President Bair Discusses Plans

By Catalina Righter and Brooke Schultz
Editor-in-Chief and News Editor
1.) You started out your presidency by implementing programs to make college more affordable. Will you implement more such programs, or are you focused on the success of existing programs like Dam the Debt and George’s Brigade?   

I have a lot of priorities right now and certainly Dam the Debt and George’s Brigade are among them. These are very high fundraising priorities.
We have fairly good levels of funding for Dam the Debt for the next three years already, so that’s nice, and George’s Brigade is going well. We launched George’s Brigade this year and so far, so good. Tya Pope, our George’s Brigade coordinator, has really done a wonderful job. I’m pleased with how it’s going, and we’ll keep fundraising for those programs.
We’re also looking at something called income share. When you graduate, you would have what they call a 10-year amortization. The lenders look at how much you’ve borrowed and determine what your interest rate is, and what you have to do to pay it back over 10 years. The average debt load for a student graduating with a four-year degree is around $30,000. If you’re paying back that loan over 10 years at 4.5 percent interest, say, your monthly payment would be about $310, which is a lot when you have to pay for rent and food and everything else.
With income share, you just pay a percentage of your income. Generally, it’s a low percentage and you pay it back over a long period of time. That’s advantageous because what you make right after graduation is probably a lot less than what you’ll be making ten years from now. The government currently offers a number of complex, income-based repayment plans, but the payments can still be quite high, and some involve negative amortization where a borrower’s payment actually gets bigger as she is paying off her loan. I think we can do better.
We’ve been talking with Purdue [University] to see how income share is working for them, so that might be another arrow we can add to our quiver of affordability. We want to make our program as successful for as many students as we can, and make sure that people have a repayment plan that they can handle when they graduate.
Washington College graduates are doing a good job at paying off their loans. The default rate on student loans is typically less than 2 percent. It fluctuates, but it’s very low compared to the national average. That’s the good news, but still we want to make sure that the payments don’t strap our students and that they have some financial flexibility and freedom. If there’s a way to get those debt levels down or provide alternatives, that’s something we want to explore.

2.) Would you say that’s the biggest concern you have as president?

It’s certainly a very, very high priority. And I’m very proud that we’ve gotten a lot of national recognition for some of the things we’ve done here.
I’m focused on students and what helps students, so affordability is a key component. It ties into other things like accessibility, student retention, and financial flexibility for young graduates. Anything that relates to our ability to attract and retain great students, and that fosters a successful undergraduate experience that leads to a good job or graduate school— those are my priorities.
We’ll be launching the public phase of a fundraising campaign in the spring, and there’s a big emphasis on scholarship funding. The campaign will also provide for new academic programs and faculty hires, and smart investments in facilities, particularly research labs and academic space. We want to grow our environmental programs.  We are looking at building on the great work that Professor Bill Schindler has done around the study of food and the impact of food on culture and human development, through an initiative known as the Eastern Shore Food Lab.
I think these are going to be areas of student interest going forward. We also want to grow our international student population. There are many areas where we have tremendous opportunities. But I do think a central focus will be making our program accessible and affordable to students. Because if students can’t access it, the rest of it doesn’t really matter.

3.) How has this presidential role met your expectations, and what has surprised you now that you’ve been doing it for a while?

The 24-7 aspect of the job has taken me a bit by surprise. I don’t mind it, but it is very 24-7 in a lot of different ways. There may be problems at night or on weekends that need my attention. A lot of the donor cultivation is weekend work—having dinners, or traveling and meeting people.
And I think the shared governance structure has been different. Again, not in a way that’s negative. Actually, the Chestertown Spy wrote a column when I first got here about how all college presidents seem to hate the job after the first year. I like my job. I don’t hate my job, but I can kind of see why he [the writer] said that. You have raw power in this office, but you don’t really want to use it, because this is a place of unhurried conversations, and people like to be persuaded and brought along with decision-making.
You have very different constituencies, too. The students will have one view, the faculty may have one view, the alumni may have one view, the Board will have one view, donors may have one view, parents may have one view. Trying to collect all of the different opinions that you need on various decision points in a way that’s thoughtful and responsive is challenging.
You know, at the FDIC, I just had a lot of power to act, at least with the things that were in my agency’s jurisdiction, and I had a fairly streamlined governance structure. Though the kinds of issues we were dealing with at the FDIC were pretty substantial, the ability to make decisions and execute plans was much more streamlined, which is good, because when you’re in a crisis situation, you have to make decisions quickly. So that has been different. Again, not in a bad way, but it has been different.

4.) It seems like your style of leadership is externally focused, where you go out and travel a lot and talk to a lot of media. Is that how you see your role as president?

Well, you know, I always go talk with Joe [Holt, Chief of Staff] because Joe’s such a good source of institutional memory here. 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. At some point, hopefully, you get them to campus, but sometimes you have to go see them several times before you’re able to come up with a proposal that they like and feel good about funding.
One of the things the Board asked me to do when they hired me was to increase the national profile of Washington College. It’s a great college, it’s been around forever, but there are so many people who have never heard of it. I’ve made that a priority from day one, and I think we’ve had good success there. But you have to get off campus to do that.
Still, 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.

5.) This is maybe the hard question, especially with the recent news of Dr. (Emily) Chamlee-Wright’s leaving. It seems like, from an amateur’s perspective on administration, that there has been a high turnover rate. Do you think that that is true?

There has been more turnover than I would want, clearly. But people are getting great jobs. Washington College is a nice thing to have on your résumé, and they’ve been getting some fantastic opportunities, so I wish them all well. We’ve used these vacancies as opportunities not only to hire some great people, but also to promote from within.
Sarah Feyerherm is doing a great job as the new head of Student Affairs. Thad Moore, who competed in a national search, is doing a great job as the director of Athletics. For the next 18 months or so, Patrice DiQuinzio will be our provost, and she’s going to be fabulous.
We’ve brought some new faces in, too. Andrea Trisciuzzi [VP of College Advancement], has done a great job in rebuilding our advancement team. Dan Forster, our new head of enrollment who had many years of experience at Simmons College, has hit the ground running. It’s good to bring that blend of fresh perspectives along with that institutional memory and promoting people from within.
There’s a lot of excitement when people come and apply for positions at Washington College. We’re attracting good talent and graduating our staff into wonderful new jobs, too. Those are good things.

Additional Information:
An Income Share Agreement is funding option used in lieu of a private or unsubsidized student loan. It is designed to reduce debt and financial risk for graduates. ISAs are promising because they tie access to success.
Under an ISA, a student receives a certain amount of financial assistance in exchange for an agreed-upon percentage of post-graduation income over a defined number of years, subject to a cap. The program is designed to release graduates from the burden and risk of a high, fixed, unaffordable monthly loan payment. Instead, the level of payments is based on what the student actually makes and thus can afford.

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