A Legacy of Leadership

by Catherine Williams

When President Mark D. Gearan concludes his presidency at the end of June he will have the distinction of being the longest serving president in the history of Hobart and William Smith, leading the Colleges through a period of unprecedented growth. More than 35% of all living graduates have crossed the stage in front of Coxe Hall to accept their diplomas and shake hands with Gearan – that’s 7,600 alumni and alumnae who have benefited from Gearan’s focus on preparing students to lead lives of consequence.

“I joined the Board of Trustees the weekend of Mark’s inauguration in 1999 so I’ve had a front row seat to his presidency,” says Chair of the Board Thomas S. Bozzuto ’68. “There is no doubt that the Colleges are better prepared for the future by every conceivable measure than they were before or would have been without him.”



Under Gearan’s leadership, the Colleges have expanded its academic reach and advanced its reputation as a prominent liberal arts institution. By strengthening the Colleges’ financial resources and increasing its fundraising range, Hobart and William Smith have transformed the physical campus, adding and expanding facilities while also increasing access and opportunity for students through an expansion of financial aid. Gearan has made significant commitments to diversity and inclusion, propelled the Colleges’ environmental sustainability efforts, and grown programming in civic engagement, career services, leadership, study abroad and student services.

Carr McGuire

“When I think of Mark, I think of the word integrity. Early in his career at HWS, Mark tapped into the real heart of the Colleges,” says Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees Carolyn ’78. “Hobart and William Smith resonated with Mark and he was able to build a vision for the Colleges that was based so strongly in our history and so embedded in our DNA that our advances these past two decades have been natural and rooted in our mission.”

When he was named President in 1999, Gearan was one of the youngest college presidents in the nation and a non-traditional choice given his background as Director of the Peace Corps and, during the Clinton Administration, Assistant to the President, Director of Communications and Deputy Chief of Staff.


“He was a breath of fresh air,” says Trustee Thomas B. Poole ’61, P’91, L.H.D. ’06 recalling Gearan’s first interview with the Search Committee in 1999, a search that Poole chaired. “His energy was contagious. His interest was genuine. His integrity was obvious. He was quietly confident and extremely articulate and passionate. Those things haven’t changed in the 18 years I’ve known him. What has changed is HWS. He got everyone to work together toward a common vision.”

Margarita Ramos ’85 joined the Board of Trustees shortly after Gearan became president. “At the time, I was just forming my own sense of leadership as a young attorney and I identified with many of the challenges Mark faced. One of Mark’s most telling and positive attributes early in his tenure was his capacity to actively engage with others through listening to their concerns.”


Honorary Trustee and Former Chair of the Board David H. Deming ’75 agrees. “Mark was the right person at the right time,” he says. “He took Hobart and William Smith and gave it incredible focus. And he did it in a nice, inclusive way. He listened first and then put teams of people together to work on some of our biggest challenges. Everyone owned the process and the outcome.”

This approach, Professor of History Clifton Hood says, allowed the Colleges to transition from, “a regional liberal arts college to what I would call a mini-versity that is active nationally and internationally, that provides our students with an elaborate and evergrowing array of academic programs and extracurricular services, and that has a complex administrative structure aimed at supporting those heightened ambitions. Mark raised our sights and he and Mary added a lot of basic human decency to the process.”

At the close of his first year at Hobart and William Smith, Gearan began the development of a five-year strategic planning initiative called HWS 2005. He then led the next two phases, HWS 2010 and HWS 2015, as well as Campaign for the Colleges, which raised more than $205 million to support facilities, endowment and annual giving. These strategic plans and the campaign provided a clear road map to achieving academic excellence, intensifying student engagement, improving and enlarging facilities, advancing financial stability and expanding access.


“Achieving all of that has not been easy,” says Professor of Public Policy Craig Rimmerman. “But Mark has a tremendous amount of respect for the faculty. His generosity, his unflappable nature and his professionalism in the face of challenges have set a new model for future presidents to emulate.”

In his final year as president and in partnership with faculty, staff, students and trustees, Gearan is drafting a new strategic direction with an emphasis on the financial model, diversity and inclusion. The goal is to ensure that Gearan’s successor has the best thinking of the community at the ready.

“Mark’s commitment to the future of the Colleges is in some ways best demonstrated by his actions during this, his final year on campus,” says Bozzuto. “Rather than spend his time ‘coasting’ or basking in well-earned praise, he has gotten to work envisioning the possible next steps for the Colleges.”


Former Chair of the Board of Trustees Maureen Collins Zupan ’72, P’09, L.H.D. ’16 says that Gearan is always seeking a way to be of service. “I’ve known Mark since the beginning when his application arrived on Peace Corps stationary,” she recalls. “I’ve observed him in many situations, good and difficult, festive and sorrowful, formal and casual, on campus and off, with all of our constituencies and with Geneva residents, and more. He always treats everyone with respect. He listens, he empathizes, he collaborates and he finds ways to make us all feel part of the solution.”

