On Friday, Oct. 18, Joyce P. Jacobsen was officially inaugurated as the 29th president of Hobart College and the 18th president of William Smith College. The inauguration ceremony, held on the Quad and open to all members of the HWS community, was the centerpiece of a day filled with celebration, which included a community lunch and the President’s Ball held in Saga.
In contrast to the 2017 inauguration of former President Gregory Vincent ’83, which was held off campus in Geneva’s Trinity Episcopal Church and required tickets for attendance, Jacobsen’s inauguration was more inclusive of students, who were able to attend the ceremony and other celebratory events. Many students participated in the inauguration itself as musicians, singers in the Colleges’ Cantori, and dancers in a West African dance performance.
Students were joined by faculty, staff, members of the Board of Trustees, and other community members on the Quad to watch the ceremony. Associate Professor of History Matt Crow opened the ceremony by recognizing the history of the Colleges’ land. “As we stand here on land that was traditional territory of the Onondaga, the Seneca people, we acknowledge and express our gratitude and our place in history,” he said.
In his remarks, Crow noted the historic importance of Jacobsen’s inauguration for the Colleges. “It is the honor of my tenure here at the Colleges to address you as the Presiding Officer of the Faculty, and to do so on the occasion of the inauguration of President Joyce Jacobsen, our first woman president,” he said. “You don’t have to be a historian to know that this is a pretty historic day.”
Student Trustee Gianna Gonzalez ’20 shared this sentiment, saying, “It is on this important day, as we inaugurate the Colleges’ first female president, that I look forward to the future of the Colleges.”
Chair of the Board of Trustees Thomas S. Bozzuto ’68 also emphasized this fact in his introduction of Jacobsen. He highlighted how her career “has led her right here, to this moment when, in just a few seconds, she will be officially inaugurated as the first woman to serve as the president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges.”
In his introduction of Jacobsen, Bozzuto echoed the glowing endorsements and support Jacobsen received from all of the speakers in the ceremony. “In my months of getting to know Dr. Jacobsen well, she has impressed me as being exceptionally smart and pragmatic, straightforward and thoughtful, a person of integrity and compassion. She understands the dynamics and tensions of higher education implicitly, and has all of the skills and qualities necessary to be successful,” he said.
Though stoic during the beginning of the ceremony, Jacobsen was animated during the investiture, or her official installation as president, and her inaugural address.
After being formally inaugurated by Bozzuto and Vice Chairs of the Board of Trustees Cynthia Gelsthorpe Fish ’82 and Craig R. Stine ’81, Jacobsen waved to the crowd wearing a pair of Hobart and William Smith mittens. Her first words following the investiture: “I told them it wasn’t going to rain.”
Jacobsen herself did not dwell much on the significance of the moment for the Colleges or for herself. “I’m going to hold my emotions more in check today,” she said, referring to the more emotional speech she made following the announcement of her presidency.
In the rest of her inaugural address, Jacbosen joked about her family’s concerns about her career path and told humorous anecdotes from the Colleges’ past, such as “students rolling cannonballs down the corridors” in the 19th century. However, the subject of her speech, the problems currently facing higher education, was serious and her research thorough.
Jacobsen noted that higher education has always had challenges, some considerably worse than those faced by postsecondary institutions today.
“If you want to see real problems, go back and look at the American higher education system in the 19th century and early 20th century,” she said. “If you think it is hard to convince folks nowadays that a college education is a good bet, try convincing them in a time when most people didn’t finish high school, when the population was mainly rural and engaged in farming or other basic industries, when you have constant bellicosity.”
She argued that HWS has never been exempt from the problems facing higher education in the United States, which include financial precarity, high costs of attendance, low student and faculty retention rates, and perceived problems with students’ preparedness for college.
Ultimately, Jacobsen was pragmatic yet optimistic about the future of higher education and the Colleges, coming to the conclusion that higher education can never be completely stable but will continue to endure.
“U.S. higher education has had, and continues to have, a remarkably successful run as a business sector,” she said. “The survival rate of colleges and universities, and the growth of the sector, stands in strong contrast to the average business history.”
Drawing from her training as an economist, Jacobsen argued that rising income levels will continue to create greater demand for education. “Why do I want to be a college president? Actually, it looks like a pretty safe career bet,” she said.
Jacobsen further specified why she wants to be the president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, which she called “spunky, scrappy colleges that have survived numerous existential threats over their years and nonetheless just keep on keeping on, hustling and marketing and serving the community in which they are embedded.”