Editorial: A Few Suggestions for Washington College’s New President

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Sometime this week, perhaps through a board memorandum or a campus-wide email, Washington College will install Kurt Landgraf as its new president. For a small college, and this tiny town, that is a big deal since it has only happened twenty-nine times since 1782.

And since it is such a rare occurrence, the Chestertown Spy has made it a habit of welcoming WC’s leaders on our editorial page since the first Spy began publication in the 1790s. That tradition continues here.

As an observer of Washington College and its presidents, the Spy has always had a high degree of respect, admiration, and more than a little sympathy for those that take on this line of work. It is no secret that being a president of a small college in today’s world is perhaps one of the most challenging jobs one can have, not only in higher education but any profession. Budgets are tight, expenses are high, student recruitment competitive, and fundraising goals aspirational, while trustees, faculty members, and alumni continue to have their own enormous expectations. This list goes on.

Given all that, it is truly remarkable there is so little done in the way of training for those rising to this level of academic leadership. In fact, except for some crash courses offered by places like Harvard, and perfunctory meetings with board members and senior administrators, new college presidents are responsible for their own orientation.

Given these limitations, the Spy, fondly devoted to Washington College, wants to help the new president climb the learning curve with a few suggestions beyond the standard, and often repeated, mantra that every president needs a “vision.” Here are some points, some ideas, for any new president to keep in mind, and – since it’s a college – some suggested supplementary reading from both the Spy and other sources.

1) Honor institutional memory: Washington College’s revolutionary position in higher education always seems to get lost in the College’s public relations push to promote the role George Washington played in the College’s creation. The Washington connection is a great story to tell, and all of WC’s presidents have fully embraced this narrative, even to the point where one president had been so limited in his knowledge  that he spent the first six months of his tenure incorrectly telling audiences that Washington had been the “founder” of the institution. That kind of fake history helps neither the school or its students.

But more importantly, the other story, the one in which Washington College’s creation fundamentally changed the role of higher education when it opened its doors in 1782, gets lost in all the hype. The Spy’s interview with WC’s retired professor Colin Dickson for a delightful discussion of William Smith and the College’s early years.

2) The Town and the College are intertwined: There has always been an active, if the not particularly valuable, debate in Chestertown on whether it is a “town with a college” or a “college town.” It doesn’t matter. It is only important for a new college president to know that this community and Washington College are irretrievably intertwined economically, intellectually, culturally, and physically. Rather than face an uncertain future separately, WC and Chestertown must work together in a serious and strategically meaningful way to remain relevant. The Spy most recently addressed this special relationship in an editorial a few months ago.

3) Choose scholarships over campus amenities: One of the most unforgivable sins in higher education these days is that a college’s endowment does not determine its commitment to economic diversity among its students. Case in point, Bowdoin College in Maine, with an endowment of almost $1.4 billion, only provides scholarship support to 45% of its students, but consistently wins the “best dormitory food” category in higher education by investing loads of money into that area. Washington College, on the other hand, supports about 60% of its students using its relatively modest endowment of $200 million. While there is always the temptation to keep up with the “Joneses” to improve recruitment of students who can pay $60,000 a year for that high end buffet at Bowdoin,  President Landgarf and others would profit from  journalist Malcolm Gladwell’s work last year that documents this moral conundrum.

4) Manage expectations: The dream of every college president is to have a “transformational” gift during their tenure which can catapult their school to a much higher orbit in ranking and prestige through the generosity of a $100 million-plus donation. The good news is that these gifts do sometimes happen (WC alum Betty Casey are you listening?) but not often. It is more often the case that a college president has to devote a decade or more to better position their school. Be realistic in your goals until that rare transformational moment takes place.

5) It’s ok to preach: At the end of the day, colleges need leaders, not administrators. While some may now consider the job as the “fundraiser in chief,” in reality the students and most faculty want a college president to use their bully pulpit to connect the dots between the issues of the day and the importance of critical thinking, moral judgment, and citizenship. While this suggestion might have seemed redundant a few decades ago, nowadays college presidents are taking on a corporate CEO model where commentary from on top might jeopardize the value of the “brand.”

