Ruth-Starr-Rose

Editorial: The Importance of Ruth Starr Rose

Some thirty-five years ago, the stepson of a deceased local artist stepped into the Chestertown studio of art conservationist Ken Milton with the idea that Ken may have some interest in his mother’s work. Ken agreed to look at the art, and a few weeks later, Ken and Dick Rose met at Rose’s Colchester home to look at Ruth Starr Rose’s portfolio.

Remarkably, the artwork was not protected inside steel cabinets, or even carefully stored in an attic, but instead on Rose’s back porch. It was quite apparent that the paintings had been exposed to the elements for many years, but as Ken began pulling the art into the daylight, it didn’t take him long to realize he had come across something quite amazing.

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Ruth Starr Rose

One by one, images of beautifully dressed children, handsome men in suits, pretty women in dresses, all African-Americans, started to emerge while Dick Rose slowly recalled his mother’s love for her neighbors in Unionville, who had become Ruth Starr Rose’s subjects for most of her career.

Over the next three decades, Milton would painstakingly repair and restore a significant number of her work, but it wasn’t until art historian Barbara Paca noticed one of them in his studio a few years ago that a unique partnership formed to find and protect Ruth Starr Rose’s work and the legacy of the families of Unionville and Copperville.

The cumulative effect of that hard work has finally emerged, and starting Friday, through the generosity and vision of the Dock Street Foundation, it will be on display at the Waterfowl Building for the next seven weeks. It might be the most important art exhibition ever to be shown on the Eastern Shore.

That may be in part due to Ruth Starr Rose’s skill as an artist. Trained at the Maryland Institute College of Art in the early 20th century, Rose quickly adopted a form of portraiture that demonstrated superior ability. But to place emphasis exclusively on the artist’s mastery would tragically misunderstand why Ruth Starr Rose’s art is so relevant. As competent an artist as she was, it was her subject matter that makes this exhibition the powerhouse that it is.

When she moved to Talbot County after her marriage, Rose rejected the temptation to continue her artwork with drawings of the Chesapeake Bay landscape or waterfowl in flight, and instead chose to concentrate on human portraits. But rather than work on traditional subjects of the times, like wealthy estate owners and their children, Rose instead was drawn into the community and its church that lay just outside her door.

And it is this cumulative impact of art, community, and spirituality that Rose brought to her portraits of African-Americans that makes this so invaluable to the Eastern Shore and its history. At a time when racial tensions still remain high, Rose’s work brings into focus a different kind of world of beauty, pride, and humanity.

From documenting families to finding visual imagery for traditional spirituals, Rose depicted the quiet dignity and historical relevance of Unionville and its residents in ways rarely seen. It was through this artist’s eye that one is reminded of the real Eastern Shore, and its African-American communities of strong families, local heroes, and breathtaking history.

Over the next few days, the Spy will be sharing some of that history with its readers to entice many on the Shore to make the trip to Easton to see Ruth Starr Rose: Revelations of African American Life in Maryland and the World. This once in a lifetime event not only brings to life a part of the Eastern Shore too often ignored or misunderstood. but it will remind us again of what a special place it truly is.

Ruth Starr Rose: Revelations of African American Life in Maryland and the World
April 30 to June 16
The Waterfowl Building
40 South Harrison Street
Easton, Maryland

Editorial: Talbot County’s other Food Hub

If residents have heard anything about a food hub lately in Talbot County, it is more than likely they are thinking about the rather ingenious idea of providing local, small acreage farmers with a distribution center to jointly sell their produce competitively to national wholesalers.

While it seems reasonable that this form of cooperative commerce should be entitled the title of the Talbot County “Food Hub,” it might be best to come up with an imaginative term for Talbot’s other food hub – that being its restaurants, cafes, coffee houses, specialty shops, farmers markets, and high-quality grocery stores.

And food hub means that every day of the year, a certain percentage of the fine people of Kent, Queen Anne’s, Caroline and Dorchester Counties, decide to get in their cars for the 30 to 50-minute ride to Talbot County for its surprisingly large and diverse food scene.

From picking up fresh produce, grabbing some sushi, or finding a venue for such important celebratory moments as anniversaries and milestone birthdays, the surrounding Mid-Shore counts on Talbot County to play that role.

