By Victoria Gill-Gomez and Erica Quinones
The Board of Visitors and Governors announced Dr. Wayne Powell as Washington College’s interim president in an Aug. 10 email.
Dr. Powell took office on Sept. 1.
The search for an interim president began over the summer within a committee consisting of representatives from the faculty, senior staff, non-senior staff, students, alumni, and Board members.
Associate Professor of Chemistry and Co-Chair of the Department of Chemistry Dr. James Lipchock said that normally the timeline for a presidential search is much longer. However, the interim presidential search was compacted into a couple of weeks.
Despite the condensed timeline, Dr. Lipchock said he was impressed by the search process’ robustness and inclusivity.
The search committee began by reading applicant dossiers and vetting their references before selecting which candidates they would interview over Zoom.
Vetting references were especially important for Dr. Lipchock, as he said that it is “really helpful to speak with people who worked under those individuals, or have been in the same institutions, to really fact-check and get a sense of who they are as a leader.”
According to Dr. Lipchock, the committee wanted to interview more candidates because of the importance that having a good president presents. Thus, instead of simplifying the search by cutting more candidates earlier, the committee interviewed eight candidates in the first round.
The eight candidates were then cut to four who attended panelist interviews. Each panel was made of five people from a different constituent group, one panel containing faculty, another non-senior staff, and others containing senior staff, students, alumni, and Board members
Each panel was allotted an hour to interview the candidate. They were permitted to ask their own questions outside of the formal screening, which was conducive to creating a natural flow of conversation, according to Dr. Lipchock.
Afterward, each committee met together and deliberated on who to select as interim president.
Each group and member had different priorities, but some were shared across constituencies.
From a faculty perspective, Dr. Lipchock had three main criteria for which he searched in an interim presidential candidate: success in leading institutions of higher education; a record of implementing policies on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion; and an understanding and appreciation for liberal arts institutions and ideas.
Senior and President of the Student Government Association Elizabeth Lilly shared some of Dr. Lipchock’s priorities.
She said that during the interim president search, she looked for “someone who is a very strategic thinker, a long-term thinker, but also [someone who is] able to be flexible with change and [be] very cool and collected during a time of crisis.”
The security of all students was another prioritization for Lilly during the interim president search.
She not only shared Dr. Lipchock’s interest in finding an interim president who prioritized diversity, equity, and inclusion policies, but she also wanted someone who would integrate student voices into their future plans.
These qualities were found in the now official interim president, Dr. Powell.
Dr. Powell has an extensive career in higher education. Beginning as a professor of mathematics, he rose through the ranks, confronting new challenges and learning new lessons, according to Dr. Powell.
However, his entry into an administrative position was not necessarily purposeful. Rather, he said he took positions as he was needed.
“Some people want to be a leader because it puts themself in a position of prestige and power, and you should not want that,” Dr. Powell said. “Leadership is really about service, and so if people want you to serve them they will come to you, you do not have to go to them. The best leaders are formed that way.”
No matter his purposefulness in rising through the ranks, his leadership impressed both Lilly and Dr. Lipchock.
Dr. Lipchock especially was struck by how Dr. Powell secured the future of liberal arts institutions like Lenoir-Rhyne University through “non-traditional” approaches, citing the doubling of the student body from 1300 students to 2500 students, the endowment’s 250% increase, and the growth of the university from a single campus to three campuses with a new graduate program as examples of Dr. Powell’s abilities.
Dr. Powell’s time in higher education also formed a history of addressing issues of diversity and inclusion which impressed Lilly and Dr. Lipchock.
“For [Dr. Powell, addressing issues of diversity and inclusion] is not something novel. Our country is certainly at a critical moment where issues of racial injustice are finally being brought to the forefront. I know I have been inspired by students and other faculty and staff here and their commitment to bring a spotlight to these issues,” Dr. Lipchock said.
Dr. Powell spoke on his history with such initiatives regarding both faculty and students.
He said that when he first became a dean, he assumed the role of spokesperson for underrepresented students, because he realized that minority students could garner leverage if a dean spoke on their behalf.
Throughout his career, he encountered some institutions with no genuine desire to change regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion, according to Dr. Powell.
In one instance, he was overseeing a department’s hiring process during which the most qualified candidate was a woman. The department, however, rejected her hiring explicitly due to her gender.
Dr. Powell said that he informed the department that they would receive no hire that year, and in two years they could search again and hire a woman.
“You do not hold those things out as threats, but people figure out pretty quickly that some things are just not acceptable,” Dr. Powell said. “From a senior position, you need to set the example so that people know what boundaries they are working in.”
He also spoke about his initiative to ban Confederate flags from a Southern campus environment. Dr. Powell acknowledged that this symbolic measure “might have been illegal, but I did it anyway.”
“You cannot go in and order people to be different. You have to create the culture,” Dr. Powell said.
While he is still being informed of the College’s situation regarding racial bias incidents and other diversity concerns, Dr. Powell remains firm in the belief that any form of racism or discrimination is unacceptable.
At the moment, Powell said he does not know how to address the Chestertown community, but he will be in conversation with community leaders to see how they can work as partners. One of his first priorities is to ensure the safety of both the College and Chestertown communities.
Regarding communal integration, Dr. Powell said he is also supportive of continuing Town Halls — which was a promised annual event from former President of the College Kurt Landgraf — as long as they are productive. These Town Halls might host members of not only the administration but the community, especially if there are issues with Chestertown itself.
According to Dr. Powell, the community must develop a system of shared goals. To be at an institution with constituents with different skills, backgrounds, and areas of input, taking advantage of these skills and perspectives — from both students and community members — creates better results.
However, it was not just Dr. Powell’s history in higher education and record on diversity initiatives that stood out to Lilly. Rather, he gave her the confidence that he values student input in his work through his interview conduct.
During the aforementioned panel interviews, Lilly was joined by four student representatives in speaking with Dr. Powell. After their questions, Dr. Powell proceeded to ask the panel inquiries of his own, such as why they came to WC, what made the College the right fit for them, and what changes they wanted to see on campus.
“I felt that it was not just a demonstration, that he actually wanted to hear what I was thinking,” Lilly said.
While he has demonstrated an interest in student voices, Lilly did show concern that his connection with the student body will be difficult due to the lack of face-to-face time between Dr. Powell and students during his inaugural semester.
However, Lilly is hopeful that Dr. Powell’s commitment to forming strong communal relationships and transparent communications will help create a strong bond between him and the students.
Dr. Powell further affirmed this idea of collaboration regarding not only changing campus culture towards diversity but also approaching the challenges of COVID-19.
While Dr. Powell has attended meetings regarding approaches to the pandemic-related financial struggles ahead, he said that he is not here to tell WC what to do.
“What we need to do at WC is talk to our faculty and our students about how to best provide educational services. We do not want to be reduced to some big online institution, we need to find methods of continuing the special parts of WC,” Dr. Powell said.
He is entering the campus community at a moment of uncertainty and tension, but Dr. Powell said it is still a pleasure to be part of a community with a strong heritage and legacy.
“I think WC, like everywhere else, will be dealing with some big issues, but what I think is encouraging is that the community at WC will help us address those issues.”
Featured Photo caption: Dr. Wayne Powell exited retirement in North Carolina to become interim president of Washington College. He has a long history in higher education, not only in administrative roles but as a professor. Dr. Powell said that his greatest role models were the figures who taught him what not to do because they taught him what to avoid in creating a constructive atmosphere. Photo Courtesy of Washington College.