6) Find your inner poet to lead: While it is true that students and parents demand higher “returns on investment” for their $100,000 plus tuition fees, in reality, they need and want a liberal arts experience. The fusion of the humanities with such things as “business management” is the essential differential between vocational education and the limitless capacity for knowledge and experience that comes with a small residential college.

Joseph McLain, an internationally recognized chemist before he became WC’s president in the 1970s, insisted on holding weekly poetry recitals with students to drive home his conviction that science and the humanities must learn from each other. President Landgraf must find his own way to demonstrate his commitment to this ideal.

7). Enjoy the job and the town: As the Spy has noted before, surveys of new college presidents have found an overwhelming percentage either disliked or hated their jobs after their first year in office. There might be good reasons for that, given the enormous pressure placed upon these individuals, but the odds are that those who hate their job, regardless of their station in life, rarely perform well. One way to do that is to follow the first six points outlined here, but also fall in love with Chestertown and its people.

Editorial: The Death of the Chester 5 and the Birth of a New Cinema?

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At last count, approximately 22,000 readers have read our Chestertown Spy’s “breaking news” story that the Chester 5 Theatres had closed their doors. While the Spy has had similarly high readership for other top stories, this particular article, and the size of its audience, clearly hit a nerve.

Undoubtedly, one of the major reasons for interest is the obvious and rather depressing fact that when a town loses its movie theater it’s a really big deal. While it may not rise to the level of losing a hospital, it is the kind of simple amenity in a rural setting that demonstrates a certain quality of life. But it also is one that offers the community considerable cost savings and the hassle of driving an hour or more to see a movie.

And with this kind of news, there is no significant consolation that it’s not anyone’s fault; that Chestertown has just experienced a trend found throughout the country, that small house movie theaters failing as the result of internet competition and the invention of the binge-watching miniseries format. All that seems reasonable until that trend hits your town.

But with every disappointment comes a new opportunity, as they say in the movies.

The absence of the Chester 5 may be regrettable, but it does not mean the end of cinema in Kent County. In fact, it opens the door for perhaps a much more creative and sustainable concept that could more accurately reflect the community’s more diverse tastes in film.

With the student audience at Washington College nine months out of the year, a retirement population that grew up watching the movies, and no competing film outlet closer than Middletown, there would appear to be an opening for someone willing to take the plunge. The economic benefits go well beyond the price of tickets and popcorn; movie-goers are likely to grab a slice of pizza or a sandwich at a local shop before or after the movie. And of course the theater’s employees will spend their salaries in local businesses. Like any successful business, it helps the whole community.

Could it not be possible for  Washington College, RiverArts, the Garfield, and other individuals and entities who share a passion and need for film programming to cooperatively find some permanent venue that could be transformed into a state-of-the-art cinematic experience?  And might that venue be strategically placed to have a high economic impact with lowest overhead?

Perhaps not too wild a dream?

 

 

 

 

Editorial: The Departures of College Presidents Sheila Bair and Barbara Viniar

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Just as with friends getting divorced, when colleges separate from their presidents there is that familiar feeling of sadness as well as the usually unanswered question as to why it had to come to “this.”

“They seemed like the perfect couple, or “what a terrific team,” or, better yet, “they were made for each other, what happened?” The phrases that come to mind when everyone’s favorite couple announces they are getting a divorce seem no different than when a school’s board of directors sends out press releases that their current CEO has abruptly resigned.

And that seems to have been the case with the recent announcements by the Boards of Chesapeake College and Washington College that their current presidents, Barbara Viniar and Sheila Bair, both of whom had records of significant accomplishments, would be leaving their posts under less than clear circumstances.

The general public, just like friends of divorcing couples, is not in a position to seek clarification for these quick changes. Just like in observing a marriage from afar, they are not privy to the kind of private conflicts, misunderstandings, or simple incompatibility that college presidents may or may not have had with their governing boards. The community at large is left to mind their own “beeswax” having neither the authority, nor the position, to press for better answers.

The Spy finds itself in a similar position. We are not in the business to speculate or second-guess volunteer boards on managing these local institutions of higher education unless there is evidence of malfeasance which, to our knowledge, does not seem to be the case with in these two cases.

But that does not preclude us from saying that both of these women demonstrated a love of their institutions that achieved great and significant improvements in how their schools pursued their mission.

