Office of the President

President Sheila Bair Reflects on Her First Year in Office

June 30, 2016

As the first academic year of my presidency comes to a close, I wanted to share with you what we have accomplished and what areas of focus will be priorities in the year ahead. This year has not been without its challenges and heartbreaks, but overall, it has been marked by considerable progress and achievements on several fronts.

Since assuming the Presidency of Washington College last August, I’ve been struck again and again by the amazing talents of our undergraduates, the dedication of our faculty and staff and the affection of our alumni for their alma mater. The Board of Visitors and Governors shares my conviction that Washington College should be more widely recognized as one of the best small colleges in the nation. I am committed to using all my skills and resources to bring greater national attention to this precious gem on the Eastern Shore. Thank you all for your confidence in my leadership and for your continued support.

Upon my inauguration, I promised to address two important issues that impact the economic health and well-being of our nation: college access and affordability. A few months later, I announced George’s Brigade, an initiative to make a private college education possible for high-ability, high-need first generation students by meeting the full financial needs, including room and board, for recruited students. This novel program allows students to apply to our school in small, self-selected groups, so that they can be admitted with friends who will share in their transition to college life. We knew that we would have to raise additional scholarship money and then put the infrastructure in place to support our George’s Brigade scholars to ensure their success at our college. We partnered with local community organizations to help identify and recruit highly motivated groups of students who could benefit from a small liberal arts school experience, and looked to the faculty and staff to help develop avenues for leadership training, career mentoring, and social integration into the fabric of the College community.  

This fall, I am pleased to say that we will welcome 16 students from around the country as the first George’s Brigade scholars. We will cover their full financial need through the support of a number of individual and corporate supporters. To date, fundraising efforts total more than $2.85 million for the program’s endowment, as well as $1.1 million in current-use scholarships. I am especially grateful to Board Chair Larry Culp ’85, who stepped up to endow the program with a gift of $1.6 million, and to The Hodson Trust for its gift of $750,000. The rest came from donors who have never before given to Washington College.

Heavy student debt is another troubling trend I identified at my inauguration. We set out to raise an additional $1 million in scholarship funding with the goal of reducing student borrowing by one-third. In its inaugural year, the Dam the Debt initiative – the first of its kind in the nation – raised $1.27 million to reduce qualified graduating seniors’ total federal debt load by 10.2 percent. Much of that support has come from financial institutions. We hope to raise at least $2 million for future debt reductions so that our young graduates can more easily commit to the major life choices that help keep our country strong – starting a new business, saving for the future, buying homes and cars, and starting families.

Such initiatives are key to the future of small liberal arts colleges like ours. It is essential to preserve the liberal arts tradition, which differentiates the American higher education system from others and is one of the reasons why that system is the envy of the world. This is not an inexpensive way to educate young people — we offer small class sizes, low faculty-to-student ratios, experiential learning, and international exchange opportunities — but these are essential to the education of students who can think critically, communicate, and adapt to the ever-changing world economy that we live in. I am proud of the leadership role we have played in defending the liberal arts tradition, while at the same time pioneering ways to make it more affordable. Our efforts have received coverage in the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, MarketWatch, the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, CNBC, CNN, and a number of online media venues. I was also pleased when Senator Ben Cardin reached out to me to host a roundtable on college affordability in early May with leaders from other institutions of higher education on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Additional program offerings will help us become even more relevant to the needs of our society. This fall, we will launch minors in marketing and public health, as well as several concentrations in biology and chemistry. A proposal for a major in communication & media studies is now pending before the Maryland Higher Education Commission, with an anticipated launch in the fall of 2017.

Washington College is taking its rightful place on the national stage of intellectual discourse. Throughout the year, Washington College had the pleasure of hosting several thought leaders: former Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson on China and the international economy; Wesleyan President Michael Roth on the value of the liberal arts; MIT professor Sherry Turkle on the power of talk in a digital age; and, at Commencement, historian Joseph Ellis on our connection to George Washington, and philanthropist David Rubenstein on the importance of giving back to your country.

President Bair with Lin-Manuel Miranda at The George Washington Prize Ceremony in New YorkPresident Bair with Lin-Manuel Miranda at The George Washington Prize Ceremony in New York Credit: Clint Spaulding / PMCWashington College also forged new friendships on Broadway, when the 2015 George Washington Prize was awarded to Lin-Manuel Miranda. The creator and star of the Broadway hit Hamilton: An American Musical based his groundbreaking work on the biography written by Ron Chernow, the inaugural winner of the George Washington Prize. Both Miranda and Chernow, as well as members of the Hamilton cast, joined us for the Prize awards ceremony which took place at the Pierre in New York in December. In addition, Miranda’s co-star Christopher Jackson, who portrays George Washington in Hamilton, received the College’s Award for Excellence during this year’s Commencement ceremony.

It was a big year for Washington College faculty in the national spotlight as well. Experimental archaeologist Bill Schindler gained a huge following as a co-star on the NatGeo series, The Great Human Race. If you have not yet watched this riveting series, I absolutely encourage you to do so. Schindler’s newfound stardom did not distract him from his core passion of educating Washington College students. Coinciding with each episode, Schindler and his students interacted with archaeology students from colleges and universities across the county in a live virtual Twitter “classroom” known as GHRchat.

And in this presidential election year, Melissa Deckman, the Goldstein Professor of Public Affairs and chair of our political science department, published a new book: Tea Party Women, which examines the role of female leaders in the formation of the Tea Party movement. The timing of Dr. Deckman’s book couldn’t have been better and during this election year, the national media has repeatedly turned to her for analysis of the candidates and the social and political influences at work.

