People First President

Two years at the helm have seen progress across the board, and the future of the College is in steady hands.

Washington College’s 31st president, Mike Sosulski, took the reins of the College when it was running an $11 million operating deficit annually and had suffered a slump in enrollment, in part due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Under his leadership, the College has halved that deficitand is on track to eliminate it within the next two years—invested in the student experience, and stabilized enrollment. Now he and the senior leadership team are focused on strengthening the future of Washington College. 

Mike Sosulski and students on the steps of Gibson Center for the Arts

The “People First” President 

Sosulski, with thick, round glasses and a boyish, welcoming smile, favors a sports jacket and shirt open at the collar most days but is equally at home in a business suit with oxford shirts and matching ties. While he enjoys donning full academic regalia for convocation and other official engagements, you can also find him wearing shorts during student move-in day and lederhosen for an annual Oktoberfest celebration with faculty and staff at Hynson-Ringgold House.  

Despite that extensive wardrobe, Sosulski is not a chameleon; he is a man who is comfortable in his skin, and no matter his attire or the occasion, his easy manner, gentle wit, and sincerity put people at ease. He exudes the quiet confidence of a man who believes in himself and his vision yet is humble enough to listen and consider the views of others. More importantly for the College, he believes in the institution’s future because he believes profoundly in the abilities, good intentions, and quality of the people who make up the College — students, alumni, parents, families, faculty, and staff, current and past.  

Sosulski inherited an institution where an unusual run of leadership turnover combined with fiscal issues to fray nerves and relationships. “Due to the management of that budget crisis, there was some healing to be done,” he said. His logic is simple — the institution thrives when the Washington College community thrives. “I knew our faculty and staff were my number one priority when I arrived.”  

In his first two years, he has made good on these words. He immersed himself in the Washington community, holding extensive discussions with students, faculty, staff, alumni, donors, and local community members. He then brought in a consulting firm to help evaluate the College based on additional community feedback. From there, he worked with his leadership team to take action to make the College a better institution for all its people.  

Improving the environment for faculty and staff is a large part of the strategy. Sosulski is ambitious, believing the College should be recognized as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. To progress toward that goal, Washington must retain and attract top faculty, staff, and administrators.  

One of his first steps included the restoration of wage increases and the resumption of retirement matches for all College employees, both of which had been suspended to save money. Supporting faculty and staff is more than a feel-good exercise. One of Sosulski’s core beliefs is that people are the key assets of the institution. “Understanding that we need to take care of the people who make the Washington experience possible in order for us to fulfill our mission is a huge thing,” he said. Competitive salaries and benefits are only the beginning of his plan to keep and recruit the brightest and best. 

Equally crucial to moving the College in the right direction is ensuring the student experience is excellent. “The other thing that I'm very proud of is that we immediately invested $20 million in the quality of the student experience.” His administration oversaw the renovation of several residence halls (see page xx), the refurbishment of the dining hall and hiring of a new food vendor, the renovation of the library terrace (see page xx), and the relaying of the bricks on Cater Walk among many projects explicitly aimed at improving the student experience.  

Giving employees a salary boost and giving students better facilities were certainly positive first steps. But if such actions were not financially sustainable, they would have been, at best, stopgaps; at worst, they could have added to the financial burden the institution was already shouldering. Funding these steps required a synchronous and parallel effort to put the financial and enrollment houses in order. 

Ed Patrick, Mike Sosulski, and Vic Costa review plans for the library terrace renovation

Building A Solid Foundation 

Finding ways to fund those initiatives that put people first required the administration to both get back to basics and to get creative. Solving the budget deficit conundrum was the key to building a solid foundation upon which the College could rest. Within his first two years, Sosulski and his leadership team had worked with staff across the institution to cut the deficit in half. The majority of the savings were achieved by “refinancing part of the College’s debt and improving our business processes,” according to Sosulski. The business processes meant streamlining and coordinating everything from the purchasing of paperclips to reviewing and renegotiating contracts with vendors. As he said, “It’s not sexy, but impressive to have reduced [our deficit] that much by those relatively straightforward ways.” He credits the business office staff for coming up with and implementing these solutions — at first under the leadership of interim Chief Financial Officer Theresa Sullivan and now under Ed Patrick, the current vice president for finance and administration. 