Gearan has accepted an appointment at Harvard University, his alma mater, as the ‘President in Residence’ at the Graduate School of Education. For the fall 2017 semester, he will be working on important issues facing higher education and the next generation of leaders. The position at Harvard reflects Gearan’s stature in higher education where he has held leadership roles in numerous organizations including chair of National Campus Compact, chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, chair of the Annapolis Group of selective liberal arts colleges, and chair of the Talloires Network Steering Committee, an international organization of college and university presidents from six continents committed to civic engagement.


“Mark has a restless intellect,” explains Dr. George Abraham ’59, who has worked closely with Gearan on expanding opportunities for the arts on campus and in Geneva. “That’s part of why he’s successful. When you look at the way he’s developed the Colleges, the national attention he’s brought to HWS, the range of projects he’s accomplished, and the leadership role he’s taken in higher education, it’s monumental. He’s interested in everyone and curious about all things.”

That curiosity led Gearan to serve on the boards of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, New York Council of Independent Colleges and Universities, New York State Campus Compact and The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. He is a member of the Leadership Council for The Franklin Project, a policy program at the Aspen Institute, and is the co-chair of the National Advisory Board on Public Service at Harvard College.


Gearan has also maintained his connections in politics, serving as an appointee of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform. The national commission focuses on policy recommendations on electoral system reform, congressional reform and encouragement of greater public service. He is also a former member of the White House Council for Community Solutions, a group of cross-sector leaders appointed by President Barack Obama to recommend collaborative solutions to increase civic engagement.

“Many of the individuals Mark knew in his former life in D.C., as well as those he has met while involved in these national organizations, came to campus to give lectures and mentor students,” says Rimmerman. “People often remark on how he and Mary opened their home to the community, and that’s true. But he also opened HWS and Geneva to the world. Heads of state, politicians and journalists visited campus, shared their perspectives and insight, and returned home with a new understanding of the modern Hobart and William Smith.”


“I still think about many of the speakers who President Gearan brought to campus,” says Jane Erickson ’07, president of the William Smith Alumnae Association. “They continue to influence the way I think about the world and how to understand multiple sides of an issue. Interacting with people like Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai Sc.D. ’94, P’94, P’96, Ambassador Swanee Hunt and Conservative Activist Grover Norquist changed me.”

Lucile Mallard L.H.D. ’15, president of the Geneva chapter of the NAACP, is one of many Geneva community members who took advantage of Gearan’s open invitation to attend campus lectures and events. “I will never forget Convocation in 2007,” says Mallard. “The speaker was Congressman John Lewis, a leader of the Civil Rights Movement who spoke at the March on Washington and nearly lost his life on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. As Mark and Lewis were processing off stage, Mark spotted me in the audience and asked me to join them. I never thought I would have an opportunity to talk with Lewis, to walk with Lewis. It was one of the most important moments of my life. Mark knew what it would mean to me and he made it happen.”

That kind of thoughtfulness is a hallmark of Gearan’s approach to life and work. “He has a wisdom linked to authentic compassion,” explains Carr McGuire. “He fosters mutual respect and trust, and has true affection for the people he works with.”


Gearan’s tenure at the Colleges is “nothing short of transformational,” says Reynold Levy ’66, former president of the Robin Hood Foundation and of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. “His persistence and doggedness in seizing opportunities and realizing goals has been remarkable. His ability to relate well to students, faculty, parents, trustees, donors, alumni and alumnae is peerless. His patience, tolerance for ambiguity and consensus building skills were in frequent evidence throughout his service as president…. Morale is up. Pride and accomplishment is everywhere apparent.”

Ann Warner has served HWS for nearly 40 years as the academic coordinator of the sciences and remembers meeting the Gearans on one of their first days in Geneva. “What was quickly clear was that this was a different era for the Colleges,” she says. “Mark and Mary make everyone feel included. No matter what job you have, it’s clear that you’re an important part of the community. They have always had our best interests at heart. I honestly don’t think they realize the impact and the difference they’ve made.”

“Virtually everyone he’s touched – faculty, staff, alumni, alumnae, Geneva community members and especially students – think of him as a personal friend,” says Bozzuto. “That’s pretty amazing, primarily because it’s true.”

“Over the years, I’ve returned to Mark’s inauguration speech. It’s all there – what he wanted to accomplish, his vision for the future, his approach,” explains Poole. “He said that 50 years from now, he imagined a future HWS president preparing for his or her inaugural address. What would be said of our time here at the Colleges? Mark hoped that our legacy was that we made a difference, that he made a difference. He absolutely did.”


Preparing Students to Lead Lives of Consequence.