Getting presidential priorities straight

As the Presidential Search Committee prepares to define its search criteria, the Record would like to take this opportunity to highlight the important qualities we believe the Committee should look for in our next president. President Schapiro’s term has certainly informed our campus experience, and while we don’t want just a continuation of his presidency, Morty has established and refined certain presidential qualities that we admire and would like to see continued. At this preliminary stage of the search, the Committee is limited in the attributes that it can clearly discern from the candidate pool. We appreciate the difficulties inherent in the process, but believe that a demonstrated dedication to innovation, as well as accessibility and affability, are perceptible and valuable characteristics that the Committee should prioritize in potential presidential candidates.

The crucial responsibilities of the president include representing the College outwardly while maintaining communication with the campus, which Schapiro balanced successfully during his presidency. In many ways, Morty is distinguished by his charisma and his openness to the Williams community. Through his interactions with the alumni base as well as successful fundraising efforts, Schapiro effectively upheld the liberal arts values that the College esteems. On campus, Morty remained a constant visible figure – attending sporting events, visiting entry snacks and inviting students to his home for dinners – and consistently demonstrated his commitment to receptivity. As a charming figure, Morty was also able to represent the College positively through his eloquence and appeal.

Because of Morty’s innovative spirit, the College also underwent tremendous changes in the past nine years which have positively influenced and even defined the essence of the Williams experience. These advances include the expansion of tutorials, the completion of numerous construction projects, the elimination of loans and the extension of need-blind financial aid to international students. The next president should be someone with a demonstrated ability to institute enhancements within the vein of liberal arts values. While students greatly esteem the transformations that Morty introduced, the College isn’t and shouldn’t be constricted to them. To further Morty’s legacy does not merely mean preserving the changes he pioneered, but also necessitates the introduction of new ideas that can similarly and profoundly shape the Williams experience. If the College is to continue evolving and improving as a competitive institution, nothing will be gained from simply hiring Morty 2.0. Rather, we should look for a president who has passion and finesse for innovation in curricular, financial and construction facets of the College.

While a dedication to innovation is critical in evaluating potential presidents, the candidates must also have demonstrated leadership experience in facilitating change. In the current financial crisis, the future president will need to be versatile in guiding the College through an important transition. With such immense demands, it is important for candidates to exhibit a history of prudent management and decision-making aptitude. With such difficult times, it is vital for the next president to possess financial knowledge as well as to have a background of taking on challenging leadership roles.

The next president will certainly have tremendous power in leading Williams into a new period, but aspiration for change must not come at the cost of the values students accept as fundamental tenets of their Williams experience. In searching for the next president, the Search Committee should seek a track record of grassroots receptivity in potential candidates, as one of the president’s most important responsibilities is being responsive to the student body. Morty established numerous channels of accessibility to students, faculty, staff, parents and alumni, and the next president should have a similar history of effective communication and affability. Those involved in academe, such as professors, are the optimal candidates, because their duties require constant and effective interaction with students, thus affording them great insight into the nitty gritty of higher education. While fundraising and maintaining off-campus alumni networks are significant duties, the next president must also be able to uphold the tradition of teaching his or her own undergraduate courses so that there is a constant connection between the president’s office and the student body.

While it is essential for the next president to be able to develop an understanding of Williams and our liberal arts values, the committee should be careful not to limit themselves only to those with a longstanding relationship with the College. The Committee should also be wary of considering candidates simply for their token value. Neither an Ivy League resume nor celebrity status should distract the committee from rigorously evaluating a candidate on their ability to strike the delicate balance of being incisive, receptive and charismatic.

The president is the face of the College, and while we may not know whether this face will be recognizable from the Williams campus or completely unfamiliar, we can hold the next president to specific standards that students have come to expect from the office. The College is in the throes of a tumultuous period, and our next leader has not only the power but also the responsibility of seeing Williams through this era of change. But we must not forget that great presidents are defined not by what they maintain, but by the bold new paths they forge, sometimes against resistance.