Presidential Search Committee Gears Up

Sam Grainger-Shuba

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Illustration by Eddy Vazquez.

By the start of the 2015-2016 school year, Whitman will inaugurate its 14th president. The college is about to begin the search for President George Bridges’s successor with the newly formed search committee.

The presidential search committee pursues potential candidates for the presidency and then provides a recommendation to the Board of Trustees. The Board of Trustees formally hires the new president. The committee is comprised of trustees, faculty, staff and students hoping to find the candidate to best fit Whitman.

The search committee hopes to have a list of candidates by the end of fall semester 2014 and will have a new president-elect for the 2015 spring semester.

Nancy Serrurier and Janice Abraham are co-chairs of the search committee. Serrurier is a Whitman parent, a past trustee of Colgate College and an elected school board president. Abraham is the CEO of United Educators Insurance and was the treasurer of Whitman College from 1989-1997. Board Chair-elect Brad McMurchie ’84, alumnus Billy Way ’80, alumna Sarah Wang ’89, alumnus David Nierenberg and Chair of the Board Peter van Oppen ’74 are also on the committee. Van Oppen was a member of the board that picked out President Bridges in 2004.

“As for the overseers and trustees, I appointed them based on geographic, gender and other broad-based diversity markers,” said van Oppen. “We also wanted people who will be around and in positions of leadership during the new president’s term.”

The 2004 presidential search committee, which invited President Bridges to Whitman, included three faculty, two Overseers, two students and one staff member. Due to confidentiality associated with President Bridges’s departure, as well as a desire to include more members of the faculty in the process, Chair of Faculty David Schmitz will serve as a faculty representative.

In addition, the search committee has been altered to include four faculty members with one overseer, with the student and staff representation remaining unchanged. Sophomores Gladys Gitau and Jack Percival have been appointed student representatives.

According to van Oppen, the Board of Trustees solicited nominations from staff leaders and student leadership to find students who would be young enough to see the fruits of their labor on the committee, as well as having a propensity for leadership and the ability to communicate well with others. 

“I think it’s important that they have student representation so they make sure they’re hitting certain aspects,” said Gitau. “I think it’s important that they get a holistic picture of what the president needs to be.”

Consultant Shelly Weiss Storbeck of Storbeck/Pimental & Associates has been hired to facilitate the search for a new president. This is common practice for most universities going through the presidential hiring process, and Storbeck/Pimental specialize in identifying and recruiting top college leadership, with a list of past presidential search clients which includes Dartmouth, Haverford, Swarthmore, Pomona, Lewis & Clark and Colorado College.

Storbeck declined to interview with The Pioneer, stating that it is against company policy to interview about clients.

“Tomorrow and Friday [April 3 and 4], the search committee will be meeting to synthesize the input that students, faculty and staff have given into what we want the next president to look like,” Percival said. “During the whole process I want to get as much student input as possible, so I’m going off of what students want to see, not what I want to see.”

On April 3, the Search Committee hosted an open forum in Maxey Auditorium for students to share their hopes for what the new president will bring to Whitman. A few students attended, speaking out with what seemed to be one common criterion for the incoming president: inspiration.

Junior transfer student Harrison Wills stated openly that he wanted a college president who would take a bold stance on climate change.

“I think we should talk about ways that we can be a leader in climate change solutions as an institution,” Wills said. “Someone bold enough to say, ‘We’ll be carbon neutral by 2020.'”

Junior and ASWC Finance Chair Tatiana Kaehler stated that she wanted more student input in the tenure allocation process, allowing students to advocate for or against professors seeking permanent positions at the college. She also wanted a president that focused on addressing increasing tuition costs.

“I know that this is a broader issue in the United States,” Kaehler said. “But I think Whitman needs to set a long-term plan in terms of its increasing tuition prices. If it keeps increasing at the rate that it is, then higher education is not something that is going to be available for everyone.”

Following the forum, a survey was sent by email to all members of the Whitman community to gather further input on the college’s strengths, challenges and what should be sought in a new president.

“I think tonight was great and the students got to speak very freely,” Gitau said after the forum. “There were only a few students who came, which was disappointing, but the ones who did were very comfortable about speaking. I think they all articulated themselves very well.”

Candidates will not be identified publicly until the search committee makes a single recommendation to the Board of Trustees.

George Bridges will be retiring from his role as Whitman’s president on June 30, 2015. He has left the new president a college with more tenure tracks for faculty, a number of new offerings for students and an endowment that exceeds $500 million.

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