When one pauses to ponder how far Talbot has grown since the days when the Rustic Inn in the Talbottown Shopping Center was the bee’s knees, with its generous supply of mini bread loafs and unlimited butter, it is a stunning example of what a food revolution actually means.

There are more than a few local heroes to thank for this remarkable turn of events. Early pioneer Amy Haines at Out of the Fire immediately comes to mind, as do the excellent team that brought us the Railway Market in the late 1970s. But the list is long, including the likes of the innovative Masthead in Oxford in the 1980s, the Inn at Perry Cabin in St. Michaels in the 1990s, or the opening of Scossa on Washington Street.

And this tradition is continuing in the 2000s with the likes of a Bartlett Pear, Rise-Up Coffee, Lyon Distilling Company, Gina’s, and more recently the charming addition of Sunflowers and Greens on Federal Street, the return of the sports bar with The Barn in Easton, or Trappe’s new hip BBQ Smokehouse.

There are certainly still some remaining gaps in the Talbot County portfolio. We still are lacking a serious bread company, Thai or Indian options don’t exist, we don’t have a food truck culture yet, and we lack an organization committed to significantly expand local produce in our community schools and food-assistance programs.

However, none of these seem outside the world of possibility as Talbot grows in reputation as the Eastern Shore’s best incubator climate for food entrepreneurs of all kinds.

All of this adds up to a remarkable moment in Talbot County’s economic history. It is this kind of regional food hub that not only allows locals to enjoy high-quality food experiences but provides an incredibly important incentive for families to come to Talbot for dining, but to coordinate those trips to take care of many of their other needs, be it from big box chains, the boutique stores on Goldsborough Street, or health and legal services. The aggregate impact of this kind of traffic is a really, really big deal now and in the future.

One simple way to show appropriation of our foodie leaders is, of course, through patronage. In short,we should all buy and eat their food. And there is no better time to start doing that with the launch Sunday of Talbot County’s annual Restaurant Week.

Participating restaurants also feature special prices and menus throughout the week. Two-course lunches will be available for $20.16 while three-course dinners are priced at $35.16.

And perhaps before every dinner starts this the week, we might also remember in a secular way the true meaning of the traditional Grace of “bless this food to our use and us to thy service, and make us ever mindful of the needs of others.”

Now let the meals begin.

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Editorial: Talbot Boys Next Steps

After six months of debate, history lessons, editorials, and public comment, the Talbot County Council last week made the unanimous decision to keep the Confederate Veterans Memorial, a.k.a. The Talbot Boys, on the County Courthouse lawn. It was the right decision.

It was also the right decision to ask the Talbot County community to raise funds for a similar memorial for those who served in the Union army. This need for parity is long overdue.

There were still however quite a few questions left unanswered. Who or whom would lead this effort? What organization(s) should take responsibility?  What would be the budget and on what timetable?

It is not the Talbot County Council’s job to provide those answers. They have completed their work with serious intention and input, and it now falls on our community to do their part.

And there is little doubt that the citizens of Talbot County will step up and lead this project. It can only be hoped that this will be done sooner rather than later.

More importantly, it would be a very sad lost opportunity indeed if yet another monument was erected with just names and no context to help the visitor understand the Civil War’s impact on Talbot County and its people. In short, it is hoped that with this new monument comes space for signage devoted to telling that complex story to truly appreciate the honor given to those that served.

Editorial: Look for Answers not Blame In Aftermath of Jacob Marberger’s Death

The only good news that might come out of the profoundly tragic news of WC student Jacob Marberger’s suicide this weekend is that more information will come to the surface which could prevent these sad circumstances from being repeated in the future.

Like any tragedy of this proportion, the response individually and institutionally should always be, “What could have been done to prevent this from happening?” But in Jacob’s case, this takes on a special meaning given the multitude of people, departments, and social organizations who had contact with this young man in the weeks leading to his dramatic downward spiral.

Even with the little we know, it is clear that bullying, alcohol abuse, and zero tolerance policies might have played a role in Jacob Marberger’s swing from a fully engaged campus leader to an isolated and despondent outsider. Given that this transition seemingly happened only within a matter of weeks, there is much to process here.

