President Joyce P. Jacobsen

President Joyce P. Jacobsen
Inaugural Address
October 18, 2019

When I was first announced on February 8th as the next president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, as those of you who were there know, I got pretty emotional, particularly in my gratitude to the communities who are responsible for my being able to reach this level of personal and career achievement. I'm going to hold my emotions more in check today, but I did want to start off with a set of personal thank yous for those of you from those communities who are here with me today. Thank you to my family and friends who came from near and far to share this occasion with me. That includes a group of college friends, including my three college roommates; a bunch of economist friends, including four of my graduate school classmates; a squad of cousins, many of whom traveled here from California; my mother, who came all the way from Amsterdam in the Netherlands; my two children, my two stepchildren, one of my five stepgrandchildren, one of my six nephews and nieces, my husband Bill and his three siblings and their spouses, and several of my dear friends and colleagues from Wesleyan University. And thank you also to all my new friends and acquaintances here from Geneva and at Hobart and William Smith, including trustees, alumni, faculty, staff, students, parents, and local dignitaries.

Speaking of my mom, when I told her I was going to be president, she said, “you know dear, I was really hoping that you were going to be a musician." And I said, “you'd rather I was a starving musician than a gainfully employed college president?” And she said, “well, I understand that it makes sense for you to be a college president Now, but back when you first went off to college I was hoping you would major either in music, or in folklore.”

Now, I may not have ever told my mother this before, but actually it wasn't so much that I didn't want to become either a musician or a folklorist, as that I was gently discouraged from those occupations by my teachers. The summer before college, at music camp, when my cello teacher found out that I was going to Harvard instead of to a music conservatory, he sounded pretty darn relieved. And in the spring of sophomore year in college, when I went to talk to my folklore professor about my term paper and he asked me what I was thinking of majoring in, and I said “either economics, or folklore and mythology” he said, “oh, you'll want to major in economics. There aren't any jobs in folklore and mythology.”

However, my mother isn't the only person to have greeted the news of my current career choice with some reservations. Indeed, people regularly ask me why I, or anyone, would want to be a college president in these difficult times. The general view is that Higher Education, particularly the liberal arts sector of it, is in crisis. The problems that one can enumerate are numerous and large. They include: the rising costs of attending college, both absolute and as a percentage of family income; rising student debt loads; public skepticism regarding the fairness of admissions processes; skepticism regarding the value of college studies for one's future career; and concerns about student readiness for college; about access, and about high dropout rates.

But Higher Ed has generally faced problems: the post-world war II era with its significant expansion of public support for higher education is the exception to the rule. That period saw higher state and federal financing combined with rising family incomes and positive college-going demographics, leading to a rise in the demand for college education and a coincident rise in demand for college faculty. In retrospect, the 1950s and 60s were the golden age for colleges and universities, and for faculty in particular.

If you want to see Real problems, go back and look at the American higher education system in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. If you think it is hard to convince folks nowadays that a college education is a good bet, try convincing them in a time when most people didn't finish high school, when the population was mainly rural and engaged in farming or other basic industries, when you have constant bellicosity--the War of 1812 followed by numerous expansionary actions as the US pushed west followed by, um, the Civil War, and numerous financial crises. From 1812 to 1861 there were nine recessions, two depressions, and the Panics of 1819, 1837, and 1857. Following the Civil War, things didn't get much better. There was the Long Depression from 1873 to 1896, and then in the first half of the Twentieth Century, the Panics of 1901 and 1907, two World Wars, and the Great Depression.

In order to illustrate this in the context of our particular Colleges, let me drop you a few quotes from what we fondly refer to around the office as “the orange book”: Hobart and William Smith: The History of Two Colleges, written by Warren Hunting Smith, grand-nephew of William Smith. Smith's history starts off scary from pretty much the first days, pointing out that when Hobart's predecessor, Geneva Academy “reopened in 1821, there were fewer students than had been that an operating deficit was piling up.”(1) Jasper Adams, the first president of Hobart College, wrote in January 1827 that the College was “just able to exist” as only “one new student had enrolled since he came.”(2) James Rees, one of Hobart College's founders, upon offering Edward Cutbush the chemistry professorship in 1829, “warned him that there might not be enough money to pay him a salary”(3) and in 1850 “the College reached a new ebb” when President “Hale was left with only two tutors” and no professor,(4) thus forcing the President to do much of the teaching himself. There was also trouble getting supplies both for the College itself and for its auxiliary, the Medical Institution of Geneva College. For instance, the medical students used corpses from Auburn prison as dissection subjects, “but the supply was short, and once in the 1860s, Professor Towler spent a whole week in New York City trying to collect cadavers to bring home.”(5)

