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Remarks from W&M's 28th president Katherine Rowe

  • President-elect:
    President-elect:  Katherine Rowe was unanimously elected as William & Mary's 28th president by the Board of Visitors on Feb. 20.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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The following are the prepared remarks of Katherine Rowe, who was unanimously elected as William & Mary’s 28th president by the Board of Visitors today. – Ed.

Good morning. I am deeply honored by the responsibilities that the Board of Visitors has conferred on me today in calling me to serve as William & Mary's 28th president. Thank you so much. The right way to begin any momentous endeavor such as this is to begin with thanks and I am fortunate to have so many to extend today.

To the Rector of the Board, Todd Stottlemyer, and the Board who called me here today, I am grateful for the vision of William & Mary that you have sketched for me over the months. I am grateful for the responsibility that you are charging me with. I take that to heart.

I will care for this institution and I am thrilled to accept the call to serve. Thanks to the Vice Rector, Tom Watkins, and the whole search committee. Those 150 open meetings were generously shared. What you learned in them over the course of this search, I take what you heard to heart and I will keep it to heart over the years to come.

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I’ve also taken to heart this community’s vision of William & Mary’s future. That’s one of the things that I want to talk about today. But I want to start that vision with the person who set that up for me now — President Taylor Reveley and Helen Reveley — and thank them for their incredibly warm welcome to this community, to their home. You have led this institution for 10 years to great prosperity and we will all benefit from that for decades to come. Thank you.

Chancellor Bob Gates, your early counsel, wonderful counsel on leadership was an invaluable resource. It wasn’t the closing I needed. This community was the closing I needed, but I know I will count on that wisdom in the years to come. So many staff at William & Mary worked tirelessly for this celebration and through the search process. You are the unsung heroes that make this institution go and without you, it wouldn’t be thriving.

And to my family, my true support and inspiration, thank you for coming here today. Thank you for bringing me here today. We are thrilled to be joining such a vibrant community of teaching, learning, innovation and research.

As I introduce myself to this community, I want to begin by sharing what has drawn me so strongly to William & Mary. Then I am going to offer some reflections on our past and future at this moment of joyful transition. As I’ve gotten to know William & Mary, I’ve spent a great deal of time exploring what it means to be the quintessential Public Ivy.

That ampersand in our name symbolizes the power to combine qualities that are rarely combined together in higher education today. A liberal arts curriculum integrated with exceptional professional education, an undergraduate college at a world-class university, an authentic culture of scholar-athletes who embrace excellence at the highest level — on the field, on the court, in the classroom and in research. A storied history, a vibrant sense of tradition that also includes a track record of innovation and transformation in public education. And with all this, a deep commitment to access and affordability, which is close to my own heart.

That so many different qualities, rarely found together, are combined at William & Mary is a particular strength now. As we prepare our students to live as citizens and professionals in the 21st century, those lives will require them to be adaptable and resilient to change, to value different modes of being in community and at work.

I feel a deep connection to William & Mary’s unique combination of qualities because I’m something of a hybrid myself — as Todd has shared. As some of you know, I am a Renaissance scholar who is also an entrepreneur. I spent my career teaching and studying the history of the book, the history of the theater, and also experimenting with new ways that technologies emerging today can advance learning and research.

I am a close reader. I’m a classroom teacher and I also relish the systems thinking required for organizational leadership. I am a competitive athlete and coach. My intellectual life and my life as an athlete have been deeply integrated for my whole career. I love to win. And I know that William & Mary loves to win.

But for me, and I believe for this institution, those are always team wins, community wins. I do my best work in collaboration, not solo. I come from a family of educators and entrepreneurs, so I find it easy to make the case why a liberal arts education today is the best preparation for citizens and professionals in a networked world. And why that education should be as widely available as possible to students of all incomes and backgrounds in Virginia, the nation and in the world.

So I’m here today because the more that I have come to know William & Mary, the more I feel I have found my people. And I recognize in this community the unique strengths that meet in unexpected ways. Those meetings, those combinations are going to guarantee our success together in the decades to come.

Now, because I began my career as a Renaissance scholar, studying Shakespeare and his contemporaries, it won’t surprise you to learn that as I was coming to know William & Mary and reflect on our future in the 21st century, I naturally turned to William & Mary’s Charter.

I wanted to seek insights from that charter into how our founders, King William III and Queen Mary II, understood what they were creating an ocean away. Now, I’m familiar with “letters patent,” which were the documents with which a royal couple drafts and authorizes a new institution — and charges its leadership with their duties and responsibilities.

