July 9, 2024

Dear Members of the HWS Community,

As I reflect on the past year, I am appreciative of the collective efforts of so many across campus who have assisted with key strategic imperatives. With a successful Commencement and Reunion now behind us, I write to express my deep gratitude and to provide an update on key initiatives and issues. I’m pleased to report that with the hard work and tenacity of the HWS community, we have made significant progress on institutional goals. This progress is especially noteworthy given the challenging times in higher education we are experiencing, challenges lodged in polarized debates that lead too many people to question the value and importance of a liberal arts and sciences education. While I take note of these concerning trends for higher education, I remain optimistic and driven by the purposeful work we are engaged in and the transformative education our students enjoy.

Growing Enrollment
Led by a dedicated admissions and financial aid team, and with the substantial investment of time and attention from faculty, staff and coaches, our enrollment outcomes this year are exceeding expectations. As of today, we have 570 first-year students enrolled for the fall semester. This is a 21% increase over last year at the same time, ahead of our goal of 7%. We were able to achieve a larger enrollment despite the problems associated with the Department of Education’s rollout of the new FAFSA. Importantly, we also maintained the academic quality of students (the average GPA of the Class of 2028 is 3.62). The discount rate increased slightly over last year but is offset by the growth in revenue from a larger class. Transfer numbers are also up with 85 enrolled, a jump of 63 students over last year at this time. Thanks to the individual outreach of so many, 61 of these transfer students will be coming to us from Wells College. Graduate enrollment is running even with last year, with 40 new students entering this fall for a total of about 50 graduate students, a number we expect will increase in the next few weeks. Based on traditional melt and retention rates, we anticipate having about 650 new students on campus this fall for an estimated total student enrollment of more than 1,800.

Advancing the Academic Experience
As we seek to deliver an exceptional education that prepares students for lives and careers in an increasingly complex world, the faculty has been hard at work making certain that the institution’s core values are delivered in the best and most efficient manner. Faculty – ranked in the top 25 in the nation for the seventh year in a row by the Princeton Review – are reevaluating majors and programs of study, as they also consider a new general education curriculum. Concurrently, we rolled out a new academic day, established a more transfer-friendly environment, and changed the advising structure to create the Office of the Hobart and William Smith Deans, which will provide students with expert guidance across their entire HWS education. Work is well underway on the design of the new science center with a committee of faculty and staff collaborating with our design-build firm on a plan that will allow for construction and research to happen simultaneously. A great deal of research across the curriculum is occurring on campus this summer with more than 100 students spending the break here in Geneva to work with faculty.

Title VI
Last year was a challenging one on college campuses around the country, including our own. The war in Palestine and Israel sparked intense conversations on our campus about Antisemitism, Islamophobia, discrimination and academic freedom, with increasing reminders from government agencies of the importance of addressing discrimination on campus, including investigating any situation that might create a hostile environment. Our faculty and staff worked earnestly over the course of the last academic year to create spaces for difficult conversation, to facilitate the open exchange of ideas, and to engage in critical dialogues across difference. I am most grateful for these efforts. Our work in this regard must continue not simply unabated but strengthened. 

Relatedly, I want to comment and bring closure to the investigation into conduct by Professor of Politics Jodi Dean, including at a lecture on campus and elsewhere, during the last academic year. I am sure you can appreciate that details of a personnel matter must be kept confidential but given the community-wide attention to the issue in the spring, a summary report is appropriate. The investigation conducted by an outside law firm is now complete. The investigator concluded that certain of Professor Dean’s statements caused harm to members of our community and were inconsistent with our community values and principles. The investigator also concluded that Professor Dean’s conduct did not rise to the level of harassment or discrimination under the law or our policies. While I stand by my comments in April, we have adopted the investigator’s recommended findings. Professor Dean is free to return to the classroom this fall.