Barbara Viniar’s ten years at Chesapeake College almost perfectly paralleled the remarkable sea change in community college education throughout the country. And during that time, Dr. Viniar held firm in her conviction that through innovation and curriculum reform, Chesapeake College could navigate through the pitfalls of funding shortages and political conflicts to become all the more useful and relevant to the communities it serves. She should take pride that she has left the community college in Wye Mills stronger and more vibrant as a result of her leadership.

And while Sheila Bair at Washington College did not enjoy the same lengthy tenure as Dr. Viniar had, it was stunning for many observers, including the media, how quickly she was able to define the mission of the College to include an intensely public campaign to reduce student debt. She also instantaneously became the primary national advocate in shedding light on the precarious subprime educational loan market, earning her well-deserved coverage in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post.

It is these records of accomplishment that make these transitions painful to hear. But it also a reminder of how extremely difficult being a college president is these days. Beyond the usual tensions that come with faculty demands, alumni grievances, and high board expectations, college leaders must operate will fewer resources, tighter regulations, and new performance metrics based on “return on investment” calculations. In short, these are really hard jobs.

As the Mid-Shore awaits news of their successors for both schools, it behooves us all to acknowledge the personal leadership offered by these impressive women. They both should feel a sense of accomplishment as they move on to their next role.

We wish them well and with our gratitude.

 

 

 

 

 

Peter Heck and Jane Jewell Named Chestertown Spy Co-Managing Editors

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The Community Newspaper Project, the parent nonprofit organization of the Chestertown Spy and Talbot Spy, has announced the appointment of Peter Heck and Jane Jewell as co-managing editors of the Chestertown Spy, effective immediately. 

“I am so very delighted that Peter and Jane have agreed to lead the Chestertown Spy,” said Dave Wheelan, publisher and executive editor of the Spy newspapers. “Both bring some extraordinary skills to the Spy in both journalism and photojournalism and more importantly, they share with me a special affection for Chestertown and Kent County that will be a remarkable asset to our community.” 

While Peter has been best known locally for his many years as a reporter for the Kent County News, he has also written over 100 book reviews for such publications as the Kirkus Review and Newsday, as well as spending two years as editor at Berkley Publications. A native of Chestertown, with degrees from Harvard and Johns Hopkins, Heck also has written ten novels, two of which were genre best sellers.  He is also an accomplished musician, playing guitar and banjo.

Jane, Peter’s wife, also comes to the Spy with a distinguished background in writing, editing, and photography. Since moving to Chestertown, Jane worked at Washington College in the computer department, then as the executive director of the Science Fiction Writers of America. She also has contributed photos to the Kent County News. Jane currently serves on the board of the National Music Festival and has been active as a coach with the Character Counts! program in the Kent County Public Schools. 

Peter and Jane can be contacted at editor@chestertownspy.com

 

Editorial: The Future of Chestertown and Its College Needs Your Attention

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For a variety of very good reasons, Washington College has made it a point to ensure that all prospective students, and their parents, are keenly aware that George Washington very deliberately allowed the College of Chester to be named after him, and backed that up with the largest personal donation to get the school off the ground.

And at the same time, the College rightly hammers home the exceptional fact that the man who convinced Washington to do so, the Very Rev’d William Smith, perhaps the most distinguished academic leader in the New World at the time, was the gifted visionary who created the college after his remarkable collaboration with Benjamin Franklin in starting what is now known as the University of Pennsylvania.

It is hard to imagine a more impressive beginning for any school, and yet what gets lost in this very accurate narrative is the fact that the town of Chestertown was the entity that founded the 10th oldest college in America. While Washington and Smith were the unique ingredients that made Washington College what it is, it was its citizens of the Mid-Shore that asked for it to be created in the first place.

Unlike almost every other private liberal arts college in the country, WC was not the result of a wealthy patron, a religious order, or a state government but a town that wanted a college. And it was this community that made the unprecedented decision to start the first independent and secular college of a new nation. (1)

In fact, Kent County was already a leader in education at the time with the formation of the Kent County School, which was so well established that in 1742, the headmaster, Charles Peale, none other than the father of the renowned painter Charles Willson Peale, submitted the following advertisement seeking students:

Kent County School in Chestertown Maryland is where young gentleman are bordered and taught the Greek and Latin tongues, writing, arithmetic, merchants accounts, surveying, navigation, the use of the globes, by the largest and most accurate pair in America.