It seems inconceivable that Washington College will not take this self-examination very seriously. While the immediate disappearance of Jacob posed an important test for college leadership, it will now be how well the school responds in the aftermath of his suicide that will determine any long-term harm to reputation or mission.

But beyond the institutional response, one can only hope that the students who had contact with Jacob will also undertake a form of self-examination. Was there enough tolerance, enough listening, enough empathy or were there quick rushes to judge and stigmatize? Those kinds of painful questions must be considered as part of any successful healing process.

The danger in this is the impulse to play a blame game rather than participate in a learning experience. Only one person decided to end Jacob’s life, and that person was Jacob himself. The eagerness to point fingers might be predictable, but it is a wasteful exercise that needs to yield quickly to a more thoughtful analysis for both the school and all who knew him.

As Carl Jung pointed out years ago, “Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses.” For Jacob’s sake, let that not happen here.

Editorial: The Community’s Talbot Boys

As the Spy has noted before, it was inevitable that after the tragedy of Charleston and the banning of the rebel battle flag from the South Carolina statehouse grounds earlier this year, every municipality in the United States was going to take a second look at how it honors the veterans of the Confederacy. And Talbot County has not been the exception here. The 100-year-old “Talbot Boys” Memorial, which gives tribute to those who fought for the South, was an extraordinarily good candidate for this kind of scrutiny.

And scrutiny has indeed been the case. The local chapter of the NAACP has formally asked for its removal, the Star-Democrat has advocated a similar position while the Talbot County Council has had at least one open meeting on the subject. In addition, the Talbot Association of Clergy and Laity has scheduled a four-month program of events, workshops, and social gatherings built on the theme of race awareness to continue the conversation as well.

Let there be no doubt how constructive this kind of community dialog is for all who live on the Mid-Shore. While it is surprising it took a century to have a regional discussion about the appropriateness of the Talbot Boys Memorial as it stands now, this prolonged examination of the past provides an extremely useful, and perhaps even healing history lesson for all who choose to participate. Painful as such subjects are like slavery and racism, they are nonetheless collectively the elephant in the room that needs to be addressed often and with great care.

The fact that the Talbot Boys has been the catalyst for all this activity testifies to the powerful symbolism monuments have, consciously or unconsciously, in our society. While many times lost in the daily lives on those who pass these statues, they still convey the importance of history, particularly when located on the sacred grounds of a courthouse of justice.

Screen Shot 2015-08-18 at 10.01.26 AMIn the case of the Talbot Boys, the symbolism seems at first rather clear. With large initials spelling C.S.A. to indicate the Confederate States of America, the memorial lists the scores of local men who lost their lives fighting for the South. With no mention of the similar number of Talbot’s Union soldiers who were also killed, the statue welcomes the impression that Talbot County’s pride has only been reserved for the boys in gray. And by extension, this one-sided tribute could logically be seen as not only honoring the South’s veterans, but to also mourn subtly the death of the Confederate cause itself.

While there could be a legitimate debate on what that “cause” was, for the vast number of Americans living today, many of whom rely exclusively on Hollywood as their primary source for history, the only motive for the South’s secession was to preserve the institution of slavery and racism in our laws. And this consensus of opinion has enough facts behind it that any effort to formally highlight that “cause” can only be seen for many, and particularly African-Americans, only as repugnant reminder of the evil that slavery has caused humanity. It seems reasonable therefore that all of these potent symbols  should be eradicated from the public’s property.

But if only it were as simple as that. Real history inconveniently reminds us often that with the Civil War very few things were black or white or blue or gray. As our interview with local historian Russell Dashiell last week highlighted, there was perhaps no other region in the country, nor Maryland for that matter, who was more evenly divided between secessionists and unionists than the Eastern Shore. As Dashiell points out, newspapers and local elections show almost a clean 50-50 split during the lead up to the Civil War.

Adding to the complexity was the frequently seen paradox of local slave owners, or their sons, enlisting with the Union while known anti-slavery advocates felt compelled to serve in the Confederacy to support state rights. Similarly, local newspapers echoed this strange dichotomy with editorials supporting the South’s right to leave the country while being on record as abhorring slavery; others wanted Maryland to continue as a slave state but remain in the Union. In short, the Eastern Shore was profoundly conflicted on both the cause and purpose of the war.

