What qualifications should WC prioritize in the search for a new president?

By Alaina Perdon

Elm Staff Writer

On Jan. 27, the Washington College Board of Visitors and Governors announced via email that they are formally beginning a search for a permanent president of the College, with the goal of placing that individual in office by the start of the 2021-2022 academic year. 

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, financial turbulence for the College, and a community-wide cry for transparency and cooperation on the part of the administration, the need for a strong leader has never been greater. Beyond being fiscally savvy, the next president should be aware of the power they have to set the course for social changes in our community, as well as the ways previous administrations have disappointed the community.

While the Presidential Search Committee has not yet disclosed specific qualifications, they expressed in an email sent to the campus community that their search will be largely informed by the characteristics they sought in an interim president this summer. 

“We sought an individual with excellent communication skills and the ability to engage and work with faculty, student, staff, alumnae and other interested parties; as well as a commitment to sponsoring and promoting initiatives around diversity, equity, and inclusion,” Stephen Golding ‘72, BVG chair, said in an email.

The new president and those working closely with them should be openly communicative with the rest of the community, publicizing and justifying the changes they instate, as well as remaining open to input from students and faculty when these changes are made.

“I think it has been well established that previous administrations have not prioritized communication,” junior Carlee Berkenkemper said. “Especially with everyone scattered due to quarantine measures, how can we be a community if those in charge are not leading with an example of engagement and transparency?” 

A successful president will shrink the divide between students, faculty, and their administration, engaging us in decision-making processes that will ultimately affect us all. A successful president will actively listen to and prioritize the needs of students and faculty. Feeling ignored by those in charge, many students have taken matters into their own hands to unite the campus community.

In the past year alone, student-run social media accounts like @anonwac, student-produced media like the “Transparency Trap” podcast, and student testimonials at Town Hall sessions have demonstrated lack of communication and a disconnect between the student body and administration. These new modes of communication disperse information directly from the mouths of students, sharing experiences not reported on by the College administration. This includes sexual assault reports not investigated and racial bias incidents not publicly addressed.

The College is also in need of a president who is aware of and capable of navigating the issues we face pertaining to diversity and inclusion. In many of the above sources, students from minority groups on campus express that they still do not feel fully included in the community, which is understandable given the evidence that their experiences have largely been invalidated in the past.

“As a community, we need to acknowledge intersectionality and actively support our minority groups,” Berkenkemper said. “These are obviously not responsibilities only for the president, but I believe that if we have a president who is passionate about addressing these issues, it will set the tone to set greater change in motion.”  

Moving forward, we as a community need to focus our efforts on amplifying minority voices and coming to understand the specific needs of these communities in order to create a safe and productive environment for all individuals. As our community continues to grow more diverse, it is necessary to ensure all students are afforded the same college experience.

This may include the establishment of literal “safe spaces” for LGBTQ+ and BIPOC student groups to convene, or the inclusion of more students from these marginalized groups as representatives in campus-wide decision-making processes.

What kind of president will help us accomplish this? According to an American Association of University Professors article published in 1947, “diversity of tenure as well as of background is a noteworthy characteristic of college administrators.”

Nearly 75 years later, these sentiments remain true. While experience in business and higher education is valuable, so too is the manner in which our next president will regard the individuals that make up the College community.

We need a president experienced not just in professional networking and fundraising, but in actual interpersonal relations. We need someone who can recognize their own privileges and use them to seek justice for the marginalized rather than further their oppression. We need someone patient, flexible, and open to input from their students, not just their biggest donors.

The next president of the College will not be handed an easy job; in addition to overcoming the aforementioned obstacles, this individual will be tasked with earning the trust of a campus that largely feels slighted by previous leaders. But if the committee selects an individual fit for the challenge, we can all enjoy the close-knit, supportive community we were promised as incoming students. 

Featured Photo caption: WC Interim President Wayne Powell at the College’s convocation ceremony on Monday, Feb. 22, 2021. Photo by Izze Rios.

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