Despite some clouds and rain, Hobart and William Smith Colleges’ President Joyce P. Jacobsen’s inauguration ceremony remained outside in front of the historic Coxe Hall on Friday.
A scenic fall day in the Finger Lakes was full of pomp and circumstances on campus, which sets a new precedent for the Colleges as they formally acknowledge Jacobsen as the first woman in the school’s history to lead the pair of institutions.
Chair of the Board of Trustees Tom Buzzuto ’68 offers his candid feelings about this consequential day from his perspectives as a Hobart College graduate himself.
“I am proud to be here today, at the symbolic heart of our campus, in a space that, although it has changed over the decades, remains our home, whether we graduated 60 years ago or are just starting our campus journey,” Buzzuto said.
The past four-years have been turbulent for the institution; and while HWS as a home for current students and alumni has remained the same, its proverbial housekeeper in the distinguished title of president has commonly changed hands for better and worse.
Within the last four-years the Colleges has seen four separate presidents serve from 2016 to 2019. In spite of these sudden transitions in power and presentation, the Colleges have settled on her serving as their newest leader and seem more confident than ever before with Jacobsen succeeding her predecessors.
Two of her former presidential predecessors attended the celebration: President Emeritus Mark D. Gearan and former Interim President and Professor of Economics Patrick McGuire both guided the Colleges and even the greater City of Geneva.
Both Gearan and McGuire sat behind Jacobsen upon the steps of Coxe Hall, celebrating with high spirits as she embarks on composing a new chapter for the Colleges’ catalogued history and future.
“Today we welcome – officially and with great excitement – the newest member to our community – our president, Dr. Joyce P. Jacobsen. We searched with great diligence and a sense of urgency to find her. We needed just the right person for this role, a person of character and fortitude, and a scholar of the highest regard. A leader who told us right from the beginning that she preferred action to inertia, one who had a vision for the liberal arts in this new millennia and a confidence in the Colleges’ trajectory,” Buzzuto stated.
Although mounting obstacles oppose Jacobsen as she becomes the 29th president of Hobart College and 18th president of William Smith College, Buzzuto says that she shall never stand alone in bearing the brunt of those burdens.
“And so to Joyce, I say this: you begin your presidency with the Board’s full confidence and with the support of 20,000 alumni and alumnae who stand behind you, ready to follow your vision and leadership,” Buzzuto concluded.
After Jacobsen was presented the seals of both colleges, she then formally assumed her title as President of Hobart and William Smith Colleges and all of the associated privileges.
Once she stood behind the podium with a smile on her face, President Jacobsen shared with everyone how she told her mother that she would become the president of not one but two colleges, rather than growing-up as a musician.
Jacobsen asked her mother, “You’d rather I was a starving musician than a gainfully employed college president?”
She recounted that her mother responded, “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.”
But even Jacobsen levels in her speech, posing why would anyone wish to enter higher education at this time where the institution of learning itself struggles with arising challenges.
“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,” Jacobsen said.
However, she narrated a thorough history about higher education in the American context and elaborated that the Colleges historically-faced problems and overcame nearly impossible odds to survive unlike other institutions.
“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,” she stated.
Citing the famous “orange book” full of campus lore titled, Hobart and William Smith: The History of Two Colleges, that was written by the grand-nephew of William Smith, Warren Hunting Smith, he outlines that Hobart College came from humble beginnings, to say the least from its early stages as the Geneva Academy.
“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 expected… so that an operating deficit was piling up,’” Jacobsen stated.
Jacobsen elaborated that enrollment rates remained extremely low even after the Civil War.
“But things didn’t get much better for Hobart after the Civil War ended. The class of 1867 had only 8 graduates 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,” she added.
Aside from low attendance and enrollment rates, access to supplies were also limited at Hobart, which caused the college to collect corpses from Auburn Correctional Facility and cadavers from downstate for medical students.
“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,’” Jacobsen said.
Historically, like other colleges, Jacobsen discloses that students at Hobart were not “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,” she stated.
While the piling of new problems persists for the Colleges and higher education at large, Jacobsen says that the campus has undergone productive change, especially when considering that students once rolled cannonballs around the campus.
“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,” Jacobsen said.
Looking forward into the future of the liberal arts and sciences: an uncertain one that she even acknowledges, Jacobsen seeks to “move to the next level of U.S. higher education,” where the Colleges can one-day not feel concerned with financing the institutions while maintaining affordability, increasing access to a wider range of students and assuring stable employment for faculty and staff.
“So why do I want to be a college president? Actually, it looks like a pretty safe career bet,” she said.
But beyond economics, Jacobsen emphasized that she did not wish to merely become the president of any university while she was searching for a new position after serving as the Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs at Wesleyan University.
“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,” Jacobsen added.
Harking back to Hobart’s founding and the emergence of William Smith, Jacobsen realizes that it is her responsibility to keep the Colleges on the brink of survival for the next two hundred years by steering them into the future.
“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,” she concluded.
– By Gabriel Pietrorazio
An undergraduate student at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Pietrorazio has written for the Town Times of Watertown, Connecticut and Finger Lakes Times in Geneva, New York. He’s currently a reporter for FL1 News, and can be reached at [email protected].