I: Cultivating Connection

“I’ve talked to students, the Student Assembly, with the president aides, the wellness ambassadors, recreation sports guides and leaders – it’s been right at the front of mind: How do we do the work? How do we ensure that everybody feels fully welcomed and then can fully participate?” 

President Katherine Rowe, the 28th President of the College of William & Mary and the first woman to lead the College in its 326-year history, spoke with the Wren’s Nest in an exclusive interview in January 2019. 

We have followed her Thinking Forward campaign, and our conversation underscored much of what has made these conversations so rich among students, faculty, staff and the wider community. Her posture as we spoke, relaxed and angled toward us in intent listening, was consistent with her demeanor in a room 200-strong, as it was for her final Thinking Forward town hall forum back in November. 

We were eager to hear President Rowe’s initial insights from the Thinking Forward campaign. “To me, the important questions, pedagogically, are always the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ questions. Not so much the ‘what’ questions. And that how question is really active on this campus. How is community crafted?”

The bulk of our conversation centered around this question Rowe posed: how is community crafted? Our takeaways were stirring and thought-provoking: her eloquence in describing the intentionally-welcoming community of William & Mary; the scholarly authors who anchor her values as a leader; how she is processing her imminent inauguration; and how the power of play inspires entrepreneurial thinking for female leaders. 

We walked away with a glimpse of how President Rowe sees herself, and why she was chosen as the next to lead our community of scholars. 

Creating Community

When asked how one crafts community, Rowe responded with missional conviction, “Creating community is not just an epiphenomenon of the way that we teach and learn, pursue research and work together. It is a core mission.”

This commitment to creating community was a theme in her campus-wide Thinking Forward campaign, called cultivating deep human connections. Her campaign started in fall 2018, shortly after she took office, and has garnered responses from College students, staff, faculty, alumni and the broader Williamsburg community. To date, these responses amount to more than 800 data points from forum respondents, online submissions and social media comments.  Their authenticity, comprehension and synthesis will inform Rowe’s ability to adapt quickly to her new surroundings and provide a foundation for a forthcoming strategic plan.

Rowe assured us that she’s not the only one that has benefitted from these data points. “I didn’t just hear the preoccupations and aspirations of the community, but the community at-large got to hear them as well.” She continued, “People will use phrases like ‘Oh, there’s been administrative or staff bloat,’ and so my question is, ‘Okay, has there been? Let’s find out.’” 

The focused listening portion of the campaign is wrapping up, and Rowe shared that this spring will be “a period of inquiry and investigation to give us the data we need to head into strategic planning by the fall.”  

[If you’d like to share your thoughts for President Rowe, you can do so here.] 

One practical example that has emerged from the campaign is a new learning studio, to be housed after renovations in Swem Library. “I think we should do a listening session on that,” Rowe added. “Here’s a schema, here’s some goals, here’s a vision statement. Let’s bring who’s interested on campus – faculty, staff, students, alums, board members, administrators together – to dig into it for an hour and a half, and reflect back.”

Milton and Arendt

As a Renaissance scholar, Rowe anchors her values – and shared that she had some of her greatest teaching moments – in studying and reckoning John Milton’s 12-book epic, Paradise Lost

“There’s a profound argument about the value of disobedience and error-correcting. So, I think about that a lot. My politics are not his. My religion is not his. But the idea of dissent and conflict are productive if shaped well. And if embraced in partnership with others, a really, really important idea to me.” Rowe talked at great length about her love for the 17th century epic, and how to teach Milton in light of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materialstrilogy, stating “it’s a deeply pleasurable process for me and has been part of my thinking for a long time.” 

She added that Milton’s Paradise Lostwould be the first course she would entertain teaching at William & Mary.

Rowe also mentioned, at several points, how important it is to take the time to deeply engage with your thoughts, issues of importance, and actually thinkabout your actions. To that end, German philosopher and political theorist, Hannah Arendt anchors Rowe’s desire for professional introspection and meaning making. Arendt has had a profound influence on Rowe’s development as both a scholar and leader.

Rowe referenced The Human Condition, commending Arendt’s “reflectiveness as an essential, moral and political practice.” More specifically, something Arendt stated in her seminal work, “very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.”This phrase – think what we are doing– reflects Rowe’s own values as well as educational, societal and political values. 

Rowe mused, leaving us with fodder for our own contemplation, “What is the practice of reflection? What are we doing? How do we do it deliberately? Who is the ‘we’ that has to participate in that? Who do we conjure as our community to do that in? And then, what is the relationship between that and the actions we choose?”

Part 1 of 2. (Next week, Part 2: Reflecting on Roots)

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Johann Ducharme is an Associate Editor with the William & Mary Educational Review, and founding editor of Wren’s Nest. He is currently a Ph.D. student, studying Educational Policy, Planning, and Leadership at William & Mary.

Photo by Stephen Salpukas