By Brooke Schultz
Coming into my last year, I have heard myself say yes to a slew of responsibilities. Some were natural progressions, others new opportunities that shot up unexpectedly, others just part of being a senior at Washington College. I can already see that they require a balance that needs finessing and planning, and I don’t think the year is long enough for me to get completely comfortable. At least, in years past, it never has been. A busy senior year, though, doesn’t really compare to the balancing act required of a college president.
Handling your alumni, current students, students’ parents, considering the Board of Visitors and Governors, the town- gown relations, and, of course — your faculty and staff who are the crux of the organization — seems like it could be a circus. Throw in the fundraising and budgeting, and you’ve got yourself quite a bit on your hands.
I don’t know how many students were surprised when Sheila Bair’s departure from the College was announced in June. I can’t say I was. The resounding response I heard from friends was basically: “OK, we didn’t really know her.”
Bair’s largest fault, it seems, was the fact she didn’t connect with the campus, the faculty, or the students. Facing that criticism when she was still in office, Bair told then-Editor-in- Chief Cat Righter and I during an interview with The Elm at the start of last year that, “President John Toll followed a similar approach. He was on the road a lot, gave speeches, served on a couple of boards, did a lot of fundraising and donor cultivation. If you want to increase your philanthropic base, you have to go see donors where they live… Even when I’m off campus, I’m in constant communication via email and phone. It’s not like I’m completely disconnected, even when I’m traveling internationally.”
Bair’s focus was on her financial initiatives — abundantly clear from the list she cultivated after two years: Fixedfor4, Dam the Debt, Saver’s Scholarship, George’s Brigade — and making higher education more accessible for (more) students.
Often, I didn’t care that she wasn’t on campus. I didn’t feel I needed to know her personally if, ideally, I was going to reap what she sowed.
I figured, too, that I had others with which to connect. My indifference toward whether or not I had the ability to speak with her — which I did only through The Elm — perhaps wasn’t a popular notion, as the turnover among her faculty and staff suggests.
In her resignation letter, she said that she, with campus support, had done “in two years what would have required five at other institutions.” Perhaps with more time, she would have found a way to connect with her campus community in the way they were hoping. I like to think that she would have, if the 24/7 aspect of the job hadn’t required she be away from her family so much.
Before I met President Kurt Landgraf, I’d heard from the staff who had met him that he was down-to-earth and personable.
In our interview last week, he spoke with News Editor Molly Igoe and me candidly and described his approach as “student-centric.” When asked to define that, he mentioned things like eating at Hodson and attending student events, stating that, “Since I think that this school is all about students, that includes listening carefully to what students want and need.”
Of course, he doesn’t plan to just shake hands. He described his goals for WC as being about sustainability, making sure the College will be around in 100 years, while still honoring the financial commitment to students that Bair implemented.
Landgraf has only been here for three months, but his de- sire to speak directly to student needs (and, I’m sure, by extension, faculty and staff needs) while working on what he thinks is best for the College can lead toward equilibrium. We’re both early into this academic year, but just as I hope to juggle a lot of elements successfully myself, I hope he finds his balance during his tenure at WC.