The genesis of a college started in 1780 when town leaders, with such local names like Barroll, Paca, Piper, Sewall, Wickes, and Wilmer, recruited Smith to develop the curriculum, hire professors, and fundraise for the project. Smith did this with exceptional skill. In total, almost three hundred residents on the Eastern Shore donated to start the school and build its first classroom building in what would be the third largest in the new world.

The take-home message from all this is that from its very beginning, Washington College has been intimately intertwined with the town that created it. And because of this extraordinary heritage, there has always been an acute and lasting interest in how the school operates and functions even as the governance and financial ties between the town and the college have long separated.

And over those 235 years, Washington College and Chestertown have collectively felt the good and bad times in unison. From the thrill of having scholars as neighbors and the sight of international luminaries walking on High Street to the devastation of campus fires and periodic downtown economic downturns, these two institutions have found creative ways to fortify each other during challenging times.

We are in one of those challenging times.

The town remains explicitly confronted with the harsh reality that large scale manufacturing and storefront retail, staples of Chestertown’s economy, will never return to the historically high levels of the past since both of these have radically been altered by offshore factories and the rise of web-based shopping.

And while the College remains strong in recruitment and academic achievement, virtually every rural liberal arts school in the country is now facing the painful reality of a dwindling pool of prospective students as a result of demographic shifts, a growing popularity of more urban campuses, and most disconcerting, the rising costs of education.

With sober forecasts predicting modest economic growth rates and a shrinking number of college-bound students for the foreseeable future, both the town and college will undoubtedly feel the stress of this precarious environment, particularly at a time when both institutions seek major infrastructure improvements to attract visitors, entrepreneurs, and a new freshman class.

It would seem reasonable, perhaps even obvious, that the best course of action is for these historically linked entities to work strategically together to advance each other’s mission. And for many years now, leaders of both have demonstrated at least an intellectual agreement with that concept, but it is the “how” part that continues to trip up plans for sophisticated collaborative strategies and mutually supported projects like the waterfront, downtown revitalization (hotel), and North Chestertown’s development.

That “how” part is not an easy one. For many years now, initiatives have begun and ended, strategic planning gets started but then proposed, and just a few years ago, a blue-ribbon town-gown task force had to be suddenly abandoned due to a stunning error in administrative oversight and the overzealous and premature use of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request of a local reporter.

And yet even with these extraordinary setbacks, it is the Spy’s contention that Chestertown and Washington College still has the motivation, the leadership, and the emotional bonds to find a constructive and meaningful way forward in the years and decades ahead.

That is why the Chestertown Spy will be moderating an unprecedented public forum on April 11 with Chestertown Mayor Chris Cerino and Washington College President Sheila Bair to share with the community their current strategic plans and discuss how those plans can be strengthened through collaboration. It also is a time for community residents to share with these two leaders their own ideas and dreams for a new vision of what this college town, or, if you prefer, a town with a college, can look like in the 21st Century.

It is unlikely that one meeting will have any direct impact on long-term solutions, but it is a start in getting these two important parts of our community starting to act as a family rather than respectful if slightly distant neighbors.

We welcome your participation that evening.

 

 

The Future of Chestertown and Washington College Forum will be held on April 11 at 5 pm at the Decker Theatre on the campus of Washington College.

(1) Although other institutions claim founding dates between 1770 and 1781, none possessed college charters or were empowered to grant degrees, and most were merely “log-cabin grammar schools” that evolved much later into full-fledged colleges, according to the authoritative book on the subject, Donald G. Tewksbury’s The Founding of American Colleges and Universities Before the Civil War (Columbia University Press, 1932). Tewksbury accorded Washington College standing as the nation’s tenth-oldest institution of higher learning, directly after the renowned “Colonial Nine.”

Editorial: The Serious Threat of Fake News

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As our more observant readers noticed today, the Spy has run our annual fake news story in honor of April Fools’ Day with the announcement that the Eastern Shore will have its own rapid transit system next year. We have also enlisted columnist Howard Freedlander into this fictional project with his reporting that Annapolis is moving ahead with a tunnel from the Bay Bridge toll center to Claiborne to connect with the new system. We hope these two breaking news stories will be enjoyed as much by the Mid-Shore region as it has been for the Spy team to produce.