Keeping in mind that the majority of those who held those debates were rarely candidates for military service themselves. The call for enlistment targeted teenagers and young men of Talbot County to join both sides of the war. And in the keeping with the local values of duty, loyalty, and family tradition, most of those boys had no choice in determining on which side they would serve. In the isolated world of a rural Eastern Shore town in 1861, their allegiance had been conditioned and sealed decades before they were even born.

Those Talbot boys marched into battle for the simple reason that they loved their family and their community. To attribute any other motivation would be exceedingly difficult and unconvincing. For every man that had the critical thinking skills to debate the moral or political pros and cons of a war, there were twenty to thirty illiterate and poor farm boys only doing what was expected of them.

And in that sense, those boys do need to be honored by our community. They possessed an unconditional sense of responsibility and courage that should stand out as something worthy of special acknowledgment in Talbot County. Those values were important then, and they are important now. To honor those who possessed that sense of duty, regardless of the tragically flawed thinking of their elders, is the right thing to do on the courthouse lawn.

But the same holds true for the Union’s Talbot boys. Those qualities of bravery and loyalty were equally present with those in blue uniforms. Their noticeable absence from the lawn cannot be compensated by the presence of Frederick Douglass nor any other leader of the Civil War era. Those young people had their own names and their own families. They deserve the same honor of public acknowledgment, not because of the righteousness of a cause, but because they were our community’s boys.

They were all Talbot County boys.

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Editorial: The Mid-Shore’s Future Healthcare

As is the case with all small communities, words (fact or fiction) travel fast when it comes to a potential threat to nearby hospitals and medical centers. A perception of not having ready access to primary health services is troubling and stressful for many, and particularly those of retirement age. So, it wasn’t surprising to witness rumors fly from Dorchester County to Kent County on the future of the University of Maryland’s Regional Shore Health as the institution enters the final planning stage of its long-term strategic reorganization.

The issues related to the allocation of health services in rural regions is not a new one, but that doesn’t mitigate the fact that these kinds of debates strike at the very core of one’s sense of quality of life and security. As older people face the balance of their lives intertwined with ongoing medical needs, service locations and who their providers are, are not of secondary importance. Indeed, it is this kind of critical information people weigh when deciding where to retire.

With that in mind, it is understandable that even the mention of losing health services activates an instinctive response on the part of many to resist that perceived change. In a community like Chestertown, which had already lost a maternity ward to downsizing three years ago, there also had been a collective perception that what remained of services at the Chester River Health Center would be preserved. The news that this may not be the case has predictably set into motion a climate of anxiety and apprehension.

The good news is that the Regional Shore Health’s CEO Ken Kozel quickly responded to these heightened concerns and made clear this week that no final decisions had been made on how the health care organization would be reallocating services throughout its five-county market. By all accounts, including our own conversations with board trustees and staff, that statement rings true as the organization’s leaders wait for the final report from consultants and their own internal committee tasked in making recommendations to the Regional Shore Health’s governing board.

The bad news is that the hard work has just begun for Regional Shore Health’s leadership. Over the next several months, those leaders will not only determine plans based on the committee’s findings but also evaluate the tangible and intangible community health, social and economic impacts of those plans. It is hard to imagine a more challenging place for nonprofit leaders to find themselves in than at the center of what will be a very complex and difficult decision process.

In the midst of these kinds of circumstances the only adequate response for the Spy* is to provide the same kind of in-depth coverage we have applied to other regional concerns of this magnitude, including our recent work on the Conowingo Dam. Over the next few months, we plan to share with our readers a full portfolio of material and stakeholder interviews to provide the kind of information needed for any individual to make an intelligent assessment on Regional Shore Health’s options and final decisions.

The Spy believes that real public education is best served when everyone has access to the best information. That will be our job over the next few months.

* Full disclosure: The UM Regional Shore Health Foundation sponsors, in part, the Spy’s ongoing news coverage of health and addiction recovery issues on the Mid-Shore.

Editorial: Larry Hogan’s PMT and the Chesapeake Bay

As Maryland’s General Assembly winds up its work for 2015, it is still way too early to assess Governor Larry Hogan’s overall environmental record, but it can be said that it is turning out to be something quite different from what many had predicted during the 2014 election.