Enhancing the Student Experience
Recognizing that the initial weeks on campus are critical in making certain first-year students persist and thrive through graduation, last year we revamped Orientation and the First-Year Seminar. Orientation expanded to a week to include structured opportunities for students to gather in multiple cohorts like the new Spark! projects. First-Year Seminar faculty met with students over the summer and we added student mentors to every seminar. Because of these and numerous other initiatives, the current retention rate of the entering fall class is 95%. We have implemented numerous initiatives this summer to assist our September retention goal of 90%, which would be the highest since we started recording this data in 1990. This year, we celebrated the 30th anniversary of Day of Service and were able to announce a year ahead of schedule that Hobart and William Smith is one of only 11 colleges and universities nationwide to achieve climate neutrality. On campus, there were dozens of lectures, presentations, performances, concerts and forums that allowed students to engage with some of the top thinkers and practitioners in our nation on a wide variety of topics. The inaugural HWS Day showcased the accomplishments of our students and the spirit of exploration and curiosity that drive academic inquiry. And of course, with great effort and determination, Athletics continued to excel. Our teams won nine conference championships while Hobart hockey won the national championship for the second year in a row.

Launching the Campaign
With historic philanthropy, including from a small group of alumni and parents I convened in the fall who collectively committed $100 million to further HWS’ strategic priorities, we launched our campaign six months early, expanding the scope from a planned $300 million goal to $400 million. “Further Together: the Campaign for Our Third Century” prioritizes the needs of students through fundraising aimed at scholarship support, academic excellence, the student experience and annual giving. With gratitude to our colleagues in Advancement and through the generosity of alumni, parents and friends, this year HWS raised $102 million. Note that the average raised in the previous three years was just over $32 million. This is truly a remarkable achievement and I am excited for the work ahead of making the case to donors and in so doing, fulfilling our promise to students.

So much of our fundraising success is due to Bob O’Connor and the outstanding team he has assembled. Bob has spent 26 years at HWS, the last 17 as the Vice President for Advancement. With the Campaign now underway, Bob will be taking on a new role as Vice President and Senior Philanthropic Advisor. Reporting to me, Bob will continue as a member of the Campaign Steering Committee, assist with presidential and institutional initiatives, maintain oversight of Career Services, and remain a member of Senior Staff. Steve Caraher, who came to HWS in 2018 after holding positions at the University of Rochester, Johns Hopkins University and Cornell University, has been named Vice President for Advancement. Steve is an exceptional leader and I have every confidence in his ability to help HWS achieve our aspirations.

Implementing the Strategic Plan
As we enter our third century, we celebrate our proud past and remain ambitious for our future. We have a bold mission – to prepare students to lead lives of consequence – which remains wholly relevant. And we have an equally bold vision – to be a premier liberal arts and sciences institution. Our strategic plan represents a generational moment for us to embark on an exciting new chapter for HWS. We do so with the urgent resolve to graduate students equipped with the values, perspectives, skills and knowledge that will leave them inspired to imagine a better world and capable of making a consequential impact. Over the spring semester, we solicited and received feedback from the campus community on the draft strategic plan. This summer, we will incorporate that feedback and publish the plan on our website, providing a roadmap for the upcoming years.

Fall 2024 Semester
We look to the fall semester with purpose – to continue to attract and retain excellent students, to provide an outstanding liberal arts and sciences education, to advance the aspirations of HWS, and to help one another and our students make sense of a world in constant flux. I will call together campus experts and thought leaders to inform our institutional thinking and discourse. I have asked members of the senior leadership team to draft an interim Title VI policy that can guide us all through the new direction provided by the Office of Civil Rights. Provost and Dean of Faculty Sarah Kirk and faculty leadership are meeting this week to engage these topics. We will reevaluate our Bias Incident Reporting system to make certain that faculty, staff and students are comfortable coming forward when faced with prejudice or injustice. With a commitment to supporting all members of our community who may feel marginalized, I will be working closely with faculty, staff and students on programming that promotes inclusion and discourse. And as we face a challenging presidential election, we will build upon the past success of HWS Votes and look for opportunities to engage in robust discussions of the issues.

I wish you all a healthy and safe summer and hope that you are able to take some time to rejuvenate and recharge for the upcoming year.


Mark D. Gearan