Dreaming With Our Eyes Open: Why We Should Change our Perspective on President Reiss and Our Alma Mater

By Taylor Frey
Elm Staff Writer

In July, the Chestertown Spy published an editorial titled “Mitchell, We Hardly Knew Ye” that attacked former President Mitchell Reiss on both a personal and professional level. The editorial criticized Reiss’s CEO-like management style and implied that George Washington would disapprove of his move to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. While many individuals may dislike some of the changes Reiss made during his tenure as president, the collegiate equivalent of a CEO, it is hard to believe that the author of the Chestertown Spy editorial knew Reiss, or Washington’s ideals, well enough to make such bold statements concerning Reiss’s character.

I am no expert on the founder of our country, but I recently perused my copy of George Washington’s “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation,” a pamphlet I coincidentally bought years ago on a visit to Colonial Williamsburg. The anonymous voice behind the Spy editorial should look at some of Washington’s own rules for interacting with others. In particular, they should examine Washington’s first and 39th rules that state, “In writing or speaking, give to every person his due title according to his degree and the custom of the place,” and that, “Every action done in company ought to be done with some sign of respect to those who are present.”

While many people disagree with some of the policies enacted by Reiss, we tend to forget that he still remains an important member of the WC family.
While many people disagree with some of the policies enacted by Reiss, we tend to forget that he still remains an important member of the WC family.

Washington believed it was the mark of gentlemen to refer to another individual not by their first name, but by the title they are due, such as “Dr.” or “Former President.” It is troubling that the author of the Spy editorial decided to go against Washington’s own espoused values in the very title of their missive. Beyond simple matters of civility, I wonder why the author of this particular piece chose to publish anonymously without a personal byline. The Chestertown Spy is not WikiLeaks, and this particular editorial is certainly not a modern version of the Federalist Papers of Washington’s day. So why must the author air their dirty laundry anonymously? This is another matter of respect. In our community an individual should at least have the courtesy of knowing from whom criticism of them originates.

There are issues with the Spy’s editorial a part from the questionable use of Washington;s values. Making the case that Reiss was unvirtuous in his decision to leave Washington College after only four years as president, while also citing Washington as a role model is contradictory. Washington, like Reiss, faced criticism for leaving the office of the American presidency after only two terms and established a lasting precedent of a short, yet complete tenure for American presidents as a result. Regardless of this forgotten historical context, the very fact that the author is concerned with the departure of Reiss from the College when they clearly did not appreciate his leadership style is enough of a contradiction to invalidate much of their argument.

These contradictions in the criticisms of Reiss, as well as the general apathy toward civility when his name comes up in conversation, are two things we need to examine as a community. While I personally do not agree with every action taken during Reiss’ presidency, this college has made unprecedented progress in the last four years as an institution. Since Reiss and his wife, Elisabeth, moved into the Hynson-Ringgold house four years ago, we have successfully gotten through a budget deficit; honed our marketing and communications strategies; brought in a new class of highly talented faculty and administrators; repositioned our college from a regional institution to one that can compete on a national and international scale; and, as of this year, not only met our enrollment goals, but ushered in the most diverse class in College history.

We have a lot to be proud of at Washington College, and it is time we deal with our greatest fault: our perception-gap. We do not realize just how good we are as individuals, as an institution, and as a community. We should start holding ourselves to a higher standard. Not only are we quick to negativity and to over-criticise, we often sell ourselves, our leaders, and our institution short. We are an extraordinary enduring liberal arts institution, the tenth-oldest college in the nation, steeped in history, poised to take on a new era.

A very different letter-to-the-editor published by the Chestertown Spy prior to the arrival of Reiss four years ago stated, “Washington College’s boat is now waiting at the dock, with a fresh coat of paint, impatiently awaiting word on which way to sail. As President Reiss charts his course, we offer words of warm welcome and steadfast support for the task ahead.” While some may disagree with individual actions that Reiss took, I think we can all agree that we are on the right course as an institution. We should give thanks to Reiss and his wife, and remember them as part of our WC family.

Change may be difficult, and our leaders have certainly charted a new course, but our endeavor is a team sport, one president cannot do it all, and good team members must leave from time to time. As a College, we are at a crossroads, and we must not wait impatiently while the tide recedes; we must cast away from the dock, hold each other to the highest standard of civility and excellence, work hard, and take pride in our alma mater. We must give thanks, and dream with our eyes open.

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