Reading the charter, the first thing I was struck by is how forward-looking it is. It envisions the founding of a “place of universal study.” “Universal study,” by the way, in the Renaissance meant all of the fields of knowledge and creativity for all persons and for the whole person, the whole self.

This charter was written during tremendous political upheaval, religious dissent and rapid colonial expansion. So the idea of achieving anything universal at that moment was every bit as difficult and complicated as it is today. I’m going to come back to that complexity in closing, but I just want to note now that because the moment of founding was one of transformation, the charter is full of language empowering their leadership to use their best judgment in the present time and space in measured planning “as the major part of them shall think fit.” And, importantly, that planning is always for the future. “Our heirs and successors” and “their successors” are those for whom we plan. And we plan toward the ultimate goal of establishing an institution “to continue for all times coming.”

That refrain, “all times coming,” threads through the charter. I hear that refrain as a call. We gather to create an institution grounded in the present time and space and envisioning the future. And I hear that refrain as a charge. We accept the responsibility to sustain that institution through a future that is unpredictable and embraced with hope.

Since those words were written, William & Mary has transformed itself over and over. The university has been a leader in many different aspects of higher education: in founding the first school of law in the United States; in cultivating the education of teachers, the highest calling in a democracy; more recently, in business leadership and in world-class research in the service of the public good.

At William & Mary’s School of Marine Science, as we have seen in other graduate and professional programs in arts and sciences, business and sciences, education and law, we see service to the Commonwealth of Virginia and the nation, to industry and policy makers and service to the public in the generation of new knowledge.

William & Mary’s vibrant undergraduate programs have steadily evolved in ways that define and redefine the liberal arts today. That’s clearly continuing, with exciting explorations of new horizons, such as design and engineering, critical analysis of data, the digital humanities and many more.

So from the deep past since the 17th century, up through bold innovations such as the William & Mary Promise, few other institutions in the United States can claim such a history of successful self-transformation in their service of the liberal arts mission.

My scholarship, and the leadership roles that have brought me to this moment, have been dedicated to the idea that sustained, thoughtful innovation is necessary for advancing the core values of the liberal arts. So I feel a deep connection to William & Mary’s history of intentional, mission-driven transformation. It’s also especially moving to me that I join this community in a year where we are celebrating so many milestones.

In this 325th year we’ll be celebrating the centenary of 1918, when women first enrolled at the university. This is also the 50th anniversary of the first African-American undergraduates in residence at William & Mary. So I want to pause on the importance of this year-long commemoration, on the tremendous value of the opportunity we have now to take an open and honest look at our history and acknowledge the inspiring courage of the three alumnae — Lynn Briley, Janet Brown Strafer and Karen Ely — and those who followed them in beginning the process of fully integrating William & Mary.

These anniversaries are key moments of recognition at William & Mary that a more sustained commitment to the principles of universal study is required to achieve the excellence to which we aspire. So I’m going to give you the three lessons I take from these anniversaries into the year ahead.

The first is that a learning community that is rich in diverse persons, viewpoints, experiences and modes of knowledge-making is the best preparation for citizenship and professional life in a pluralistic democracy. That preparation is what will enable us to successfully navigate complexity during a period of rapid change nationally and globally.

The second lesson is that we will never be done striving to affirm and not cover over our differences, to redress inequity and to seek to make William & Mary a place where students, faculty and staff from diverse backgrounds, income levels and identities participate fully.

The poet, Claudia Rankine, has written powerfully about the work required to sustain what she calls the human “capacity to meet,” to come together in a way that intentionally embraces our differences.

In one of my favorite poems, she uses metaphors of physical force, gravity, the centripetal pull of two bodies toward or away from each other. “These two will survive in their capacity to meet,” she writes, “to hold the other beneath the plummeting, in the depths below each step full of avoidance. What they create will be held up, will resume: the appetite is bigger than joy, indestructible, for never was it independent from who they are, who will be.”

These resonant words bring me to what I see as the third lesson that we can learn from William & Mary’s milestones this year, and you will hear me say this often: Diversity accelerates innovation. When you welcome people from different backgrounds and experiences into any discipline, business, any organization, any community, you generate new kinds of questions. You gather and analyze new kinds of evidence. You practice new business processes. You build new organizational structures, and you cultivate new methods of inquiry.

As your 28th president, as I meet many of you for the first time, I ask for your partnership, the partnership of faculty, staff, students, the Board, alumni, friends in the Commonwealth of Virginia and beyond. With your partnership, my hope is that these two aspirations toward inclusion and toward innovation that advances and preserves William & Mary’s mission of liberal arts for the public good, that these two will be durably linked together now and for the future, as they were imagined to be in our original Charter.

Thank you so much.