April Fools Day has always been a cherished tradition at the Spy. From our announcement last year that Trump International was constructing a luxury twenty-four story apartment building in Claiborne to the Town of Chestertown accepting responsibility of Binny, an orphaned giraffe, in exchange for funding the town’s Marina on the Chester, The Spy writers allow this field day of imagination to test readers aptitude in depend on their judgment of what is true or false, no matter how crafty our art director is with photoshop

We are also glad that this unofficial national holiday comes only once a year, since the Spy, like any responsible publication, depends on the community’s trust to fulfill our mission as an important educational news source for the Mid-Shore. While it is always tempting to take poetic license during the rest of the year, our desire to maintain our reputation for credibility will always trump our enjoyment of irony or mischief.

Sadly, we are living in a culture where an increasingly large number of independent media sources have turned April Fools Day into a daily occurrence. The production of fake news, from every end of the political spectrum, has invaded our daily consumption of information. And the results of which has been devastating.

In the last year alone, fake news impacted a presidential election, caused a gun assault at a family pizza restaurant in DC, and has sent the United States Congress into endless and costly investigations using false news reports on such topics as Benghazi or presidential wiretapping.

It is particularly hard to imagine that this harmful practice will end anytime soon but that doesn’t necessarily mean it must remain such a potent force in our culture. But it does require that citizens, the country’s consumers of news, become increasingly become more vigilant in relying on their good judgment and common sense rather than accept at face value what they find on the internet.

April 11 Date Set for Chestertown Spy Forum with Mayor Chris Cerino & WC President Sheila Bair

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On April 11, the Chestertown Spy will be hosting a special community forum on the future of Chestertown and Washington College with College president Sheila Bair – joined by key senior staff – and Town of Chestertown mayor Chris Cerino.

This unprecedented exchange between the leaders of these historically intertwined institutions will take the form of a community conversation moderated by Spy executive editor Dave Wheelan.

Like many small towns and small colleges across the United States, Chestertown and Washington College have several and significant challenges facing them over the next few decades. From recovering from the great recession, to managing costs or assembling capital, both the Town and College are needing to find new and innovative solutions for these complex times for rural American life.

During the course of the evening, the conversation will address some of these issues as well as hear from Mayor Cerino and Washington College on their own thoughts about Chestertown’s collective future as well as possible points of intersection between Chestertown and Washington College in their strategic planning. Audience questions will also be part of the program.

The Forum will be open to the public and there will be no cost of admission.

A Spy Conversation with Mayor Chris Cerino and WC President Sheila Bair
“The Future of Chestertown and Washington College”
Decker Theatre
Washington College
5 to 7 PM
April 11, 2017

Why the River by Meredith Davies Hadaway

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During the holiday season, it’s easy to get caught up in the special images of Chestertown with festive lights glowing and a seamless supply of music, dance and theatre programs to enrich the yuletide season. And yet, more times than not, it is the Chester River, the glue that holds our community together, that stands far removed from the seasonal celebrations.

The Spy has attempted to remedy that sad omission in our Holiday message with a reading of “Why the River’ by poet Meredith Davies Hadaway. While Hadaway makes it clear that the title is more of a question than a statement, the answer is found in the poem itself, as it has been for those who love this river, with the words,

“because it traps the clouds so we can sail across/ both heaven and earth/ because it carries our tears, swells/ with our salt/ because it is a body/ because it bears our weight.”

This video is approximately one minute in length.

An award-winning poet and teacher of ecopoetry, Meredith Davies Hadaway is the author of three collections of poetry, At The Narrows, (2015) The River is a Reason (2011) and Fishing Secrets of the Dead (2005), all issued from Word Poetry. Hadaway’s work explores the birds, bugs, trees, marshes—and especially the waters—of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, evoking memory and mystery as they shape our braided lives. You can find her work at Bookplate in Chestertown and on Amazon here

Editorial: The Inn on the Chester – The Case for a WC Hotel & Conference Center

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Over the past few years, the Chestertown Spy has been less than discreet in advocating for a medium-sized, high-quality hotel for Chestertown. At the same time, it has also encouraged Washington College to assume a leadership role in its development.  Part of this is tied to the Spy’s desire for a bright, prosperous future for the town it loves, but also because it’s the right time and circumstances for WC to do so.

