By Erica Quinones
The Presidential Search Committee hosted a town hall on April 6 via Zoom to “discover information about the student experience,” according to a March 30 email from the Alumni Office.
The event served as a forum for students to voice their opinions on what qualities the thirty-first president of Washington College should hold. As such, it was facilitated by a third party, John Frisch of Shawan Leadership, and was attended by members of Witt/Kieffer, the executive search firm selected to lead the presidential search.
The leader student respondents created was one who can connect with diverse students on a personal level, communicate clearly with the community, and stay consistent in the promises they make.
Sophomore and President of the Class of 2023 Jonah Nicholson said he wanted a leader who is inclusive and able to handle multiple issues at once, including increasing campus accessibility.
Such a president would create opportunities for “students from all over the spectrum [to] sit in different spaces” and participate “in important discussions that affect our lives,” according to Nicholson.
Beyond connecting with students in a professional sense, sophomore Lexi Meola said she wants a president who will speak to students personally, because “there’s a big divide between administration and students.”
Meola said that while the president interacts with representatives in the Student Government Association, many students cannot attend SGA, so their perspectives are important to hear.
The feeling of disconnect from the administration was voiced by other students, like freshman Kennedy Jones, who said that “it’s been really interesting to basically not know either of the presidents that we’ve had.”
Both Meola and Kennedy said that seeing a future president interact with individual students could help rebuild the relationship between the parties.
“The trust between administration and the student body has kind of been broken because of the miscommunications of the different emails and different changes,” Meola said. “They’re going to have to rebuild that sense of trust and transparency by speaking to the students.”
Nicholson said in a follow-up conversation that bridging that gap is important to not only build trust but make more representative decisions, because “the bigger the gap [between the administration and students] gets, the less campus becomes for the students, and it’s more for the administration.”
Meola said that a new president appearing around campus at “smaller” events like theatrical productions and musicals could work to rebuild that trust, showing “that they truly care.”
Jones suggested that a president could hold open lunch or office hours so students can come talk with them.
But students expressed that trust and connection comes not only through who the president interacts with but who they represent and support.
“I don’t think that I can ever really build trust with the president, as much as I want to, until I see a president that looks like me,” Nicholson said.
Senior and President of Black Student Union Destiny Harris said that it is generally important to have a president who will create a more diverse and inclusive institution in all areas, be it among the students, faculty, or staff.
“The only place that I see multiple Black people is literally when they’re cleaning my toilet or they’re cooking my food. And to me, that’s very — for lack of a better term — it’s very disgraceful,” Harris said.
Having an administration which will “fight” to attract faculty of color can influence the lives of students of color, Harris said after the town hall.
When Harris first came to WC, she wanted to be a pediatrician, so she was heavily involved with the natural sciences While the faculty were great, Harris said having a Black role model and mentor would have influenced her as a Black woman.
As such, Harris said that “it would have been very remarkable, I guess, for me to see a Black woman or a Black man teaching me that biology course or teaching me that chemistry course. Because at the end of the day, you can see somebody who you can follow their footsteps.”
Junior and SGA President Kat DeSantis also spoke on issues of staffing, saying that a future president should consider incorporating students into staffing search committees for openings in areas like Residential Life and Public Safety, because they “understand the spirit of WC.”
However, trust was not only intertwined with how connected the next president is with the student body, but if they follow through with the promises they and their predecessors make.
Sophomore Mariama Keita said that she wants to see “a president that’s consistent, who doesn’t change plans, but if they do have to…make sure that there’s total communication between the student body and the administration.”
Keita’s feelings were echoed by other participants like Nicholson and Harris.
After the town hall, Nicholson said he felt “no different” from before the event.
“Even though nothing’s been done yet, I felt a little bit more disappointed. Not because of anything that happened within the town hall, but we’ve had talks like this before, where we come out the other end with this little shred of hope that something will change, that something will happen. And then nothing happens,” Nicholson said.
Harris spoke to the issue of consistency during the town hall, saying that the search committee should “make sure that this president is going to stick around for five plus years, 10 plus years, however many years that they can be here in order for us to make stable changes.”
While she spoke on the desired consistency of a future president, Harris later said that the town hall itself was progress for WC listening to student voices.
“I’m always a hopeful person, so to me, any progress is great,” Harris said. “I think the moderator was really good at facilitating the conversation and making sure that all of the students were heard, even in that hour time frame, which I thought was kind of amazing,” Harris said. “I just hope that they really consider what the students have said and move forward.”
The integration of student voices into the search process through the town hall was marked as progress, but there are also calls to further increase student input throughout the search.
Jones suggested creating an event in which the top three presidential candidates might meet students in an informal, non-interview setting, while sophomore Michelle Henry suggested a question-and-answer panel.
But even if the wider student body is not integrated into the search itself, there were wider calls for increased communication regarding the search’s process.
WC did launch a website for the search, which many students did not know existed until the town hall.
However, there were calls from students like Jones to communicate with students through one, centralized email with the relevant information.
“We don’t have to necessarily know who the candidates are at the beginning, but I want to know what’s going on, because that’s the most frustrating part, especially in a virtual world,” Jones said.
That lack of communication connected to a wider issue that the next president will have to approach: a loss of connection.
“It’s really hard because I just, I feel like I don’t have as strong a connection as everybody else does,” Jones said. “It’s frustrating, and I know it’s hard, so hard to have virtual communication, but it’s been over a year, and nothing has changed.”
Between a lack of communication, a lack of trust, and students being unable to see themselves represented in the administration, students saw the next president of WC as closely relating to their own connection to and belonging at the College.
“It’s important to see a lot of stuff follow through, even if I’m not here [when it does], because it means something to me that…maybe me going to that meeting or having a voice means something for students later on down the line,” Harris said. “It’s making sure students get a fair shot to get their voices hear, to be seen.”
Featured Photo caption: John Frisch of Shawan Leadership facilitated the Presidential Search Town Hall, where he moderated for student speakers and synthesized their responses on April 6. Photo by Sammy Jarrett.