federal government agencies and two educational institutions. He spent a quarter of a century working for a public television station and now, as noted, is an educator and administrator – and a farmer. So where to begin telling his story?
Griffiths’ engineering degrees are from Brown and Northeastern universities. He has lived in New England most of his adult life. Early in his career, during the Vietnam War, he left a consulting job to get away from military-related business, and went to work for MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. He left that job to start his prison reform nonprofit firm.
“The academic side of my Reserve education was superlative,” Griffiths says, “but the elitist values that prevailed at Reserve at that time were hard for me to deal with. Such values do not help when trying to solve the problems of the world or trying to understand how we fit in it.” His work with prison reform, he says, opened his eyes to aspects of life that he had not previously known. It was during his time at the EPA when he and his wife were forced to deal with the saddest of family events – the death of their 6-year-old son. They agreed that it was time for a change in their lives, and as Griffiths explains, “Life in Washington, D.C., with the EPA was not that exciting anyway.”
What did excite Griffiths was an opening at WGBH, the well-known and innovative PBS television station in Boston, along with its NPR radio affiliate. He interviewed for and accepted the position of vice president of finance and administration. And there he remained for the next 25 years, until 2004.
At WGBH, Griffiths found a whole new set of challenges with which to deal. Of course, money was at the heart of most of them; and political issues were, as well. “Most of dealing with finances is problem solving, dealing with people and clarifying their priorities,” Griffiths says. “I had to maintain a good relationship with PBS headquarters in Washington, trying to identify our common goals of producing the best programming for the public system, since they provided a substantial amount of our budget. The issue was their desire for more centralized control over PBS stations and our desire for more local and editorial autonomy.”
Griffiths also had to deal with another issue when Harvard University wanted to purchase the WGBH property. “We had to move, and because of the cost of property in the Boston area, it was a big financial challenge for us and a community relations issue for the university. Finding common ground and satisfying the many stakeholders in both institutions was a long, drawn-out, but ultimately satisfying experience.”
Although no longer affiliated with WGBH, Griffiths still has high praise for public television programming. “In some respects, such as corporate underwriting, the gap between public and commercial television is closing,” he acknowledges, “but it still provides higher quality programming with more depth.” Among the popular PBS shows produced by the station during Griffiths’ tenure were This Old House, The New Yankee Workshop, The Victory Garden, Masterpiece Theater, Mystery, Antiques Roadshow, Frontline, Nova, Arthur and Zoom. Julia Child’s cooking program also originated at WGBH.
After 25 years at the television station, Griffiths decided that it was time to move on. “I did not want to retire, though, so I looked at alternatives. Working at a college seemed like an exciting idea to me,” he says. So, now he does, as administrative dean of the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. There, he handles administration, planning and finance – familiar duties for the former electrical engineer. He also is a lecturer on topics relating to management and nonprofit organizations. Griffiths has also lectured at Brown, Harvard’s Kennedy School and Babson.
For those unfamiliar with the College of the Atlantic, it is not your typical college. It is small (300 students). It has one major (human ecology). It enables students to design their own courses of study. As Reserve did prior to the 1960s, the College of the Atlantic operates its own farm, and that farm reports to Griffiths.
“In many ways, the college feels very much like Reserve,” Griffiths notes. “There are only 30 on the faculty and so there is a great sense of community. Unlike the Reserve of the 1950s there is a great sense of idealism. Also similar to Reserve, the curriculum is divided between the disciplines of science, fine arts and liberal arts.”
Perhaps it was Griffiths’ educational experience at Reserve that called him to academia after so many years. “When I left for Brown, college was easy for me for the first two years because of Reserve. My years at Reserve were among the most intense in my life and it certainly instilled in us a sense of discipline. For example, Max LaBorde’s English grammar lessons gave me great confidence. I still recall Scotch (Ralph McGill) checking up on us, as well as my close relationship with Robbie (Irving Robinson) and the coaching of Bucky Harris.
“Reserve also gave me an appreciation for teaching. For years I had thoughts of becoming a teacher. That led me to participate in the volunteer programs in the prison, preceding the formation of our nonprofit company, the principal focus of which was training.”