The Warch Interview: III. ‘I was a president who stayed’

Peter Gillette

TL: President Smith is on the collective institutional mind of late. What were your first impressions of his leadership and the college under his tenure?RW: Well, when I arrived here, the college had just gone through a long-range planning exercise. And the ’70s were a difficult time not just for Lawrence, but for higher education in general – I think that’s mentioned in Mr. Hittle’s piece in Lawrence Today. I mean, it was that time: the endowment plummeted underwater, enrollments were dropping, there were lots of challenges. But I thought that even in the face of all those challenges – and we’re facing own versions of them today – that the college had a firm and clear sense of its purpose in education. And I attributed that, I think, to Tom’s leadership. He was a very quiet and, in some ways, unassuming man. You would not call him a public figure, on campus or off, although I honestly never saw him off-campus. But he was steady, and I think that steadiness, in the face of a lot of challenges of one sort or another, impressed me about his leadership.

TL: When you were assuming the presidency, what advice do you recall from President Smith that was the best, and is there anything you wish you had asked more about?

RW: Well, you know, I had served on his administrative staff for two years – a year and a half at the time he announced his retirement, two years by the time he left. I became president in September of 1979; he stayed on through the summer. We had just gone through accreditation review with the National Association of Colleges and Schools, and my first recollection is going to Chicago with him to meet with the commission about our review. [Long pause] I don’t think he gave me – I cannot remember any particular piece of advice he gave me. I do remember that he gave me something his predecessor, Curtis Tarr, had given him, which was a sense of the faculty, many of whom were around ten years later. But by that time, you know, I knew the faculty. Not intimately, but I knew them pretty well, and had been involved in hiring the ones who were coming on board at the time, and knew the ones who had been around for awhile. So I don’t think he gave me any particular piece of advice. If there’s one thing that I will confess I wasn’t as aware of as I should have been, that was the nature of the fiscal challenges facing the college, even though I’d been sitting around the table working on these things for two years. The long-range planning task force that I’d mentioned had dealt with just about every aspect of the college except for the one that was driving everyone nuts, and that was that the student-faculty ratio had dropped to nine-to-one, which was simply unsustainable. And he and I worked on that while I was the dean, and so I think that to some extent I had been involved in thinking about the kinds of issues that the president would need to think about even though I wasn’t president. So, I’m not saying it was the kind of thing that was seamless. As I said to the board of trustees, Lawrence is a dynamic institution, and like any institution, it has its life, its ups and downs, its trials and tribulations. It’s not a moment – that in 1979 the college is in a neat little package and Tom Smith hands it to me – any more than it’s a neat little package now and I’m handing it over to Jill Beck. I came at a particular moment in Lawrence’s history, just as he had come at a particular moment in Lawrence’s history. And as I’m responding to Jill Beck when she asks me questions, I’m not telling her what I think she should do. It’s hers to determine and discover on her own, and I think that’s the right approach.

TL: Throughout the past 25 years, in The Lawrentian and other places, there were at least whispers that Lawrence was just a “stepping stone” to an East Coast liberal arts college presidency for you.

RW: Eh.

TL: Why stay here so long? What are the benefits to staying as opposed to moving to a new place?

RW: Well, one of the traditions of Lawrence and one of the, I suppose, what’s in the Lawrence culture is that three of my predecessors went from here to big, eastern universities: [Henry Merritt] Wriston goes to Brown, [Nathan] Pusey goes to Harvard, [Douglas] Knight goes to Duke. So I think that the notion that Lawrence was a stepping-stone may have been not so much about me as about the Lawrence presidency: “Here’s the Lawrence president. What do Lawrence presidents do? They go elsewhere.” And I can remember, and I’m not sure at what point, but somewhere early in the game – I suppose early given it was 25 years – that I didn’t want to use Lawrence as, to quote from one of the articles from The LaWarchian, a pommel-horse to vault into something else. And as I said to the board of trustees, you hear about college presidents who say they stayed too long, or they accomplished what they set out to accomplish, or they’re leaving for presumptively greener pastures. And as I said to the board a couple of weeks ago, whatever too long is, I’ve stayed beyond that. And anybody who thinks they’ve accomplished all they set out to do either doesn’t have much ambition, or doesn’t work for a place that has much ambition, or set their sights too low. And the Lawrence pastures, as I again said to the board, have always seemed green enough to me. Sure, there were opportunities to go east and west, but none that were… I’ve never been a career planner. I’ve said to many students that career planning is what it looks like looking back, and you cay say, “well, I did this, and I did that,” and it all can seem logical in retrospect. Looking forward, it’s happenstance. You know, in my case, I happen to be at Lawrence at the right time, when they were looking for a president. When I went to graduate school, I got in Yale off the waiting list. Maybe I wouldn’t have gotten into Yale. Then what would have happened? I would have gone someplace else. Then maybe Kenyon would have hired me in 1968. Then I would have been there. Then what would have happened? So it’s a series, that every time you make a step, you foreclose other steps. But I never was spending my time here thinking about getting out. I thought maybe my contribution to Lawrence would be that I was a president who stayed, not one who left. And I did.