A key aspect to the success of this effort is Sosulski’s approach and leadership style — he acted with deliberate and calm efficiency. He didn’t rush into anything, and, importantly, he succeeded without making dramatic, drastic, or disruptive changes. He simply tasked his leadership team with objectively assessing where the College was and coming up with practical and effective solutions that would move it toward the College’s goals incrementally and steadily. These themes of being steadfast and practical, simple and effective, are hallmarks of his approach and testament to what has already been achieved and the pathway toward achieving the goals set out in the five-year strategic framework. 

When it comes to funding the improvements in the student experience, the College has been particularly creative. Several residence halls and campus buildings were overdue for renovations, and maintenance had been deferred across campus to save money. Much of the College’s infrastructure — heating, cooling, electrical, and water systems — was old, inefficient, and costly. The solution was to enter into an Energy-as-a-Service (EaaS) agreement with FESCO Energy. According to the company, “The project is expected to realize a 41% reduction in electric consumption, 57% reduction in fuel consumption, and a nearly 32% reduction in water consumption annually while also providing operations and maintenance of various systems for the 15-year term of the contract.” Approximately half of these improvements are to student residence halls and include new HVAC systems, water lines, LED lighting, roofs, windows, and even landscaping enhancements. 

While this EaaS will improve the quality of life campuswide and reduce energy costs, it will do much more than that. Estimates from the company suggest it will also reduce greenhouse emissions by the College by over 82% — making significant progress on Sosulski’s pledge to make the College carbon neutral and a leader in climate change solutions. 

The agreement is even better for the institution than something that reduces operating costs, improves the campus, and helps the planet. It does all of that without the College accruing any more debt. “We pay nothing upfront,” Sosulski said. “We gradually pay over time, but we recoup everything that we expend on this through the energy savings that accrue to us. If you look at it in a 20-year span, we're getting it all for free.” 

Mike Sosulski riding around on move-in day

Presidential Patterns 

Whether it’s the EaaS agreement, the reduction in operating costs, or the retention of faculty and students, a pattern emerges in Sosulski’s leadership — he and his team identify an issue, find a solution, implement it, and ultimately reach their goal through simple and practical means. And all of this is done without great fanfare. This is good, solid leadership with an impressive track record of success over the first two years. Yet, when you look at all the accomplishments together, another pattern emerges — all these accomplishments overlap and work together to build a better college for students and employees, and the solutions are sustainable. Every path Sosulski’s administration has taken the College down may have been in response to a current need, but they not only address the issue at hand but build on one another to lead to a stable and evolving future. 

This pattern of finding better solutions with both immediate and future benefits is not limited to significant issues such as a 20-year plan to reduce greenhouse emissions. While tangling with thorny issues like College finances and employee retention, Sosulski also had the leadership team identify and implement smaller improvements to day-to-day quality of life. 

For example, one of the first things he did when he arrived on campus was to put the food service contract up for bids — this was after food service-related issues came up repeatedly in discussions with the community. He formed a committee to decide who should get the new contract, and after receiving numerous bids, they chose the family-owned Avi Foodsystems as the College’s new vendor. “They have pretty well transformed the food service on campus,” Sosulski said. “They remodeled the upstairs and downstairs of Hodson Dining Hall, putting around $2 million of their own into it.”  