Our crackerjack Enrollment Management team has delivered another terrific class — with higher GPAs (average 3.6), higher SATs (average 1171), and more diversity (27 percent of the domestic freshmen represent students of color). At the end of May, the Class of 2020 stood at 426 first-year students — the second largest class in recent history — and with transfers and applications still in process, we project an entering class of 440 students. Among them are 130 Presidential Fellows and 16 members of George’s Brigade.

The Barbara and George Cromwell Hall opens in August.The Barbara and George Cromwell Hall opens in August.On the advancement front, I’m happy to report that we are anticipating another record-breaking year from a fundraising perspective. Already, we have raised over $20 million and anticipate raising millions more by the end of the fiscal year on July 1. This year’s philanthropic support includes the financial endorsement of The Hodson Trust ($3 million to support scholarships, student/faculty research, and internships). We also benefited from the generosity of Barbara Cromwell. Honoring her undergraduate experience and the memory of her late husband, George Cromwell ’53, Barbara Townsend Cromwell ’55 offered the leadership gift to name the academic building now under construction; the Barbara and George Cromwell Hall opens in August. We also greatly appreciated the generosity of Larry Culp ’85. With a $2 million gift, Larry endowed a faculty position in psychology in honor of his mother, Carol C. Culp. Regis de Ramel ’97 gave a $1 million gift to the boathouse project, bringing us just $1 million shy of the $5 million necessary to break ground on a much-needed new facility to house and support our nationally competitive rowing and sailing teams. Our long-time benefactor, Betty Brown Casey ’47, created a $1 million endowed scholarship in honor of Annie Coleman, my executive assistant, who will be enjoying a well-earned retirement in June after 32 years in the President’s Office. I will miss Annie. The whole campus community will miss Annie. But, she has promised to stay engaged with us, and she will have the deciding role in selecting the lucky student awarded this scholarship that bears her name.

Bruce Valliant and Doug Levin on a mission to deploy a new <a href="/live/news/8472-buoying-science-innovation">Basic Observation Buoy (BOB)</a>Bruce Valliant and Doug Levin on a mission to deploy a new Basic Observation Buoy (BOB)With a generous gift from CES Advisory Board Member Louisa Duemling and a matching grant from Maryland’s E-Nnovation Initiative Fund, the College has endowed a position for a chief of entrepreneurial science. Doug Levin, the deputy director of the CES who has been building rather than purchasing the Basic Observation Buoys used in the Chester River Watershed Observatory, is capitalizing on the demand for buoys used in water quality monitoring around the country. Thank you, Louisa!

Another goal I identified in my first year as President was to increase alumni participation in financially supporting our school. The percentage of alumni who contribute to a school are key indicators used by ratings bodies as well as institutional donors in weighing the quality of a college. A 24-hour social media giving challenge asking alumni to make their first gift of the year was a huge success. Coinciding with Washington College’s Founding Day on May 24th, the challenge focused on getting at least 234 new donors (in honor of the College’s 234th birthday) that day; each new donation from an alumnus would be matched by Ed Nordberg ’82 with a gift of $100. We swept past that goal and tallied a total of 276 new alumni donors, along with 82 additional gifts from alumni, parents, and friends. All these contributions, along with those from challengers John Allender ’11, Lynn Bergeson P’14, Ann Horner ’80, John Timken ’03, totaled $62,998. While end-of-year numbers are not yet tallied, we stand to increase our alumni participation rate from 17 percent to over 21 percent. We still have much work to do here, but this was a tremendous start.

It’s amazing how much we were able to accomplish in this first year, given the challenges of last fall. Just one week before students arrived in August (and two weeks after I started my job), a four-alarm blaze destroyed a leased building that housed our IT and business offices. Thankfully, no one was injured, no data was lost, and we were able to find temporary accommodations for the affected departments in other campus facilities. It’s not ideal, but it will have to suffice until we can find the means to provide dedicated administrative office space.

The events in November, though, took a heavy toll on this community. We still mourn the loss of Jacob Marberger ’18, but we are determined to learn and grow from this terrible tragedy. In December, I convened a Task Force on Safety, Social Media, and Campus Culture to take stock of our policies, procedures, and approach to campus life, so that we can be sure that we are doing everything within our power to foster a compassionate community where everyone is respected and emotionally supported.

In May, the Task Force made three core recommendations: to develop best-practice policies and programs in mental health promotion and suicide prevention; to more strongly align Honor Code regulations with student conduct and campus safety, and create new administrative procedures for handling serious conduct violations before an administrative body other than the Honor Board; and to implement guidelines and practices for cultivating responsible digital citizenship in the use of social media. The real work of implementing those recommendations and educating our community on the power of our words and deeds has already begun.

Looking ahead, affordability and academic excellence will continue to be major priorities in the upcoming school year. We must keep faith with students and their families that our “value proposition” means that graduates will leave our school both academically and financially prepared. We will continue to build and emphasize what makes our college unique: our special status as the only school co-founded by George Washington and authorized to use his name; our commitment to living up to George Washington’s legacy of integrity, honesty, and civic leadership, values which permeate our educational approach and curriculum and celebrated in our Starr Center for the American Experience; our longstanding reputation as “the writing school,” reinforced through the Sophie Kerr Prize, the largest award for undergraduate writing achievement in the world; and last, but certainly not least, our cutting edge environmental program, carried out by our outstanding environmental faculty and the Center for Environment and Society. Centered as we are in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, we are leading the nation in our experiential approach to the study of the environment and water quality.

Your words of encouragement throughout my first year in office and your support of this great institution have meant the world to me. I’m committed to making a world-class liberal arts education available to all those bright young citizen-leaders of tomorrow drawn to this extraordinary place. Together, we can make it happen.

For more, follow President Sheila Bair on Twitter at @SheilaBair2013

Last modified on Jul. 7th, 2016 at 10:03am by Marcia Landskroener.