Nice to Meet You
Sometime this fall, the agenda wil fall into place for Mark Gearan, incoming president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges. In the meantime, the getting-acquainted phase is already underway.
On June 18, you would not have wanted to be Mark Gearan's right hand, squeezed and shaken the way it was.
Scarcely two weeks previous, Gearan, then-director of the Peace Corps, had been named as the new president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, replacing Richard H. Hersh.
Although by that point Gearan had already made plans for the weekend of June 18-20 among them, delivering a commencement address at UCLA he wanted to make an appearance at Reunion '99, to make an initial foray into the community of HWS graduates. And so he flew, wedging Geneva, N.Y, into his schedule and thus spending eight jam-packed hours on campus, arriving as the president-to-be while bewildered alums filtered into the Quad with their own re-orientation challenges.
"Hi. I'm Mark Gearan, the new president," and out went the hand. The graduates on campus were only too happy to return the gesture. Amid what was arguably the most boisterous Reunion in Colleges history -- for more on that, see page 50 the unexpected appearance of the future president was just value-added. At the early-arrivals' luncheon, the Classes of '49 and Classes of '74 receptions, in his remarks at the all-class picnic dinner, and wherever else Gearan encountered alums, faces were lighting up. And hands were being shaken.
Gearan's reception at Reunion paralleled, in some senses, the reception that news of his appointment received in the larger HWS community. Initially came the wonderment and delight that an individual of such impressive credentials and leadership capacity would have turned up. Gearan is, at age 42, a man with an already impressive resume. He has been described, almost universally, as one of the most important directors in the Peace Corps's history, raising morale while securing the political support necessary to increase volunteer enrollment by one third.
Before that, Gearan had served at the White House, in rolls that included director of communications. In 1992, he was Vice-President Gore's campaign manager. He's been director of the Democratic Governor's Association, a senior member of Michael Dukakis' presidential campaign, and a Congressional aide. He's widely published and possesses 11 honorary degrees.
But what's the connection between politics, the Peace Corps, and the HWS presidency? Why a job in higher ed? Why these Colleges?
While on campus June 18, Gearan stopped shaking hands long enough to answer some of those questions for The Survey. He called the Peace Corps position "a great job in many ways, the best job in Washington," and then explained the decision to leave it.
"College administration generally and, in particular, small, residential, liberal arts colleges have always been things I thought I would like to be a part of, because of their importance, because they are mission-oriented, because they are value-centered," he said. (HUD Secretary Donna Shalala recently reminded Gearan that, as long ago as 1992, he had described a college presidency as a goal.)
"I am very honored at this appointment, thrilled at the opportunity to come up with my family to Geneva to become a part of this community. I am very respectful of the history and the tradition and the legacy that proceeds me here, but very excited about the prospects for the Colleges as we enter the next century." He also listed the large number of his relatives employed in education. "I was the only wayward family member."
Then he described how Hobart and William Smith caught his attention. "I came up here and was enormously impressed with the students and their capacity and their love for the place and their yearning for learning," said Gearan, who himself graduated from Harvard and Georgetown Law. He then built a list that included staff commitment, "impressive" co-curricular activities, and faculty excellence. But he returned to the students.
"I had a fabulous lunch with the students," he added, remembering his mid-May visit as a presidential candidate. "I returned to Washington . . . very inspired and enthused by what I saw here. The students are smart, involved, and very loyal to the Colleges. They are very mindful, I think, of the unique experience they have here."
Not surprisingly, Gearan is particularly conscious of the overlap in Peace Corps and HWS missions: both emphasize internationalism, both facilitate community service and volunteerism. He foresees further emphasis in those areas.
He does not otherwise speculate about his HWS presidency. He's aware of his non-traditional route to this appointment.
"I think I will need to listen to talk to people who have dedicated their lives to the Colleges," he said. "This is a moment in time for the life and history of these Colleges. So the question is how do you build on that history? I will have some ideas, but the best ideas are ones borne of a very good listening ear."
Then it was off to press the flesh some more and, if time would allow, to begin the other order of business: getting himself, wife Mary Herlihy Gearan, and their daughters, Madeleine and Kathleen (aged 7 and 1) settled into new surroundings. At the President's House for a rare and brief break, Gearan achieved two more important tasks in his first official visit as the president-designate. Yes, the piano is in tune. And over there, beyond the driveway, is where the swingset will go.
This he achieved before the Statesmen and Herons reception out on the Quad, where, with right hand extended, he was heard to say, "Hi. I'm Mark Gearan, the new president."
Nice to Meet You
Summer 1999 Pulteney St. Survey