During the campaign Larry Hogan was painted, quite effectively it seems, as someone who would pull many of the conservation initiatives and policies enacted during the Martin O’Malley administration. Hogan was cast as one who would be a careless steward of the Chesapeake Bay and a friend of big agriculture.

And nowhere was this more in evidence than the fate of the phosphorus management tool (PMT), Maryland’s template to have farmers reduce their use of phosphorus and limit how much manure could be used for their fields.

Many conservation organizations had good cause for concern. Hogan repeatedly vowed that he would put a freeze on the PMT rollout. The idea of railroading these hard-won policy changes, some of them taking up to eight years of planning to implement, gave rise to profound pessimism within the conservation ranks.

And yet even with a full court press on Hogan’s environmental positions, the Maryland voter didn’t seem to share the same level of worry when they elected him governor in November. Nonetheless, there remained grave concerns that the change of administrations would delay, or even eliminate, the implementation of an essential strategy to reduce nitrogen and phosphate contaminants in the Bay.

Not so surprising was the heightened anxiety after Hogan took office. The new governor, as promised, quickly imposed a moratorium on the PMT. And, just as predictably, Maryland’s environmental organizations quickly responded with attacks on Hogan and his commitment to clean up the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) announced that, “Governor Hogan’s decision has hurt the rivers and streams on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.” The Clean Agriculture Coalition suggested that Hogan had “turned his back on clean water and sound science.”

Typically, the story ends there. The new governor would keep the PMT in the “policy review” freezer while conservation organizations would continue to cry foul through the media.

But the story did not end there. Within days of fulfilling his campaign obligation to put the PMT policy on review, Hogan not only immediately gathered his own policy makers to create a new plan, he invited the same organizations that had been highly critical of him to help determine its outcome.

This turn of events came as a surprise to most Chesapeake Bay stakeholders. Not only was Hogan not suffering from “willful ignorance” on the condition of the Bay, and the root causes of its pollution, he purposely sought out the opposition to resolve the issue.

Within two months, Hogan had reached agreement that a new PMT would move forward with four primary changes from the original plan:

1) Ensure adequate time for farmers to fully understand and plan for new requirements, shifting the seven-year implementation of the PMT one year later, effective 2016, with full implementation in 2022.

2) Assure agricultural producers that critical elements are available for implementation, including: markets to relocate additional amounts of manure; adequate infrastructure to handle and transport manure; and alternative uses and new technologies to begin to provide new outlets and markets for animal manures.

3) Enact a ban of additional phosphorus on soils highest in phosphorus. Fields with a soil Fertility Index Value (FIV) of 500 or greater will be banned from receiving additional phosphorus until the PMT is fully implemented.

4) Provide comprehensive information on soil phosphorus conditions statewide. Soil test phosphorus data will be collected for all farms in Maryland.This data will provide the Maryland Department of Agriculture with accurate soil fertility rates to monitor phosphorus levels and help identify potential areas to redistribute newly available manure.

Nothing earth-shattering can be detected in those modifications, and yet as a result, a real consensus was built with all interested parties to allow the implementation of the PMT to move forward.

To the credit of those participants, these organizations came out of these negotiations with high praise for Larry Hogan. CBF quickly issued a statement noting that “these revised regulations represent progress toward reducing pollution from agriculture — which we absolutely must do to protect the Chesapeake Bay and local waterways, as well as public health… We thank the Hogan Administration for listening to our concerns and trying to address them.”

Rarely do debates on the environment and bay restoration turn out happily these days.  When it does, it not only removes the toxicity and finger pointing that comes with differing views, but sets the stage for further progress down the road.  If Governor Hogan can continue this kind of leadership during his full term as governor, bipartisan support to restore the Chesapeake Bay can become a reality again.

Editorial: Acts of Forgiveness and Bishop Cook

While the entire Episcopal Church community remains profoundly shocked over Bishop Suffragan Heather Cook’s arrest last week for manslaughter after she struck and killed cyclist Thomas Palermo, Mid-Shore Anglicans are surely feeling even more acute agony since Rev. Cook had served with the Diocese of Easton before her historic appointment as Maryland’s first woman Episcopal bishop in May of 2014.

