September 24, 2003 - Ithica Times: Gearan brings a world of experience to Hobart & William Smith

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Directors of the Peace Corps: Mark D. Gearan: August 11, 1995-August 11, 1999 : Gearan: September 24, 2003 - Ithica Times: Gearan brings a world of experience to Hobart & William Smith

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Gearan brings a world of experience to Hobart & William Smith

Gearan brings a world of experience to Hobart & William Smith

Gearan brings a world of experience to Hobart & William Smith

Campus Connection

Susan Clark Porter

Ithaca Times

In Touch: Mark Gearan, center, has made a point of meeting with students as he gets a better feel for the atmosphere at the institutions he now runs. He’s already taken on the teacher's role and contends that students today get unfairly tagged as "slackers."

It's open house season at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and one of several tours wends its way across campus on a glorious, orange-and-blue fall day in Geneva. The group stops outside the president's house, where the visitors not only hear about the president, they get to hear from the president.

Mark Gearan says hello and introduces his young daughter before she bounds up the front steps of the house and goes inside. Like those on the tour, Gearan is trying to learn as much as he can about the colleges. Named to run Hobart and William Smith last June, the 43-year-old former Peace Corps director is settling in to his new surroundings and job after arriving on campus in late summer.

Gearan has not come armed with "a 20-point plan," which he says would be "profoundly arrogant." Instead, he is conducting his own listening tour of sorts, spending his first few weeks meeting with as many segments of the campus community as he can. Whether it's over dinner at a fraternity house, in the classroom, or at faculty committee meetings, Gearan wants to know what others think are the challenges and opportunities facing the colleges. Then, with the benefit of reflection, he's confident he'll be able to get a better sense of specific actions he'd like to take.

Thus far, Gearan says, he's hearing that people are immensely proud of the colleges' academic atmosphere, their beauty and their resources. There is a feeling that the colleges are a well-kept secret, and there should be a greater awareness of what Gearan calls "the gem of institutions we have here." He may just be the man to get the word out.

An alternative career track

Gearan admits he is somewhat of an unorthodox choice to run the colleges, which have a combined enrollment of some 1,800 students. Hobart College was founded in 1822 for male students, and its female counterpart, William Smith College, was founded in 1908.

For one thing, Gearan's youth sets him apart. At 43, he is one of the youngest presidents of a major undergraduate institution.

He recalls visiting the campus for a reunion in June, shortly after his appointment. His predecessor, Richard Hersh, was about to formally introduce him to a gathering of alumni when a member of the audience was heard to remark, "Isn't it nice that the president has a student with him."

Being among the youngest of his professional colleagues "is not an unfamiliar dynamic to me," says Gearan. He believes that people put a higher value on one's work ethic and ability to make a difference. "If you work hard, get it, listen and not suffer the hubris of youth, it nets out just fine," he says.

Gearan also did not climb the conventional ladder to a college presidency. He does not hold a doctoral degree and has not spent his professional life toiling in academia. After graduating from Harvard University in 1978 he took a job as a newspaper reporter in Massachusetts. But he soon immersed himself in the political world, working as an aide to Congressmen Robert Drinan of Massachusetts and Berkeley Bedell of Iowa.

He eventually earned a degree from Georgetown University Law School in 1991. After working as Vice President Al Gore's campaign manager during the 1992 presidential campaign, Gearan was named deputy director of President-elect Clinton's transition team and was later became White House director of communications. It was after that job that he was appointed director of the Peace Corps, in 1995.

It is Gearan's varied background that attracted the colleges to him, and vice versa. The opportunity to serve as a college president presented itself "sooner in life than I hoped or imagined," says Gearan, who had been talking with firms that conduct searches for college presidents. But the institutions that had openings didn't seem to be the appropriate step for him, he says. That is, until the Hobart and William Smith job became available.

His Peace Corps experience and commitment to public service dovetail nicely with the colleges' strong study-abroad program and emphasis on volunteer service. Already, Gearan says, he's met with three students who are interested in joining the Peace Corps.

Hobart and William Smith boast of 18 study-abroad programs, and approximately two-thirds of HWS students leave campus during their undergraduate careers for an experience overseas. The programs span the globe, from more traditional locales such as England and France to the more unusual, like Vietnam and China.