Naturally, not everything recoups money or reduces costs. When construction workers renovating the library terrace accidentally broke a water main, a section of Cater Walk had to be dug up, and the bricks reset afterward. However, the newly reset section of bricks stood out and drew attention to how some of the Cater Walk bricks were broken and sections uneven — a tripping hazard for pedestrians and an obstacle to people in wheelchairs or other disabilities. Sosuski decided to reset all the problematic bricks on the walk. Although this may seem like a relatively small project in comparison to the much larger projects in progress, it’s emblematic of Sosulski’s leadership approach — if there’s an opportunity to improve the College experience for the people who study or work there, take that opportunity. In this case, the revitalized walk also serves as a very real example of progress, signaling to visitors and the community alike that the College is figuratively and literally on a new path. Similarly, although on a radically larger scale and paid for entirely by gifts from alumni, the complete renovation of the library terrace is another example of improvement for the sake of bettering the facilities and making them accessible to all while at the same time signaling the administration’s forward-looking agenda. 

This prompts the question, where will Mike Sosulski take Washington College next? 

Antoine Jordan and Mike Sosulski at the Birthday Bash for George Washington

Staunch Champion of the Liberal Arts 

In looking toward the future of the College, Sosulski reiterates his commitment to and fundamental belief in the value of a liberal arts education. At the same time, he wants to clarify that he is not naïve about the challenges facing today’s students and the need for optimizing the liberal arts model to benefit students and improve their career prospects. 

Sosulski dismisses the attacks on the liberal arts and is skeptical of those that push the idea of a narrow vocational education in its place. While there is room for both approaches, he argues that workers with the communication, creative, problem-solving, and teamwork skills provided by a liberal arts education are exactly what employers want and will need. He is unapologetic and passionate in his defense of a model that has evolved over centuries and successfully adapted to all sorts of challenges and upheavals.  

“The liberal arts model is perfect for the times in which we are living,” he said. “The digital world will change the nature of work more rapidly than ever before and more rapidly than the previous industrial revolution. The fact that our students have learned to problem solve using visual techniques, oral techniques, quantitative techniques, and literary techniques and have become outstanding writers and speakers is exactly what they need to be successful and to switch gears rapidly as the world and the workplace demands it of them.” 

He notes that in many state colleges and universities, students spend more and more time exclusively learning within their majors with fewer and fewer liberal arts requirements. “Rather than taking that approach,” he said, “we balance mining the depths of a major or minor or concentration with a robust distribution of coursework in a range of different fields so that students are exposed to different ways of understanding and problem-solving in the world.” Washington College students, he argues, are better prepared for a rapidly changing workplace precisely because of their broader knowledge and exposure to more and different ideas. 

He is quick to point out that he is not advocating for an unchanging curriculum. Liberal arts colleges must be as agile and adaptable as their graduates for the model to remain relevant and appealing. “We must take an introspective turn and look carefully at what academic programs and co-curricular programs we offer. Then think about that in the context of what these disciplines look like or how they are evolving in our country and the world, and then ensure that we have the programs operating according to best practices and current understandings of the field.” 

He gives the example of this duality in how Washington is both evolving and remaining true to its liberal arts roots through its business management program. “Washington College is already in the minority among the top 100 liberal arts education institutions because, and I love that we do this, we include disciplines like business management within the liberal arts. We don't see that as anomalous. We see that as beautifully integrated.” Currently, the College is moving the business management program toward accreditation by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), which positions the program for long-term sustainability and impact. 

“AACSB accreditation is widely recognized as the most respected credential for business and accounting programs around the world,” Sosulski said. “Large state university programs and business-focused private schools often are accredited, but only a handful of liberal arts colleges earn the distinction.” Washington students will reap the benefits of both this prestigious accreditation and the benefits of their liberal arts skillsets, giving them an advantage over students with only one or the other whether they enter the workplace or go on to graduate school.  

Mike Sosulski and his wife, Cori Crane in the Hynson-Ringgold House

The Five-Year Strategic Plan 

The first two completed years of his tenure have wrought positive changes from a difficult position. Successful though these years have been, Sosulski and the leadership team have been reacting to the situation on the ground at the College. With two challenging years under their belts and the College relatively stable, they can turn their attention to the future. 

