2017: A Time to Say So Long. Goodbye. Salut.

by Betty M. Bayer, Professor of Women’s Studies

2017 brings with it a closing chapter for Mark Gearan’s time as president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges. His has been a long span of leadership in the world of college presidencies. Mark joined us at the turn of the last millennium – that’s 18 years ago, or five USA presidential election cycles. Eighteen is also coincident with the legal voting age in the States, and with the age at which one is said to come into one’s own. But what’s in an age? As one historian reminds us, time (linear and chronological) makes of age an all too one-dimensional concept – it’s all about the numbers. To read an age, numbers need more dimensions, in space, place and time. Still, to what dimensions do we turn to speak of an age of a college presidency or, to be more precise, the age of Mark’s presidency?

To honor an age of leadership and its attendant ritual of saying thanks and farewell is tricky. Steer too far one way and one encounters the prospect of dabbling in the uncanny, as one writer put it about that ritual genre of Festschrifts and their penchant for burial or revival. Move too far in other directions, such as Washington-style presidential roasts, and one risks a certain mix of politics and liberal arts. Head off in another and one finds oneself in the land of nostalgia or oversentimentality. Something else is surely needed, something, shall we say, a little more outside the box, as we like to say about our hiring of Mark.

This brings me to Mark’s out-of-the-box sense of timing. Almost prescient, was it not, for Mark to enter the candidate pool in the same year faculty agreed to step outside the box on a presidential search? Makes one wonder about Mark’s choice of 2017 to leave.

Is it something about the number 17, a prime number, no less? Is it the number’s allure, as it has drawn in mathematicians or numerologists? Did all these years of strategic planning, projections and admissions numbers bring out this side of Mark? Or is it his inner garage-band-rocker self, as those 60s rockers, who, for whatever reason, sensed songs of 17 minutes would break the mold and make history. Numbers, we know, hold the power to enchant rites of passage and even life with a sense of mystery. Consider the tarot card “17.” As writer Jessa Crispin depicts it, this card may offer us interpretive guides to Mark, a way to see Mark’s balancing acts, those pushes and pulls of reason and his unconscious wishes, the art of presidents who walk the tightrope of stepping forward and stepping back, the mapping of miles to go and how to get there. This card, called the Star card, lends narrative drive to the story of Mark’s presidency. Crispin says to think of this “Star” card as more Ziggy Stardust than not, for it signals things out of the ordinary, more “out there” collaborators, letting you see, at some point, one’s risk of embarking on something outside the box. Like embarking on a presidency of these liberal arts colleges, like building towngown relations, like all that makes up Hobart and William Smith as we too engage the dance of life outside the box as one about being more not less.

One does not have to be a tarot reader, as Crispin became for her own literary experiments, to open up plotlines. I am not a reader of the tarot. But were I one, a tarot reader, that is, I might have been inclined to add some Jimmy Fallon to Mark’s card “17,” his Star Card. Who can forget Mark’s surprise dancing on stage at the recent Koshare concert, or his full Gorilla costume one Hallowe’en afternoon some years ago – much to feminist theory students’ surprise when he swung into our seminar “guerilla” style – or the extraordinary capacity he has to conjure pianos whenever and wherever he happens to be. His presidency has endured multiple presidencies (from George W. to Barack to Donald) and transformations in curriculum and digital worlds reorganizing higher education, from Facebook to Twitter and Snapchat. It takes a lot of talent to navigate the times and their respective troubling of the questions of life and higher education – even for someone holding card “17.”

For many of us, Mark was the second president with whom we worked. For others, number three or maybe even four. And, for still others, Mark is the only HWS president they have known. Mark has welcomed 18 new classes and will have bid adieu 18 times, too. He has charted constellations of convocations and commencements. He has engaged the ages of tipping points, lives of consequence, and transformative education. We have engaged him in interdisciplinary thinking, intersectional feminism and black lives matter. These are balancing acts in the academic year and cycles to its multidimensional ages, as they are to rituals of endings and moving on.

On leaving one place for another, Joan Didion’s signature essay “Goodbye To All That,” opens with “It is easier to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.” She is not alone in puzzling out beginnings and endings. Poet and essayist Mary Ruefle does so too. But for Ruefle, neither beginnings nor endings are so definable or knowable. To her the riddle is in the pattern of communication, in what we hear, in how so much of it whittles down, in the end, to relations, to how to inhabit this world by finding more not fewer ways to move outside convention. Moving outside convention might well be one tradition of liberal arts education. It is what we did at the beginning of our time together and what we hope you – Mark – take with you as we bid so long and salut to you, President Mark Gearan.

So, to Mark: while we like to imagine how HWS “really had a hold on you,” or how we may wish for this whole ritual to move to the beat of “Hello, Goodbye” or “Leaving on a Jet Plane” or “[President] on a road,” what it seems to me we are all saying is that while we know you like to say to graduating students “objects in mirror are closer than they appear” we ask you to remember to channel “hello from the other side.”


Preparing Students to Lead Lives of Consequence.