News reports indicate that the 58-year-old Cook was driving intoxicated in the Roland Park section of Baltimore on December 27 when her car hit Mr. Palerno’s bicycle from the rear. She was texting at the time of the accident. The impact caused the cyclist to be thrown directly into the windshield of Cook’s automobile before landing curbside on Roland Avenue. As confirmed by police records, Rev. Cook left the mortally wounded victim and drove instead to her home. She returned to the scene twenty minutes later.

Sadly for all, this was not the first time Rev. Cook was involved with drunk driving. In 2010, she had been arrested for driving under the influence on the Eastern Shore, when Maryland State Police found her driving with an empty bottle of liquor, several wine bottles, and two bags of marijuana in her car.

The consequences of that particular violation were remarkably modest. Rev. Cook was ordered by the court to pay a fine of $300 and received probation before judgment on the DUI charge, therefore avoiding the offense recorded in her driving record. The same kind of discretion was shown more recently by the church leadership electing not to reveal her past to the clerics and lay delegates who elected her to the post of bishop.

The motivation for both the legal system and the Episcopal Church in this case was to allow Rev. Cook the proverbial second chance. These were, in many ways, acts of institutional forgiveness which aligned closely to the values of justice and religious creeds. But should not the courts and church match these acts of compassion with common sense, non-punitive support to help Ms. Cook, and others like her, with this lifelong affliction?

Is it not reasonable in this era of enlightenment about the biological causation of this devastating disease to expect government and religion to proactively assist someone like Heather Cook in her recovery by keeping her history open and accessible? If Rev. Cook had a history of epileptic seizures, heart issues, or any other condition that could unexpectedly impact one’s ability to drive a car or cognitively function, would those same institutions not take protective measures to ensure her health and the public’s safety.

This horrific story is also how the stigma of addiction can lead to deadly consequences. The church, wanting to protect Rev. Cook’s reputation and career advancement, decided that any association with this illness was so damaging — even within an institution known for acknowledging substance addiction as a disease — silence was the only morally right course to take.

Perhaps it takes the needless death of a father of two young children to allow for a rare teachable moment to take place in Maryland. Both institutions must use this tragedy to look carefully at what forgiveness means for victims of this illness and their communities.

Editorial: A Different Kind of Groundbreaking in Easton

Next Friday afternoon at 3PM, the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy plans to break ground on a $5 million restoration and repurposing of the old McCord and Brick Row buildings on South Washington Street in Easton. It might be said that it will be the first important building project of the 21st Century for Talbot County, but not necessarily as a result of saving an important historic asset, nor for the cleverness of an creative urban renewal effort. In this particular case, it will be “function” over “form” that makes the new conservation center unique.

The function in this case is the creation of a physical hub for the region’s multitude of conservation organizations to directly and indirectly collaborate with each other for the very first time. That is, in itself, groundbreaking for the Eastern Shore and needs to be celebrated.

The McCord Building plans to provide affordable office and meeting space for a dozen or more other conservation groups with a focus on the Chesapeake Bay region. And with this new common ground, organizations that have at times not always agreed, let alone collaborated with each other, perhaps even to the detriment of the Bay’s health, there is real hope for more coordinated, sophisticated partnerships to respond to the grave environmental threats the Delmarva faces.

Credit for this great new possibility goes to the ESLC and their partner organizations— the names of which remain confidential— for jointly seeing the wisdom and great potential of cohabitation. It is not an instinctive characteristic for any corporation, profit or nonprofit, to seek out housing arrangements with potential rivals. The partners have also seen the benefit of bringing up to fifty professionals to work, shop and eat in downtown Easton.

But a special shoutout must be given to the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy for taking the financial leadership for the Center. The idea of having a land conservation organization, devoted to saving the Shore’s greatest landscapes, raising over $5 million for a blighted former dry cleaning building, clearly does not sit well with some of their land-loving donors. There were also major bumps in the cost of completing the project as a direct result of previously undetected pockets of chlorine and petroleum-based chemicals in the building. A less courageous organization would have folded based on those findings.

But the ESLC has not caved in, but will literally be digging in on Friday for a brighter future for the Chesapeake Bay. It takes a special group of board members and staff to risk their mission and reputation on such a project. And yet, time and time again, the ESLC has shown that kind of leadership from the day they formed in 1990.

The community can show their appreciation on Friday and also by helping close the gap in funding.

