President Sarah Bolton has begun her official tenure as Whitman’s 15th president. Bolton arrived in Walla Walla in the middle of July and assumed the mantle of presidency with the start of the fall 2022 semester.
In an interview with The Wire, Bolton shared her assessment of Whitman and her priorities for the upcoming year. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
The Wire: What do you think makes Whitman a successful college?
Sarah Bolton: The college is very successful in providing academic experiences for students. Faculty and students can work really well together. Students are fantastic, really thoughtful, really brilliant and very interested in making good things happen both here at the college and with their lives. The campus community is also very genuinely invested in one another. I see it in students, and I see it in staff and faculty as a whole. Whitman has a true community of learners who are proud of being a caring community — not by accident, but intentionally.
The Wire: What has been your greatest challenge so far?
Bolton: I think so far, my greatest challenge has just been being new and not yet knowing people. To do a really good job as president you need to have the big picture, but you also need to have a really granular sense of, oh, here’s a pain point, oh, here’s a spot that’s not working so well. It’s going to take a while, but the most important thing is getting to know the place and getting to know what’s most important to folks.
The Wire: What are your current goals as president?
Bolton: This year for me is really a planning year to try and figure out the most important things for us to set forward. The college has a long-term plan that was built around 2018, which was focused on a few key strategic priorities that I plan on continuing. Those include improving access and affordability, connecting with alumni after Whitman, diversity, equity and inclusion principles (DEI) and celebrating and engaging with our location. There’s clearly work that we need to do in all of those dimensions. I’ve had a lot of conversations with students just in the past couple of weeks about wellness and health, about community and connection and about building an inclusive place where everyone is welcome. We’ll be updating those priorities over the course of the year and working with students to hear their thoughts.
The Wire: Are there any projects you are working on right now?
Bolton: Vice President [of Diversity and Inclusion] John Johnson has been working on a plan where, this year, every department will put together their own plan to advance inclusive excellence through the lens of DEI under his leadership and guidance. It helps make sure we’re all moving forward and that everybody has something concrete that they’re enacting to strengthen the DEI of the college. You can’t be a great place without being a diverse, equitable and inclusive place.
The Wire: How are you feeling about COVID-19 at Whitman?
Bolton: I think there’s a sense that things are going pretty well on campus, so that’s promising. We have access to high quality masks, vaccines and treatments that will change the way we deal with COVID-19. We want to make sure students are safe all the time. What it takes to do that successfully is going to vary with seasons and with how high COVID-19 prevalence is in the community, but we have the tools. We are able to adapt. I think it’s going to be a wave we just have to ride together.
The Wire: What is the most important thing you want to emphasize to students?
Bolton: I’m really glad to hear from students. Don’t hesitate to reach out. I just really want to encourage folks to let me know if there’s something they want me to hear about or want me to see, or if there’s a conversation they’d like me to be a part of. I’m happy to participate if there’s anything folks would like to do together.