Indeed, numerous colleges started before the civil war perished before the civil war, and others were unable to survive the war era. But things didn't get much better for Hobart after the civil war ended. The class of 1867 had only 8 graduates(6) and it took a long time to get the College onto stronger footing. The reason for the founding relationship between Hobart and William Smith College in 1906 is because Hobart College needed the monetary support of having the women's college share equipment and staff with it.(7)

The early to mid nineteenth century college system, as described by educational historian David Labaree, was “all promise and no product.”(8) Local boosters wanted a local college to build their town's prestige. Actual content of learning, level of infrastructure, and reliability of funding all were secondary. Yet, as Labaree points out, these institutions' independent structure, generally “with a lay board, strong president, geographical isolation and stand-alone finances” makes the liberal arts college “a remarkably adaptable institution.”(9) These “market-based institutions that had never enjoyed the luxury of guaranteed appropriations,” this “disparate collection of largely undistinguished colleges and universities...succeeded in surviving a Darwinian process of natural selection in a fiercely competitive environment,” persisting by “hustling for dollars from donors and marketing themselves to prospective students.”(10)

Similarly, people often assume that students used to be better prepared for college entry, better behaved, more dedicated to their studies. But just as there was no golden age of solvency, there was also no golden age of student diligence and studiousness. Smith writes of student dissipation and riots at Hobart in the nineteenth century, including students rolling cannonballs down the corridors.(11) And football, with all its accompanying upsets of rowdy fan behavior and player violence? It was there at American colleges from the beginning, with college-specific variations starting as early as 1820 and huge and growing popularity starting in the post-civil war era.(12)

And those supposedly contemporary worries I mentioned at the beginning of my talk? Historian Colin Burke has calculated that the cost of attending college in the nineteenth century rose notably, as a year's college tuition, fees, room and board “rose from one-third of a skilled manual laborers' income in 1800 to approximately 60 percent in 1860,”(13) and the better-known Eastern schools' cost exceeded a skilled worker's yearly income.(14) Why this rise? Because colleges were trying to raise the quality of their product by improving their facilities, raising faculty salaries, and modernizing their curricula.(15) But these very moves made college less affordable, so colleges struggled to control costs and faced criticism for these cost increases even as they also faced pressure to provide a better product.(16) Coincident, there was skepticism regarding the link between a college education and one's future career, but also concern about the elitist aspects of the top northeastern colleges and the inaccessibility of a college education to many who would have benefited from it, including most women and African Americans. Sound familiar?

Well, fast forward 150 years from 1869. and here we are in 2019, facing a whole slew of problems, but somehow, compared to having no professors to teach and students rolling cannonballs down the hall, now things don't seem quite so bad. But can we move to the next level in US higher education, to a place where we aren't worried about how to finance higher education yet keep it affordable, how to increase access to a wider range of students, and how to provide stable employment for faculty and staff?

The practice in most other countries has been to limit access to higher education, provide it using almost solely large institutions, force early choice of field of study, and subsidize attendees heavily. But that model is also breaking down on several fronts as students in other countries become more discriminating consumers of higher education, increasing their demands for student-responsive institutions with updated facilities and social services and more universal access. In addition, the value proposition of higher education in other countries is not as clear as in the US, as unemployment rates for college graduates in many countries stay high and middle-class living costs are also high, so even with lower tuition, the financial return on college attendance is not higher than in the US.

In contrast, the signal strengths of the US higher education system have been and continue to be threefold: a great diversity of options, wide access to the system, and student-centered pedagogy. And the US system has also generally had a clearer link to occupational outcomes, whether it be to train clergy in the earliest days of the college system in the US, or the comprehensive land grant college approach to train people on all sorts of practical concerns, ranging from engineering to nursing to education to business, even as the bedrock of the college education has been, and continues to be, the liberal arts and sciences.

