By Molly Igoe and Catalina Righter
The brisk wind blowing across the green on the morning of Sept. 26 seemed to embody the winds of change for Washington College as Sheila Bair was inaugurated as the College’s 28th president. Bair became the first woman to lead the historic school and was welcomed to the position in a ceremony with special guests Sen. Barbara Mikulski, President of the Maryland Senate Mike Miller, and Historian Joseph Ellis. Bair said that she chose to become the president of WC because it was “the opportunity to give back in this, the likely final chapter to my career.”
The ceremony included greetings from representatives of the college and the town in traditional inaugural fashion. Many of the speakers were funny and candid like Ellis, who claimed he was visited in a dream by George Washington, who said “[Bair] has avoided the snares and the political wars of Washington D.C…She can certainly handle the mayor and town council of Chestertown.”
Former WC President Baird Tipson gave the benediction for the ceremony. He read blessings that were used in the coronation of Queen Elizabeth of England.
Chair of the Board of Visitors and Governors Larry Culp Jr. administered the presidential oath, and former Interim President Jay Griswold placed the presidential medallion around Bair’s neck. “Queen Elizabeth,” he said, in joking reference to Tipson.
Bair then delivered her inaugural address. In past inaugurations, presidents often spoke about the value of a liberal arts education. True to her background, Bair instead spoke specifically about the financial climate surrounding college loans and rising tuition costs.
“Colleges have been confronted by an increasing demand from students for college degrees even as their families suffer a declining ability to pay for them,” she said. “Like most from America’s Heartland, I can be brutally blunt, so let me say this, I am not proud of the leadership my generation, the Baby Boomer generation, has demonstrated…We have a propensity for short term thinking, for borrowing from the future to pay for the needs of today.”
Her plans to address the issue of college affordability at WC will be “doing everything we can to hold the line on cost while dramatically increasing scholarship funding,” she said.
In order to work toward solutions, she announced two new initiatives for the College: Damn the Debt and George’s Brigade.
Damn the Debt will “raise an additional $1 million a year in scholarship funding with the goal of reducing student borrowing by at least one third.”
George’s Brigade will “allow inner-city youth to apply with friends and have their applications considered on a group basis because we know their transition to a small rural school will be smoothed when they can share it with one or more friends” and “assure that the full financial need of these students can be met.”
The ceremony was followed by an inaugural luncheon.
The Inagural Symposium
The Inaugural Symposium on Thursday, Sept. 24 was titled “Our World, Their Future: How the Environment and the Global Economy Will Affect the Next Generation.” Bair, along with former United States Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson, discussed today’s global economy and environmental challenges.
CNBC Chief Washington Correspondant John Harwood moderated the evening, and Steve Clemons, Washington editor at large for “The Atlantic” introduced Bair and Paulson.
Clemons said, “Both Sheila Bair and Henry Paulson understand that checks and balances in the economy is just as important as national security.” He said he knew Bair from her time working in the senate with Sen. Bob Dole and that she was never someone to be trifled with.
The questions and answers have been paraphrased and condensed.
Harwood: Donald Trump recently made comments about how current politicians are stupid and don’t know how to deal with the economy. What do you think about that?
Paulson: Well, our government isn’t working. We need tax reform. We need to deal with the fact that Americans have doubled their borrowing. The government hasn’t done the job with economic policy. Hopefully that didn’t sound stupid.
Harwood: Should the government be doing more or less with economic reform?
Bair: They need to change what they’re doing because borrowing money for everything doesn’t work. The current tax income rates definitely contribute to economic inequality. Tax rates should be cut at the same level.
Paulson: The tax system has tons of problems. We need to lower the rate on capital gains and secure interest.
Harwood: The Pope has made some comments criticizing capitalism and how the United States has been dealing with climate change. Rush Limbaugh recently said that his comments make him sound like a Marxist. Would you say the Pope is a Marxist?
Bair: No I don’t think the Pope is a Marxist. I admire him as a moral figure and agree with the things that he’s said. His comments about the economy definitely speak to the culture of the finance industry.
Harwood: Will his comments affect the Republican Party?
Paulson: Well, I think they affect the public more than politicians. If he is saying that the United States needs to act to reduce climate change, we need to make sure that climate change is actually happening. As Marco Rubio recently said, climate change has not been proven, so acting on behalf of climate change would be a huge, costly risk.
Harwood: We are increasingly seeing politics that are polarized along racial and party lines, specifically speaking to the mainly white GOP and the support that the Democratic Party receives from minority groups. How serious are these divisions?
Bair: The increased polarization between the parties is unfortunate. I believe that both parties have important messages for African-Americans families. I think it is atrocious what some Republicans have said about these groups. Many Republican candidates like John Kasich, Chris Christie, and Jeb Bush have ideas that will attract more diverse constituents and bridge the gap between races.
Harwood: Speaking of the presidential race, did you use your email a lot at your previous jobs? (Referring to Hilary Clinton’s email scandal)
Paulson: Well when I was at the Treasury, I didn’t even know how to use it. Transparency was a lot easier back then. I never had to deal with the issues that politicians like Clinton have had to deal with.
Bair: I just used the FDIC.gov email, sorry.
Harwood: Does the government work better here or in Europe?
Paulson and Bair: Definitely here, they have so many structural problems and difficulty making changes.
Paulson: But, we have such a large and diverse economy that makes structural changes difficult.
Following the discussion, Harwood began reading questions that various students had written ahead of time. Bradley Janocha, senior, said, “I’m a senior which means Sallie Mae’s gonna kick down my door in a few months. Most of the presidential candidates haven’t been talking about the student debt crisis, but it’s a serious issue. We have an entire generation of professionals who will be starting off their careers in debt. What should this country, more importantly what should WC do to reduce the debt of future students?”
Bair said, “We need to hold the line on tuition costs and increase the search for philanthropic scholarships. Tuition has become so high in colleges that even upper middle-class families are struggling to pay their bills without taking out excessive amounts of loans.”
Larry Culp Jr, chair of the WC Board of Governors and Visitors, closed the evening with his remarks. Paulson received a surprise honorary doctorate of laws and environmental policy from Culp and Bair, much to his delight.