Last fall, Sosulski convened a steering committee of stakeholders representing the College and tasked them with working with a consulting firm to review the state of the College, identify areas of strength and weakness, and develop a strategy for going forward. The result of the effort is a strategic framework (see sidebar) that will guide the College toward its 250th anniversary in 2032.  

Sosulski highlighted some particulars of the framework he felt were the most essential and relevant. The first thing he noted was that while overarching goals are listed separately, they are all intertwined and dependent on each other in practice. For example, to ensure academic excellence, you need a transformative student experience, with a diverse, outstanding faculty and staff, and financial stability. He also pointed out that all the goals deliberately fall under the same umbrella of being catalysts for an ideal liberal arts college. This speaks to the intertwined nature of these elements. Similarly, all of these goals intersect with the important goals of fostering a diverse, equitable, inclusive college and implementing a sustainability plan tied to climate change. 


Mike Sosulski in front of the steps of Bunting

All For One

Central to the strategic framework is to take a holistic view of the College as an institution made of its constituent parts and working best when all the parts work together toward the same goals. As the people first president, he wants the institution to focus on providing an outstanding experience for students in a healthy and encouraging environment where the faculty and staff, who make this experience possible, thrive too. 

Sosulski sees the strategic framework as a guide to better facilitate positive interactions, collaborations, and sharing across disciplines, departments, and groups. He gave an example of how collaboration might work across campus. “Our three centers of excellence, the Center for Environment and Society (CES), the Rose O’Neill Literary House, and the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, are quite distinctive and would be the envy of many of our peers,” he said. Given their fantastic work, he would like to see them more integrated into the life of the College. He would like to see more use of the centers and their expertise in the curricula, more use of the facilities by students, and more collaboration between faculty and the centers. “I want it said that the time Sosulski was president of Washington College is when the centers of excellence got better integrated into things closer to the heart of campus life.” 

He recognizes that this is already taking place and cites the Rose O’Neill Literary House model, where many of the staff are also on the English department faculty. While the other two centers regularly work with faculty and different departments, Sosulski wants more of these collaborations and more formal integration of the centers’ facilities into the curriculum. “Think of us as wrapping our arms around the centers and bringing them closer to the heart of the academic experience for students.” 

Mike Sosulski behind podium on the stage

Community and Climate Change 

Just as Sosulski advocates for and facilitates greater collaboration across academic and co-curricular departments, he believes the College needs to be an active and positive member of its community. “We’re not an ivory tower,” he said. “We are a vibrant part of our community. And that means we must help that community thrive in whatever way we can.” When he speaks of being part of the community, he is talking about being a good neighbor in Chestertown, being a part of the Eastern Shore culture, being engaged citizens of the United States, and being responsible inhabitants of the planet. 

He doesn’t want the College to shy away from addressing climate change and being a part of the solution. “I want us to think of our commitment to the planet's health, to a healthy environment, and the health and well-being of our natural surroundings, which is, of course, affected by the climate.” This is why an essential goal of the strategic framework is to implement a sustainability plan linked to climate change. “By the time we complete our strategic plan,” he said, “I don't see why we shouldn't be able to claim that we are the number one liberal arts institution for studying climate and the environment.”  

Sosulski with Students

The Journey Begins 

At the end of the day, Sosulski is building on the accomplishments to date and moving the College from the stability his leadership team has created to a place where it is financially, academically, ethically, and culturally vibrant and thriving. The strategic framework is a map to this destination, and like all maps, it shows you the routes to your destination. But it doesn’t go on the journey for you. 

For the College, the journey to this future begins with implementing the strategic framework. The College Planning Committee has begun meeting with the charge of providing input and monitoring the rollout of the actions to achieve the goals of the framework. Sosulski is confident in the future of Washington College because he is confident in the people who make the College an outstanding experience.