As Katherine A. Rowe made history at William & Mary today, she vowed to take care of the university while leading it ever forward.
“To be entrusted with the next chapter of an institution so rich in tradition and so exceptional now – this is a trust I embrace with excitement and humility,” she said.
Rowe was sworn in as William & Mary’s 28th president by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam during a July 2 ceremony in the Wren Building. She is the first woman to hold the role at the 325-year-old institution — a university, she said, that has and will continue to shape the character of the nation.
“Our students will, and must, be the intellectual pioneers and moral anchors of our democracy,” Rowe said. “William & Mary is the proving ground they need.”
Dozens of faculty, staff, students, alumni and community members joined Rowe’s family — husband, Bruce, and children, Beah and Danny — for the event, filling the Great Hall to capacity. John E. Littel, who became Rector of W&M’s Board of Visitors July 1, welcomed those gathered for the ceremony along with many more who watched the event as it was streamed live to the Wren Courtyard, W&M website and the W&M Facebook page. He also thanked the presidential search committee members for their work and former President Taylor Reveley and his wife, Helen, for their service to the university over the past two decades.
“You will quickly discover this is truly a family – a very close-knit one, and we are very glad to welcome you to it,” Littel said to Rowe about the William & Mary community.
Northam, who is the parent of a 2010 alumnus, welcomed Rowe on behalf of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
“I know you are going to do a wonderful job and be an advocate for a university that is just a sign of progression, innovation and inclusivity,” he said. “We look forward to wonderful things under your hand, and so we welcome you here.”
After being sworn in by Northam and receiving a standing ovation, Rowe said that she will spend her first three months on the job “listening and learning” from the William & Mary community, a process she has already begun. Relaying an interaction with one professor, Rowe said that his most recent COLL 150 class had developed a tagline for W&M: “Join the tradition. Make history.”
“This five-word message tells us so much about the shared commitments of William & Mary to the past, present, and future: Come join the tradition and let’s make history, together,” she said.
Rowe, who previously served as provost of Smith College, is a literary scholar, entrepreneur and innovator who is engaged in design thinking and the digital humanities. She said that this is an “extremely exciting time” to become the president of W&M as technology has caused sweeping transformations in just about every aspect of modern life.
“How this generation learns to navigate change is going to matter profoundly to our world in the century to come,” she said.
Diversity and inclusion are a significant part of that process, she added, as they accelerate innovation by involving people with a wide range of perspectives.
“I have witnessed firsthand how innovation in new fields and new methodologies opens the door – opens the door to those whose contributions would otherwise have remained latent,” said Rowe. “Embracing our talents this way strengthens the entire community.”
In addition to meeting with students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents and friends of William & Mary, Rowe said another important priority will be building on the university’s recent fundraising success.
“I will be working day and night over next two years to bring our For the Bold campaign to a triumphant close,” she said.
Ann Marie Stock, vice provost for academic and faculty affairs who attended Monday’s ceremony, said that Rowe has values that are embraced at W&M.
“I think she brings a perfect combination of respecting tradition and embracing innovation, and I think we have to look at our past at the same that we’re committed to our future,” said Stock. “Given that we’re in this (capital fundraising) campaign, I would say that we’re committed to boldly moving into the future, and I think she’s the right person to take us there. So I could not be more enthusiastic, more energized, more excited about what’s to come.”
Brendan Boylan '19, president of the W&M Student Assembly, said that the student body is also eager to see where Rowe will take the university.
“I think everyone’s really excited,” he said. “There’s a very potent feeling of change. President Reveley left big shoes to fill, but Dr. Rowe is incredibly smart and is very passionate. In the short time I’ve gotten to know her, I am very excited to work with her and see how she comes into this role.”
Former Student Assembly President Yohance Whitaker ’16 was a member of the search committee that recommended Rowe to the W&M Board of Visitors. The first time he met Rowe, he was struck by how genuine she was — a trait he thinks will make her a phenomenal president at W&M, he said.
“I think she has a laser focus about what has made William & Mary great historically and then also assessing our talents to propel us into the future, particularly with her emphasis on students,” said Whitaker.
“In her remarks, she talked about how students can help us to tap into some of the latent potential we have both as a university but also as a nation. I think that’s absolutely right. Our young alums and current students, they are sounding off a clarion call for us to do better, so I’m certainly looking forward to President Rowe’s vision and how she’ll engage with alums.”
Adam Anthony, executive director of the W&M Washington Center, said that that kind of personal engagement is characteristic of the university and its leadership.
“The fact that we would have such a personal ceremony for swearing-in the president, I think that’s a testament to what we think of our president,” he said. “We don’t think of our president as somebody on a pillar or on the top of a building. William & Mary needs to engage with the president. I was in the crowd with alums who had driven down, students and professors and staff, all crammed together in this building — it’s a symbol of how personal this place is.”
As she makes history at W&M, Rowe hopes that others will see the university as “the obvious choice for anyone who wants to shape their own history.”
A W&M education creates thoughtful, effective citizens who are able to navigate the rapidly changing world, build communities and live fulfilling lives, Rowe said.“As I look to the horizon, I have great confidence in the history they will make.”