When an individual is appointed to the presidency of an institution of higher education, he or she takes on the responsibility to guide the institution into the future. This year, Hobart and William Smith Colleges face the challenge of selecting the person who will not only represent the alumni, faculty, staff, and students of the Colleges, but also represent the long-term aspirations and priorities of the institution as a whole.
As the Colleges’ second presidential search in three years gets underway, feelings of hope, skepticism, anxiety, and excitement proliferate throughout the HWS community. The process of selecting a president is time- and resource-intensive. Professor Justin Rose, one of four faculty members serving on the Search Committee, stresses the implications of this year’s search: “we have to get this one right.”
The appointment of the new president is scheduled for a start date of June 2019. In anticipation of this deadline, the Search Committee has begun to compile information that will be used to create an official position profile. The position profile is meant to draw candidates with the traits and skills the institution prioritizes to apply for the presidency.
To gauge these priorities, forums were held in July and September for the participation of faculty, students, staff, and Geneva community members. The Search Committee has held one meeting so far, where they discussed the process of the search and began a conversation about their priorities for the new president.
The Committee is charged with selecting and interviewing qualified candidates and recommending a finalist to the Board of Trustees. From this slate of candidates, the Board of Trustees will ultimately decide whom to appoint. The process will be guided by an executive search firm, Isaacson, Miller, which will advise the Search Committee on structuring the search process, work through outreach to attract candidates, and deal with references and background checks. The search is confidential, meaning the candidates’ identities will not be revealed to the public; the HWS community will learn of the new president’s identity only once he or she has been hired.
The Search Committee is composed of several members of the Board of Trustees, Student Trustees Edens Fleurizard ’20 and Caitlin E. Lasher ’19, the William Smith Director of Athletics Deb Steward, Vice President for Marketing and Communications Cathy Williams, and four faculty members: Professor of Dance Cynthia Williams, Professor of Physics Donald Spector, Assistant Professor of Psychology Sara Branch, and Assistant Professor of Political Science Justin Rose.
Professor Rose asserts that the committee aims to act as a single voice for the Colleges. He spoke with the Herald on behalf of the Search Committee as a whole. According to Rose, the Committee’s composition reflects diversity of experience, academic discipline, tenure status, gender, and race, but this does not mean that each faculty member imagines herself or himself as representing any specific group of people within the HWS community. Rather, the committee aspires to select a president for “the entire institution.”
At an institution where priorities, goals, and opinions range tremendously, however, one voice is only achievable through extensive dialogue. Rose recognizes this, noting that the committee’s first meeting was characterized by “vigorous discussion and debate.”
“Our job is to give voice to all concerns,” he says. He encourages every student to get involved with the process by sharing their thoughts at forums or through the search’s designated email address. Only seven students attended the open forum held on September 17.
According to Rose, the committee is looking for a candidate who works collaboratively and can engage with the diversity of opinion on campus. The committee’s ultimate priority is to select a finalist who will develop the aspects that make HWS a great institution, promote the Colleges’ academic mission, and celebrate HWS.
At the student forum in September, many students echoed the desire for a president who will embrace the HWS community. One student recalled spending Friday afternoons in the Gearans’ home as a First Year and added that HWS needs a president who will be “a listener first,” someone who is open-minded, excited to become part of a small community, and eager to learn about HWS by being accessible to students.
Other students agreed, pointing out that HWS is in the process of “figuring out our identity,” so a president who genuinely wants to get to know all the diverse groups of people that make up the HWS community is essential.
As the discussion of transparency and accessibility progressed, another student noted her concern that a confidential search will limit candidates’ ability to engage with the community in this way, asking if there was a “more personal way” for the candidates to get to know HWS. In response, the Isaacson, Miller representatives asserted that this is the purpose of the Search Committee. Open searches, the representatives noted, significantly limit the pool of people who will engage. Additionally, they said candidates obtain the most important information about the institution not through short visits to campus but through extensive conversation with the Search Committee.
In July, several professors voiced dismay at the idea of a closed search in an email thread sent to the campus community, asserting that a closed search is not fitting for a small institution like HWS. Several of the emails stressed the value of significant engagement between the candidates and the HWS community as a crucial part of the selection of a new president, which a confidential search precludes.
Associate Professor of Psychology Brien Ashdown says it is important to “speak up and be heard during the search process, both through our formal representatives on the Search Committee and informally through communication with the Board of Trustees and search firm,” while being “professional and respectful of all community members during the process.”
During a time of uncertainty and change at the Colleges, it is crucial that people raise their voices and engage with the trajectory of the institution in every way they can.
Members of the HWS and Geneva communities are encouraged to share their thoughts through the email HWSpresident@imsearch.com. For further reading, information about the presidential search has been compiled at http://www2.hws.edu/presidential-search/