A Time of Transition: The Search for a New President
By Ben Whedon For a multitude of students, the Spring Term of 2015 was a unique yet exciting year-end adjustment. New and returning students alike faced the intriguing shift from taking four full classes to a single, intensive course. In the midst of this turbulent yet invigorating stage of the academic year came the announcement of Kenneth P. Ruscio’s departure, Washington and Lee’s President since 2006. In an email to the student body, Ruscio reflected on his time at Washington and Lee and what has changed during his tenure. In his nine academic years as President, the school faced several public controversies such as the debate over Lee Chapel’s battle heraldry, the punishment of two fraternities, and the creation of mandatory third year housing.
Despite a few controversial decisions, President Ruscio’s positive impact on our campus cannot be ignored. The completion of the $500 million capital campaign, the restoration of the Colonnade, and the creation of the Mudd Center for Ethics and the Global Learning Center are just some of the many positive developments on campus which President Ruscio has overseen. Over Parents Weekend I had the pleasure of attending the Presidential Gala, where I heard him speak on the issue of his successor. Though Ruscio himself plays no part in the search for the school’s next president, he emphasized that W&L faces a changing world and that our choice of new leadership will be one of self-definition for many years to come.
Many in the community mistakenly believe that the President is an omnipotent figure, the person from which all University policy ultimately originates. However, the President’s actual duties are far less dramatic in practice. Although the chief executive officer of the corporation, the President is ultimately answerable to the Board of Trustees. As per the University by-laws, the Board may at any time demand that the President account for the status of all university operations. His proposed operating budget is also subject to the full scrutiny of the Board. All appointments resulting in tenure are ultimately subject to the approval of the trustees. The President is by no means an autocrat; there are legitimate checks on his authority.
The prerogative of the President is unfortunately stated in rather vague terms. The University by-laws offer the following statement on the role of the President: “The President shall in general oversee, supervise, and direct the policies and development of the University as prescribed by the Board and shall have primary responsibility to the Board in all areas of the University’s work not otherwise assigned by the Board. He or she may from time to time delegate to the other officers of the Corporation, the administrative staff, or the Faculty, such portion of his or her duties as deemed appropriate or as the Board may direct.”
These arbitrary and vaguely defined jurisdiction boundaries for the office leaves a lot of room for interpretation. There is little consensus on the precise role of the President. To gauge opinion on this issue, The Spectator sent a survey to the student body in which students were asked to rank, from a list of duties, the most important aspects of the President’s job. Nearly 42% saw the President’s main duty as being a symbolic, public representative of the institution. About 26% saw the office as being primarily administrative while another 19% viewed the President chiefly as a fundraiser and a representative to the alumni. The full results of the survey can be found on the website for The Spectator (click here).
In addition to evaluating these prominent responses, we next asked students what they felt to be the most important qualities the Search Committee ought to look for in a President. On this inquiry, there was a greater consensus. Asked to rank, in order of importance, the qualities needed in W&L’s next President, nearly 60% of students chose either “Respect for the University’s Traditions” or “Personal Connection to the University” as their first choice. When the second through sixth choices were factored in, however, “Administrative Experience” and “Public Speaking Ability” also achieved strong performances. Over 85% of students responded that they would prefer a current faculty member or an alumnus over an outside hire. Though these results show a real concern for the practical qualifications of a potential President, it seems clear that the student body also gives priority to the character and traditions of the University.
The selection of a new President is a relatively straightforward process. Article E of the University Charter provides for the appointment of major offices and reads as follows: “The Trustees shall elect one of their own number as presiding officer, with the title of Rector, and shall also elect a President of the University, who shall be President of the Corporation, a Secretary, and a Treasurer of the Corporation, and such other officers, agents, and employees as may be provided for by the by-laws.” Essentially, the Board of Trustees oversees the selection of all major officeholders and is not bound by any codified procedure.
To its credit, the Board of Trustees has been remarkably open about the search process, releasing periodic email updates to keep the community informed. Early in the process, the full list of Search Committee members was released. It included not only trustees, but faculty members from widely varying departments, including the law school. Moreover, in September the Executive Committee President T. Mason Grist was added to this body. This open and inclusive example of public outreach has sparked high approval ratings. Nearly 86% of the students surveyed by The Spectator were satisfied with the transparency of the Search Committee’s actions. However, our data suggests that this approval does not translate into universal student approval of the process. Several concerns linger among the student body.
As part of its admirable efforts to gauge community opinion for the search, the Committee released a comprehensive survey on the subject. It was sent to current students, faculty and staff members, alumni, community members, and parents among others. This survey can be found on the W&L website, under the heading “Presidential Search.” While it is refreshing to see such an active attempt to hear community voices, the Committee’s hesitance to release its results may warrant some criticism. The survey’s response numbers, which are publicly posted, show a high level of feedback to the survey, certainly enough to validate the responses. Over 89% of students who answered The Spectator’s survey felt that the Committee should release its survey results. So long as our responses are kept anonymous, there is no real reason not to do so.
Beyond the issue of the survey, the student body expressed concern with our representation in this matter. We asked students if they were satisfied with the appointment of the Executive Committee President to the search committee. Just over 38% were content with that action, while the remainder expressed a desire to see more students involved in the process. Though the EC President is elected by the students, many expressed concerns that the student body, diverse in its interests, could not be fully represented by a single individual. It should be noted, however, that most responses expressed approval of the EC President’s involvement and merely desired additional representation. One student proposed that a council of honor students from different majors be consulted on the search. Another suggested the election of student representatives to the Board of Trustees. While a consensus on how to address the issue is lacking, it is evident that the students remain concerned about the weight their input carries.
Ruscio’s upcoming departure has placed the University once again into a time of transition and uncertainty. It has sparked debate on campus over the role of the President, and by extension the prerequisites of office. Although in the past many such controversies and vital issues have been handled administratively with no great effort made to gauge community opinion, recent attempts by the Search Committee to do exactly that are cause for optimism. Concerns still linger over the unreleased survey results and a lack of student representation, though it seems the majority of the student body appreciates the opportunity to express their opinions. We, as an institution and a community, now face a decision which will play a part in defining Washington and Lee for years to come. Let’s hope that in their deliberations, the solemnity of this task is not lost on the Search Committee. I, for one, am eager to see what the future holds.