The colleges also emphasize becoming part of the community, as evidenced by their Public Service Office which matches students with volunteer opportunities in the surrounding area. For several years, the colleges have also helped organize Celebrate Service, Celebrate Geneva Day, when members of the campus community and Geneva residents join forces to do cleanup projects throughout the city.

As leader of the Peace Corps, Gearan oversaw the opening of volunteer programs in South Africa, Mozambique, Jordan and Bangladesh, and shepherded an initiative that will expand the agency's number of volunteers to 10,000 by the year 2003. In 1996, he also helped to establish the Crisis Corps, which taps former Peace Corps volunteers to respond to overseas natural disasters and humanitarian crises.

Like the Peace Corps, Gearan considers running a college to be a worthy endeavor because it is a mission-oriented and values-centered position.

The choice of a college president depends on what an institution needs at a particular time, Gearan notes. "My hope is that my background, skills and attributes will be the right mixture for here," he says. That is also the hope of the board of trustees that selected him. When the appointment was announced in June, board chairman Charles Salisbury said Gearan was the unanimous choice for a leader to take the colleges into the 21st Century. "Not only does his strong and varied leadership experience make him an ideal president, but his particular sensitivity to internationalism and service makes him the best possible president for these colleges," Salisbury said.

The endangered liberal arts education

Although Gearan didn't follow the typical path to a college presidency, he is no stranger to higher education. He comes from a family that places a premium on learning ‹ his late father was a high school principal and several siblings and in-laws are teachers and professors. Gearan himself is a product of a liberal arts education, and his degree from Harvard is in government.

From his perspective, Gearan feels the biggest challenges facing Hobart and William Smith are similar to those at other small, residential liberal arts colleges which find themselves competing against larger, oftentimes state-supported institutions. In addition to this financial component, a trend toward specialization in today's ever-changing technological world renders a liberal arts education obsolete in some people's minds, he says.

Gearan recalls his first day of law school, when a professor told the new students they would not just be memorizing the law, but learning how it works "because the law you will be practicing hasn't even been invented yet." That same approach is what Gearan believes makes a liberal arts education invaluable ‹ especially in the 21st Century when a global economy, multicultural society and quick pace of change will be the norm. "Being a well-rounded 21st Century citizen who can write well and reason quantitatively will serve one well in a fast-changing society," he says.

Gearan also notes that specialization is not necessarily an advantage in a world where the average worker changes jobs seven times before the age of 35. "Having a deep background to approach that type of change will distinguish people," he says.

Keeping in touch

A condition of Gearan's appointment allows him to teach, which he did in Washington, D.C. on a limited basis as part of the Washington semester program run by American University. Already, he has guest lectured at HWS on AIDS policy and Plato, and has plans for an upcoming class on political parties. He's hopeful that next year he can team-teach a political science course.

Guest teaching is just another opportunity for him to keep in touch with students, who he believes get a bad rap today as "slackers."

During his four years directing the Peace Corps, Gearan visited scores of colleges for recruiting trips or speaking engagements. He was impressed by young people's interest in the world around them, and thinks pundits have difficulty acknowledging today's activism because it's not as "high-octane' as it was during the 1960s ‹ when the Vietnam War and other overriding issues brought people out into the streets.

"It's all bunk," Gearan says of the slacker label. "I think what you see is great interest. It gives me great hope for our country."

To help dispel that misrepresentation, Gearan says he's interested in working with other college presidents to profile students so that the public will understand the activism that exists on campus.

That desire is characteristic of Gearan's can-do attitude. Although he says he can delegate, he considers his management style "hands-on," and explains that he is "willing and anxious to roll up my sleeves and dig in when appropriate."

He prefers a consultative approach to problem solving, and thrives on the discussion that results from bringing a bunch of smart people together in one room.

Gearan says he won't shy away from the prerequisite task of building the colleges' endowment. Hersh oversaw the most successful fund-raising campaign ever for the colleges, raising $102 million over five years and tripling the institutions' endowment. As part of that campaign, the colleges have seen a flurry of construction activity with a new biology/chemistry building, women's athletic facilities and library.

"I'm very grateful to [Hersh] because of how he left this place," Gearan says. "It's one of the best times to be at Hobart and William Smith because of all that precedes us.' The challenge now, he says, is seizing the momentum and capitalizing on it. He understands that like any modern-day college president, he must have the advocacy skills to build resources so the institution can realize its mission. "I undertake that job with a full understanding and excitement," he says. What makes raising money easier, he notes, is that he believes in what he's selling, and that for many potential donors Hobart and William Smith was a central experience in their lives. "It's stating the case," he says.

