II: Reflecting on Roots

Read Part I of the exclusive Wren’s Nest conversation with President Katherine Rowe here.

Throughout our conversation with President Rowe, we gathered a sense of the keen awareness Rowe has of her personal and professional capacity. “We’re in the business of creating community with each other,” she shared as “always front of mind.” A key ingredient being hospitality. But not the dinner party kind, rather a genuine inclusivity. 

Rowe has an extraordinary gift of recall, and so far, has transitioned well into William & Mary’s community and the deep traditions embedded into its structures. Like Charter Day. What follows is the second part of our conversation with Rowe, detailing the challenges women face as leaders and her upcoming inauguration on February 8th, 2019, as the 28th President of William & Mary.

Women and Play

The University of Washington’s President, Ann Marie Cauce, wrote in a much-read November 2018 Chronicle of Higher Education on leadership that “men are stars while women are hardworking,” spotlighting challenges for female presidents. We asked what challenges Rowe had overcome in her career, including how they impacted her style as a leader. 

In her unflinching and poised manner, Rowe shared how women “are socialized to work hard, and less to play.” This means, she explained, “we are leaving out domains of extraordinarily valuable cognitive, social and physical experience that brings with it tolerance of risk and failure.”

Rowe was quick to note how her own educational experiences – receiving her Ph.D. from Harvard and teaching careers at Yale and Bryn Mawr College – allowed her to integrate play into her work. But not everyone has that luxury. Rowe noted that most female leaders experience “a lower threshold of tolerance for failure or for error.” 

Time spent coaching competitive ultimate frisbee, as well as on-stage work with thespians has instilled the necessity for, and love of, play in Rowe. 

“Propose and tolerate failure; optimize and improve; and collaboratively take joy in risk taking. I would say that’s an asset that I bring. I think that probably most women presidents have that somewhere in their DNA or they wouldn’t be where they are.” Rowe’s presidential DNA, currently under the microscope, has yet to experience failure, but that “joy in collaboration” has been experienced across William & Mary’s campus.

326th Charter Day

President Rowe’s inauguration as the first woman to lead the College of William & Mary is staged for this week. 

“It is absolutely a moment of punctuation…a moment of reflection,” acknowledged Rowe. We wondered how she was internalizing the historic moment, and Rowe responded that “Inauguration is for the campus, and for William & Mary, more than it is for me.”

The importance of the College’s Charter is not lost on Rowe. “We look back to look forward.”

Her expert eyes on historical English prose allow her to pick out apparently mundane statements and expound on their extraordinariness. For instance, the original Royal Charter states, eight times, in all time comingand for all times coming

Rowe exclaimed, “For all time coming! Just thinking about that, the ambition, boldness, contingency that kind of prospective thinking is a powerful invitation right now.” 

The President’s eyes nearly glowed with delight, the kind a researcher has at sifting through her finding. As she dons the storied mantle of leadership, we reflect that same scholarly anticipation for how we will become a stronger, more inclusive community of scholars.

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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: Eric Lusher