Editorial: Mitchell, We Hardly Knew Ye

At the end of his four year ride, it is sometimes hard to remember that Mitchell Reiss was a college president rather than a management consultant on assignment to Washington College in Chestertown.

It wasn’t that Mitchell Reiss didn’t act like a college president. He cheered lacrosse teams and opened up edgy contemporary art exhibitions at the Kohl. He helped move kids into their dorms, drank beers with alumni, and donned, without hesitation, the school’s slightly flamboyant presidential academic wardrobe.

Perhaps the most notable college-presidency thing he did was to insist on singing Washington College’s horrific alma mater at academic events and demanded it be played on the college phone system when callers were placed on hold. It is not clear if this was a lame effort to recreate a sense of pride at WC, or some kind of terror tactic learned while working with the I.R.A. in Northern Ireland during his time with the Bush Administration.

But only history can judge how well Reiss succeeded with his primary goal—to change the culture of Washington College.

With a mandate from the College’s Visitors and Governors, it was clear that the Reiss years were to be ones of cultural change. While this objective was a reasonable one, tied to the increasingly competitive business nature of higher education in the 21st century, the means to the end can make the difference between a college president and a management consultant.

Perhaps the most famous example of the latter was the short-term career of Timothy Light, a former president of Middlebury College in Vermont. Only a month after taking office, Light started his cultural purge by forcing seventeen administrators from their offices— in full view of their shocked colleagues—into awaiting school buses to be taken to the local gym for termination processing.  While partners at McKinsey and Company might have been impressed by the new CEOs bold tenacity, Middlebury’s board of directors were not, and Light was fired himself within a year.

The counterpoint of the Light example is Washington College’s own John Toll, who, like many of the most successful university and college presidents of an older era, painstakingly plotted over a decade to work with staff and faculty for administrative and academic reforms and higher standards for scholarship. Some would argue that those cultural changes took too long, while others would suggest they didn’t accomplish what needed to be done to prepare WC for the future.

The Reiss response to the challenge seemed to favor the shock and awe model.  Over the course of his four years at Washington College,  Reiss retired, reorganized, or forced resignations from almost every member of the College’s senior management team, including the chief academic officer, chief financial officer, chief development officer, chief enrollment officer, chief technology officer, as well as the student affairs and communications directors.

As shocking as that might be, this tactic has become the norm as colleges start to mimic the for-profit sector. Faced with daunting demands for revenue from student enrollment and fundraising to pay for fancy physical plant improvements, scholarships, and high administrative salaries, the instinctive desire to get “new blood” is a common one.

But the consequences of those decisions are keenly felt. There has been community pain, premature career terminations, personal financial loss, and the creation of a certain toxicity that comes to all institutions where anyone and everyone feels they will be the next head to roll.

Those negative impacts are, in most cases, well anticipated by the change agent. Stakeholders like board members, faculty, donors, students and surviving administrators accept this collateral damage in the belief that a more secure, sustainable future for Washington College will arrive if a president can have his/her own people.

The difference in the Reiss example was his remarkable decision to immediately depart after just building his new management team. It seems that the act of cleaning the deck itself was sufficient enough to suggest that his mission was accomplished, rather than the more traditional benchmarks like a successful fundraising campaign or a higher ranking in US News and World Report’s annual survey.

Apparently this new standard was perfectly acceptable to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation board of directors, who have hired Dr. Reiss as the foundation’s new CEO. But for many in the greater Chestertown community, there remains a moral question of when should a leader leave?  Or, more specifically, for Washington College, “what would George Washington have done?”

The answer to all of this is not known, but there is a real takeaway for many colleges and universities.  And that is that the days of legacy leadership may be coming to an end.  The expectation that an individual can and will be “devoted” to  any institution for a certain percentage of their professional life is becoming an increasingly unrealistic one.

This is partly due to an ever increasing seduction of over the top salaries, but in the end, it suggests a end of a time where the primary calling for a special breed of educators was to leave an indelible stamp on the school they felt honored to lead.

There is a real sadness if this is the new reality. The days of Washington College having those long-term visionaries like John Toll, or Douglass Cater, Dan Gibson, or Gilbert Mead, willing to devote the balance of their working life to serve this special school may indeed be over. And without them, the College could just become another revenue center. With bad theme music.
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