By Brooke Schultz and Molly Igoe
Editor-in-Chief and News Editor
When a friend suggested he interview for president two years ago, Kurt Landgraf had never really heard of Washington College, he said.
“In complete transparency, I don’t know that I was all that interested in becoming a college president,” he said. “I was in the process of interviewing for some other things, but I came up and started the interview process, which was quite lengthy, and met with the search committee.”
In his second or third meeting, he said, he spoke with a representative from the Student Government Association and decided to flip the script and ask the student to sum up his experience at WC.
“He said something I’ll never forget… He said to me, ‘I learned the concept of moral courage,’” Landgraf said last week during an interview in his Bunting office. “I was completely blown away. … But that’s when I can remember thinking to myself, ‘Wow, if that’s really what a student here feels that they take from WC, this must be a super place.’ I left that day hoping I’d have the chance to come here.”
The opportunity arose a few years later, when, in mid-May, Larry Culp, chairperson of the Board of Visitors and Governors, said they were, “reopening the search.”
When they reached out to Landgraf, he responded, “I can be here Monday,” he said.
He was drawn to the school for its, “exceptional assets,” and the passion of those at the College, he said.
“This is going to sound a little corny, but it’s true — every single person I’ve met here, everybody — alumni, the Board, the faculty, staff, no matter who I talk to — somewhere in the conversation, they say the following thing, ‘I want you to know, I love WC.’ There’s a reason for that,” he said. “I didn’t go here, but I’ve never heard that kind of verbalization for any place I’ve ever gone. There must be a great reason for that.”
Landgraf formally stepped into his role on July 1, following the end of former President Sheila Bair’s two-year term.
In a statement released on June 1, Bair said it was a pleasure to serve as president of the College.
“My time here is an experience I will treasure for the rest of my career and life,” she wrote. “Unfortunately, this job has required that I be away from my family quite a bit, and I underestimated the hardship that would create when I took up leadership of the College. I regret that I am not able to serve my full five-year term, but in many ways, thanks to the dedicated efforts of our hardworking campus community, we accomplished in two years what would have required five at other institutions.”
Landgraf’s careers as a former chief operating officer at DuPont; president and CEO of Educational Testing Service, a provider in education evaluation; and commissioner of higher education in New Jersey has taken him all over the country and through Europe. Those three roles also have helped prepare him for his term at WC, he said.
“I think what I learned during that experience [as chief operating officer at DuPont] was how to build cohesive, meaningful teams of people,” he said. “I think that would be helpful here.”
At ETS, he worked to salvage a company that was in the process of liquidating, he said. When he left 14 years later, the company had grown by 4,000 employees and several hundred million dollars in revenue, he said.
He gestured to a picture hanging over his desk.
“It’s a 100 million dollar building on the campus of ETS that they named after me,” he said. “So it must have gone OK.”
With his experience as commissioner of higher education, he said he met with presidents of the public and private colleges in New Jersey.
“I could see the things that differentiated the good presidents from the bad presidents,” he said. “I hope to learn from what I saw in both cases.”
For his first year, he’s interested in a “student-centric approach,” he said. His agenda includes attending SGA meetings, sports events, and art shows. He wants to dine at Hodson at least once a week, he said.
During pre-orientation, he met with first-years and had a group over to his house. His inauguration is slated for Fall Family Weekend as an added way to include students and their parents in the event. He even wants to be called Kurt by students, faculty, and staff.
During it all, he said he wants to hear from students.
“Given the fact that I’ve not had this experience before, I think it’s real important for me to listen to what people have to say to me,” he said. “Since I think that this school is all about students, that includes listening carefully to what students want and need.”
With national focus on the recent events at Charlottesville, Va., Landgraf said that he will not tolerate any, “disrespectful, hurtful, discriminatory behaviors.”
“I will make sure this organization, like any organization I’ve ever been in, has policies and procedures in place to ensure every student and every person here feels safe to express their opinions in a safe environment, and that we have an open, civil dialogue around any issue that is required,” he said. “This is a place where we should be open to listening to each other. I am absolutely committed to that.”
The link to President Landgraf’s full statement can be found at: www.washcoll.edu/live/news/10314-president-landgraf-and-faculty-speak-out#.
He is also committed to President Bair’s initiatives like Fixedfor4, Dam the Debt, and George’s Brigade, though he said they require “balancing.”
“I’m very respectful of her. I feel that she is a person who is an extraordinary asset for this country,” he said. “I have absolutely no intention to change them, to stop them. But we have to balance a little bit. We have to balance the expenditure that goes with those with the concept of sustainability. Frankly, I don’t know exactly how that’s going to be and I don’t want to pretend that I do, but we’ve got to honor those commitments, we’ve got to honor her. I think her intentions were extremely positive.”
He plans to talk with the senior staff and new admissions director, Lorna Hunter, about how to honor these initiatives.
“We need to think about how we can move forward and ensure we have the funding we need to grow the College, yet still provide opportunity for the students,” he said.
As for his own initiatives, he is striving for sustainability.
“I want to make sure that we not only survive, but I want to see the College expand and grow. I think that our strategic centers: the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, the Rose O’Neill [Literary House], the Center for Environment and Society are terrific centers and I’d like to see us expand on those,” he said.
He wants to, “invest in the College,” he said, by adding more faculty to keep the student-to-professor ratio low, as well as adding more staff.
“My view is that I’m not the College, I just have the privilege of being here,” he said. “It isn’t about me. It really isn’t. I’m proud to be here; I’m privileged to be here. This is about doing what I can to make this a stronger, more sustainable College so that we can continue to bring in the fantastic students that we do, we continue our diversity efforts, and get our enrollment up a little bit.”
“I say to myself now that I’m here, how is it that I didn’t know about this place?” he said. “I want to change that.”