Out and About (Sort of): Shore Welcomes Franklin Foe by Howard Freedlander

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After listening to the excellent Spy interview last week regarding William Smith, founder of Washington College in Chestertown, I couldn’t help but focus on the underlying challenges faced by a college president in the late 1700s and by a provost, typically the second highest position on a modern college or university campus.

Before playing a major role in founding Washington College, the 26-year-old Smith served as the first provost in 1756 at the newly founded Academy and College of Philadelphia (later the University of Pennsylvania).

For full disclosure, the inestimable Benjamin Franklin, one of our nation’s founders, helped establish the Academy and College. He is one of my heroes. The university that he helped spawn is my alma mater.

Here are lessons learned from listening to the interview with Colin Dickson, an English professor at Washington College:

• A provost ought not to engage in politics, particularly during the years leading up to a revolution when passions were taking seed and blossoming into animated partisanship. Smith was a British loyalist and friend of the Penn family, the proprietors of the colony. Because of his politics, Smith clashed with Franklin, when the latter was board president and then an influential board member. Franklin was a vocal opponent of William and Thomas Penn and eventually an ardent Revolutionary leader.

It’s regrettable that the decades-long relationship between Franklin and Smith frayed. For many years, they were very close intellectually. They even traveled together in America and London raising money for the Academy and College of Philadelphia.

• A provost or university president ought not to cross swords with the president (now called the chair) of the board of trustees, nor board members sympathetic to the president/chair. It’s bad for longevity. William Smith, with his strong Tory ties, was dismissed from his job. He then took his drive, intelligence and educational philosophy to what became Washington College.

When recruited to the new school in Philadelphia, Smith had headed King’s College (now Columbia University). He was a graduate of St. Andrew’s in Scotland.

• Then, as now, a college or university leader must raise money, and so Smith did, as I noted. In fact, he persuaded General George Washington to donate 50 guineas to the new college. I wonder, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, whether Smith offered “naming rights” to the esteemed general for his contribution. Smith also knew where to seek money on the Eastern Shore, convincing Talbot County’s Goldsboroughs and Tilghmans and Queen Anne’s County’s Pacas to donate to create the college in Chestertown.

• As I learned from the interview, Smith was a solid educator and a headstrong person. Both characteristics apply equally appropriately to a modern-day college/university president. I’ve observed that a top-level academic leader must have credentials that draw respect from the often skeptical faculty. And this individual also must have a vision that he/she persistently articulates without any self-doubt. Donors respect clarity of mission and clear, persuasive communication.

* Smith was a heavy drinker, as I learned during the Spy interview. That’s dangerous. Moral authority is critical to any leader’s credibility. The Washington College professor said that Smith’s irascibility had roots in his alcohol consumption. Nonetheless, Smith, a fully functioning alcoholic, achieved significant academic success first in Manhattan and later in Philadelphia and Chestertown.

As I wrote, Dr. Franklin and William Smith developed fierce antipathy toward each other during a time of divisive and passionate loyalties. Both were determined to be right; their deep-set self-confidence conspired against reconciliation, at least not until much later. Smith was still unsparing in his criticism—though at the request of the American Philosophical Society, he served as at the official eulogist at Franklin’s funeral on March 1, 1791.

Then, a year before he died and 12 years after Franklin’s death, the poet Smith attached a scathing verse composed by a Tory sympathizer about Ben Franklin to the eulogy that he reprinted. So much for forgiveness on the part of Smith, also an ordained Anglican minister.

In a 1964 article in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography about the Franklin-Smith quarrel, Ralph L. Ketchum wrote that the two antagonists differed notably in their personalities and public philosophies. Franklin believed in seeking consensus quietly, pursuing agreement “in small steps, rather than controversy over big ones.” According to Ketchum, “Smith’s impulse, on the other hand, was to seek the overwhelming victory…his florid style was designed to stampede his hearers or readers.”

Washington College is a superb asset to the Eastern Shore. Though an imperfect person, William Smith helped found what has become a small liberal arts college well respected beyond the borders of Maryland. A liberal arts education supposedly enables and inspires tolerance and open-mindedness.

His foibles aside, Smith made an educated mark on the Shore.

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.

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