US higher education has had, and continues to have, a remarkably successful run as a business sector.  The survival rate of colleges and universities, and the growth of the sector, stands in strong contrast to the average business history. While many colleges have closed or merged with other institutions, overall the sector has grown substantially in terms of both number of institutions, average size of institution, number of students served, and market penetration. In 1869, the first year where we have good statistics for the education sector, thanks to the creation of the first version of the Department of Education in 1867, less than one percent of 18 to 24 year olds attended one of the 563 colleges that were in business at that time, and colleges served an average of 112 students; about 63,000 total enrollees.(17) Now there are over 4500 colleges and universities,(18) serving some 41 percent(19) of that college-aged population as well as many nontraditional aged students, with over 20 million enrollees,(20) for an average size of 4000 students, even as over 60 percent of institutions have 2500 or fewer students.(21) 380 colleges that were founded before 1860 are still in business today,(22) fully two-thirds of the 563 colleges that existed in 1867, including ours truly. It's actually hard to think of many other industries that have been that successful and longevitous as well as preserving that many options of places to buy from. Buggy whips? Gone the way of the more than 3000 car, or horseless carriage, companies that existed in this country since the automobile industry first began in the 1890s.(23)

So the answer is that we never get all the way to a next level, to perfect security, to a clearly known future, because higher education is a dynamic industry. But that's true of all industries. Indeed, higher education actually looks like a safer bet than many of our other industries. How many other industries offer any level of job security, let alone tenure, to any of their workers?

So why do I want to be a college president? Actually, it looks like a pretty safe career bet. To draw upon my economist background for some analysis: As incomes rise, do we really think that people want to have less, rather than more, high-quality educational opportunity? The demand for education rises with income. Education is a complement, rather than a substitute, for both work time and leisure time. We are living longer lives which are enriched by being educated and by the bonds we develop with the people we meet, both in school and then at the jobs that are made possible by our schooling. People could pursue education in isolation, at a distance, through correspondence courses and reading books. But they prefer the full package, including the cannonball rolls and the football games. And there are three additional distinguishing features of the US higher education system: the emphasis placed on residential college life, and on co-curricular experiences, often in a rural or semi-rural setting. For many US colleges, dormitories are not just convenient housing close to where students have their classes, they are integral parts of the whole educational project. We want students to stay on campus after class hours and on weekends so as to participate in the full educational experience that an immersive setting offers.

And also, I didn't want to be President of just any college. It is this particular pair of colleges, Hobart and William Smith, founded in 1822 and 1908, that I am serving as their president. Spunky, scrappy colleges that have survived numerous existential threats over their years and nonetheless just keep on keeping on, hustling and marketing and serving the community in which they are embedded. Aspirational colleges that contribute to keeping the light of learning alive, that keep on trying to get better, but that don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good, or the good enough become the enemy of the great. Because for all the doubts about the college system, about what the value is of college, about whether it is worth its cost; for all the compromises we make in order to keep a college going, and all the ways in which we fall short of providing the ideal experience, a college still provides the single best bet for having a positive transformational experience that lays the groundwork for a successful adulthood. I know that college transformed my life and laid the intellectual foundation for where I am today. To have the opportunity to guide not one, but two, myself, to help them not only survive into the next two hundred years and try to get better in that future, is the opportunity of a lifetime.

Disce Bios Psyche. Learn Life Soul. Think about it.

(1) Smith, W.H. (1972). Hobart and William Smith: The History of Two Colleges. Geneva, N.Y.: Hobart and William Smith Colleges. p. 40
(2) Smith, op. cit., p. 57.
(3) Smith, op. cit., p. 60.
(4) Smith, op. cit., p. 97.
(5) Smith, op. cit., p. 77.
(6) Smith, op. cit., p. 136.
(7) The Founding of William Smith College. (n.d.). Retrieved from
(8) Labaree, D. (2017, October 11). “An Unlikely Triumph.” Aeon. Retrieved from
(9) Ibid.
(10) Ibid.
(11) Smith, op. cit., pp. 120-121.
(12) football_before_1869
(13) Burke, C.B. (1982). American Collegiate Populations: A Test of the Traditional View. New York: NYU Press. p. 50.
(14) Ibid.
(15) Katz, M.B. (1983). “The Role of American Colleges in the Nineteenth Century.” History of Education Quarterly 23(2): 215-223: p. 216.
(16) Burke, op. cit., pp. 49-50.
(17) Snyder, T.D. (Ed.). (1993). 120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait. National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Dept. of Education. p. 64.
(18) Digest of Education Statistics 2017. (2019). National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Dept. of Education. p. 392 (Table 301.20). Data are for 2015-16.
(19) Digest of Education Statistics 2017, p. 400 (Table 302.60). Data are for 2015-16.
(20) Digest of Education Statistics 2017, p. 404 (Table 303.10). Data are estimated for 2019.
(21) Digest of Education Statistics 2017, p. 505 (Table 317.40). Count is of degree-granting institutions in Fall 2016.
(22) Snyder, op. cit., p. 63.