Election forum

Gearan's political connections were widely reported this past summer as he arrived on campus. When President Clinton and his family vacationed on nearby Skaneateles Lake, Gearan sat in on the President's weekly radio address at a Skaneateles elementary school and gave the First Family a collection of Hobart and William Smith hats and sweatshirts. Gearan and his wife, Mary, also dined with the Clintons one evening.

Should Hillary Clinton run for the Senate as expected, Gearan says, he would not campaign for her, although in the next breath he adds that people have no misconceptions about where his political loyalties lie. But he's very interested in inviting Hillary, or perhaps presidential candidate Al Gore, to speak on campus.

"I would like to be working on that as the months go on," says Gearan, who points out that such an event would not only be valuable for students and faculty, it would also give the candidates a window on the younger generation's concerns.

"I think [a candidates' forum] would be very exciting, and that's what I think a college community should be all about," Gearan says. Such a forum would also give Gearan a taste of the life he left behind. He jokes about how now he doesn't have to endure road rage, or a long commute, when he walks across the quad to his office each day.

Gearan also mentions that thanks to computers, he can still read the Washington Post every day and keep in touch with Beltway folks through email. "I don't know what the transition would be like without those things," said Gearan, who says he's familiar with small city life. He grew up in Gardner, Massachusetts, a city north of Worcester that is similar in climate and size to Geneva, with its population of 14,000.

Gearan considers living in Geneva, and in particular on a college campus, a real plus for raising a family. He and his wife have two daughters: Madeleine is a first-grader in Geneva public schools and Kathleen is a toddler. He laughs as he says the president's house has taken on a bit of a different look, with its baby gates, and sandbox and swing set in the backyard.

Madeleine, he says, already loves the college students. She got to tie-dye her own T-shirt during orientation activities and met the women's field hockey team when they stopped by the house to welcome the Gearans to campus. The family has easy access to the advantages of campus life, Gearan says, be it a dance recital or athletic events.

"The personal transition has been a very kind and gracious one," he says. "People have been warm and welcoming." Gearan brought his family along to a recent outing at Chi Phi fraternity, where they shared a meal of ziti and chicken with "the brothers."

Two Chi Phi members say they were impressed with Gearans' sincerity and his easy manner in interacting with students. "He didn't come with an air of pomp and circumstance; he was really nice and laid-back," says Peter Brown, a junior from Buffalo. Both Brown and fellow fraternity brother Ethan Samson say it's still too early in Gearan's tenure to know what kind of president he'll be, but to them Gearan seems very willing to get involved.

"I think he's much more student-friendly than I've experienced here," said Samson, a senior from Colorado. He was especially impressed that Gearan commended the fraternity for its service work, specifically for a pumpkin carving party members hold for area elementary school students. "That was nice for us," Samson says, "because a lot of times from the administration fraternities don't get a lot of support."

For Brown, the fraternity dinner wasn't the first time he met the new president. While Brown was walking on campus one day, Gearan said hello and introduced himself. When a letter profiling the four presidential finalists was mailed to students last spring, both Brown and Samson recalled being most impressed with Gearan because of his international experience obtained through the Peace Corps. Now that he's here, they agree he's a good fit for the colleges and are hopeful he'll give the campus greater exposure. "We need someone who's going to bring a greater awareness," Brown says.

Gearan will formally be installed as the 26th president of Hobart College and the 15th president of William Smith College this Friday, October 22. Beyond its celebratory aspects, he sees the event as an opportunity to mark a transition and reflect on what's happening at Hobart and William Smith.

To symbolize his and the colleges' focus on internationalism and public service, the ceremony will feature students carrying up to 50 flags from countries that are home to foreign students, or places where the colleges have study-abroad programs.

The weekend's festivities will also include a community service project on Sunday, when students will go out in groups to rake the leaves of elderly city residents or others who might need help clearing their lawns before winter.

While he's looking forward to the inauguration celebration, Gearan saves most of his enthusiasm for his new job. He says being Peace Corps director was "the best job in Washington," but this opportunity equals it. "My job is fascinating," he says. "It's a privilege to be here."

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Story Source: Ithica Times

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