For decades, some very hard realities (capital, financing, market analysis, revenue projections) have given pause for such a role to dozens of WC leaders going as far back as the Douglass Cater administration in the 1980s. For reasons that were rational and irrational, the numbers never seemed to work enough to move forward with such a plan. Nonetheless, that interest and passion for such a facility remains as strong now as it did thirty five years ago.

Why? Because the rewards of building a Chestertown hotel are so strikingly transparent. The ability to accommodate medium-sized conferences, weddings, family reunions, returning alumni, prospective students and their parents, visiting dignitaries, as well as business people calling on local manufacturers, marketing firms, and other service industries, not only makes such a thing economically viable, these guests bring with them sizable discretionary dollars for shopping, dining, and other services.

The Inn at Swarthmore

The Inn at Swarthmore

In the world of higher education, even with relatively smaller schools, this has been the rationale in investing in the hospitality market. Over the last decade, countless schools have taken the plunge with hotel facilities ranging from twenty to eighty rooms.  Denison, Swarthmore, Kenyon, Gettysburg, Oberlin, Sewanee and W&L are just the latest examples of this trend.

While many of these schools may have better market capacity, larger endowments, and wealthier donor/investor constituencies to work with, the truth is that many other schools do not. That would include Flagler College, College of the Ozarks, Savannah College of Art and Design, or Wells College in upper state New York.

It may be true on the face of it that Chestertown and Washington College have significant handicaps to overcome in finding a solid business plan, the Spy’s albeit modest research into the business of town-gown hotels strongly suggests that these are minor roadblocks that can be effectively removed through creative financial and strategic partnerships.

Oberlin College is a good example.

In Oberlin’s case, a liberal arts college located in rural Ohio about an hour’s drive from Cleveland, the school ultimately built a hotel with seventy guest rooms that features a restaurant focused on local food and modest conference center. Planned to be “the cornerstone of Oberlin’s Green Arts District,”the facility’s 105,000 square feet also houses the college’s admissions and development staff. That sounds like a textbook definition of mixed use.The total cost was close to $36 million.

The expenses of a Chestertown equivalent would be significantly lower than that figure. Chestertown’s sweet spot for rooms would be more in the order of forty rooms. With that factored in, as well as a more similar comparison with the recently built Inn at Swarthmore, which cost closer to $25 million.

While $25 million sounds better than $35 million, it still turns out to be a huge sum for a small college in a small town. So where does Washington College get that kind of capital?

The Hotel at Oberlin

The Hotel at Oberlin

In the case of Oberlin, almost 60% of the construction costs were financed. Secondly, the school created a naming opportunity for a leadership donation (in this case $5 million from an Oberlin alum) and finally a consortium of donors/investors/community supporters to close the gap.

Another smart thing that Oberlin did was to place non-academic divisions of the school in the new building rather than build separate facilities. In this case, as noted above, Oberlin decided to relocate the College’s external relations staff there in order to maximize contact with prospective students, alumni, and donors under the same roof.

With waterfront access, a similar model could be used in Chestertown for WC alumni and admissions centers.  Or, equally appealing, would be to create a center that would include the hotel and one of its three centers of excellence like its renowned Center for Society and the Environment. Those strategies would undoubtedly add to the cost of the project but would reduce costs in other parts of the College’s capital budget.

Using a working number of $25 million, it would be mean that $15 million would be financed, a major donor, given a strong case for support, should be able to be found at the $3-5 million naming opportunity level, and the balance would come from other donors, investors, possible alumni timeshare programs, as well as the room guarantee contracts with the region’s larger institutions, included the College, the local hospital, manufacturers like Dixon Valve, and other, smaller service providers, schools, and retailers, proportionate to their annual need and circumstances.

Another factor that would make this goal achievable would be a strong “All In” response from the Town of Chestertown and Kent County. A project of this magnitude needs the careful escort of these governments through permitting and regulatory issues. And the project needs grassroots support from town citizens as well.

In the final analysis, as local developer John Wilson so clearly articulated in his interview with the Spy this fall, every project like this needs a champion. While Washington College must take the lead, a Chestertown hotel will need hundreds of champions to make this happen.

Let us hope the will is there.

Wax