November 13, 2023

Dear Members of the HWS Community,

With profound sadness, I write to share the news that Trustee Michael Rawlins ’80, P’16, one of the Colleges’ most loyal and passionate champions, passed away unexpectedly this weekend. Michael embodied the very best of Hobart and William Smith — his formidable intellect and creativity was matched by his indomitable kindness and sense of service. He was an innovative thinker and compassionate leader who enriched our community from his first days as a student through his service on the Board of Trustees. An extraordinary mentor, beloved classmate and generous friend, Michael made a profound impression on everyone who had the good fortune to cross paths with him. He will be dearly missed.

A talented student-athlete, Michael double-majored in history and art history, graduating with high Honors in history. He was a Druid and a member of the Statesmen soccer team, a source of many lifelong connections that tied Michael to Hobart and William Smith. He recently returned to campus with his fellow alums and teammates to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Hobart soccer. In the 43 years since he graduated, there was hardly a year that passed in which he did not return to campus. As he was fond of saying, in many ways it was like he never left.

Michael’s career, which served as a model for so many of the students he mentored, was as varied, interdisciplinary and forward-thinking as it was successful. An innovative user-experience professional, he led teams as a strategist at companies such as Cigna, FiServ, MassMutual, Hartford Life and Aetna. He then joined ESPN as the principal user experience design architect, breaking new ground with the company’s Fantasy Tools and Design Division, before transferring to the Walt Disney Company as Head of Enterprise Content and the Broadcast Media Design Team.

In a community that prizes personal connection and mentorship, Michael’s commitment to Hobart and William Smith students was truly exemplary. The endless curiosity that drove his remarkable, ever-evolving career was reflected in his engagement with students. He began advising his peers when he was a student himself and continued sharing his experiences and worldview with students for more than 40 years. As an alumnus, he participated in the Professionals in Residence series, was a judge for the Pitch competition and was the 2019 keynote speaker for the Multicultural Networking and Career Conference hosted by the Salisbury Center for Career, Professional and Experiential Education.

“Every time we called on Michael to assist the Colleges, he stepped forward with enthusiasm, curiosity and compassion,” says Chair of the Board of Trustees Craig Stine ’81, P’17. “He gave remarkably good advice on a wide array of topics, always thinking a dozen steps ahead and approaching challenges from completely novel perspectives. It was a joy to serve on the Board with him and to call him my friend. We have lost a bright, irreplaceable light.”

Michael offered ongoing counsel and friendship to countless alumni and students. At the time of his death, the Pulteney Street Survey was preparing a feature story profiling Michael’s philosophy as a mentor.

“I’ve found over the years that mentoring is my passion. It is that thing I get most energy from,” Michael told the PSS. “Seeing a student do that hard thing — walking into the Salisbury Center, résumé in hand, to talk to someone who graduated 40 years ago — I try to meet that courage with empathy and curiosity. As a user experience professional, I start with that liberal arts side of connecting the dots: observing how people do what they do, listening very closely, very curiously, to get to why they’re motivated; once you understand that, you can make the process much more engaging. I talk about the journey I’ve had in many different domains, and my comfort with the fact that there are things I do for a living now that I could never have seen when I was in my field of study at the Colleges. I try to convey that the world will keep changing and that I have the tools — HWS has given me the critical thinking tools — to always continue to evolve. I take students through this journey so that they feel comfortable saying, ‘Wow, I can do that too. There’s no ceiling. I can do anything.’”

Michael joined the HWS Board of Trustees in 2019, providing vital counsel on the committees for Advancement & Communications, Belonging, Diversity and Equity, and The Student Experience. But his eagerness to share his experience and serve extended well beyond our campus. He was an instructor at the Whiting School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, vice president of the User Experience Professionals Association and president emeritus of the association’s Connecticut chapter. He was a board member at the Hill-Stead Museum and the Connecticut Science Center and served as president for A Better Chance Program in Glastonbury, Conn., which brought promising students to his hometown for educational opportunities. In recognition of his engagement, Michael twice received the White House’s President’s Volunteer Service Award, earning bronze recognition in 2015 and silver in 2017.

Michael was part of a large HWS legacy family — one of five siblings to attend the Colleges, a parent of a graduate and cousin of another — and his passing is a shocking loss for his wife, Rhonda; daughter, Melissa, and son, Dylan Rawlins ’16; siblings, Janice Faulkner ’76, Marilyn Rawlins-Grundy ’86, and Norman Rawlins ’88; cousin Laura Douglas ’79; and countless dear friends, colleagues and proteges.

No one exemplified a life of consequence more than Michael Rawlins. HWS is a better place for his lifetime commitment and we have all been enriched by his selfless and empathic spirit.

As soon as we know details about arrangements, we will communicate them to campus.

With great sadness,

Mark D. GearanPresident