It is with delight that the greater Chestertown community welcomes Sheila Bair as the 28th president of Washington College. It must come as a tremendous relief that the last remaining glass ceiling has been broken with the appointment of Ms. Bair as the first woman to hold that position in 233 years. To be able to do so with someone as qualified and dynamic as Ms. Bair speaks volumes for the quality of the institution as it does her faith in WC’s historic mission and purpose.
As a student of Washington College, the Chestertown Spy, having watched college presidents come and go since the Daniel Gibson era of the 1960s, does have a modest observation worth sharing as President Bair prepares for her inauguration.
To start, it might be helpful to recall a few years back a poll was done of new university and college presidents after their first year in office. The study found that a high percentage of them turned out to really hate their jobs after twelve months. While that might be the experience for many in their first year of employment, regardless of the profession, it can be said that college presidents have a particularly good reason to feel this way.
For the disenchanted, it is sometimes budget issues not known during the hiring process or perhaps the sudden loss of personal privacy. Others experience the kind of fatigue normally reserved only for candidates in retail politics. And all of them seem to combat the very high, and often times unrealistic, demands of trustees, major donors, prickly faculty, and marginalized alumni. This all happens at the same time the students (and their parents) press to see more value-added results for their six-figure four-year investment. Even with a high salary and sense of professional accomplishment, those college presidents were pretty unhappy campers.
It’s hard to blame them. The stakes have become so high in higher education, even for small, rural liberal arts colleges like Washington College, that it is hard for a new college president not to feel like T.S. Eliot’s poor character Prufrock who was on track to become a “predestined failure,” as a scholar of Eliot’s work once suggested, with no roadmap to navigate these treacherous and sometimes unforgiving waters.
Of course, these men and women would have our unending sympathy if it were not the case that throughout history, at least for Washington College, there has never been a roadmap for college presidents. And it has been our observation that those who genuinely enjoy the task of setting a new, uncharted course for this institution are the ones who love their jobs the most.
From Smith to Douglass Cater, Cain to Johnny Toll, these individuals saw their tenure as a great cause rather than an assignment – they knew where they wanted to take this school. They could withstand the pettiness and folly that comes with all institutions because they saw a bigger picture in front of them. That sense of direction not only acted as a force shield against the daily irritations of leadership but created for themselves a zone of fulfillment and usefulness that results in their own personal happiness.
This phenomenon is not new and does have a name. As defined by the writer Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, it is those that have found the “flow” in their work, and thereby are “fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.”
And part of the trick for a Washington College president is to know how this must be found locally. The intertwined relationship braiding the college, the community, and the river together yields the greatest gifts when seen collectively as the source of that flow. And by grasping the power of the region’s three greatest virtues, and the importance they play in the education of a student creates sense of pride and purpose for all.
And that zone is available for all who seek it. We wish President Bair grand tidings and heroic stamina to do so.