W&M names first woman president of 325-year-old university

One hundred years after admitting its first women students, the College of William and Mary has broken new ground: naming its first woman president.

The university announced Tuesday that its Board of Visitors unanimously elected Katherine A. Rowe, provost of Smith College, to serve as the 28th president of the 325-year-old institution. She will begin July 1, earning a base salary of $500,000.

Rowe, 55, will succeed W. Taylor Reveley III, who announced last April his intent to retire when his contract expires June 30. He will have served for more than 10 years as president and 20 years total at the university.

“This is an institution that was founded by a woman as well as a man. It feels right,” Rowe said. “It’s the centenary of the first women enrolled. That’s an incredibly moving thing to know as I step into this leadership role. It’s also the case that the thing that drew me to William and Mary is the institution. It’s this amazing hybrid of qualities that don’t usually come together, and I think that that’s an enormous strength for the institution.

“So I’m honored, honored beyond words to be the first woman president, and more than that, honored to be at an institution that expresses the values that I care about in education and in research.”

As of 2016, 30 percent of college presidents were women, according to the American Council on Education, and about three in four were serving for the first time as presidents.

Rowe’s background is quite different from Reveley’s vast experience in law and running the university’s law school. She described herself as many things: a Renaissance scholar, an athlete, having coached and played ultimate frisbee for years, an entrepreneur and a classroom teacher, among others.

She has served as provost and dean of the faculty at Smith, a women’s college in Massachusetts, since 2014. Before that she spent 16 years at Bryn Mawr College, a women’s college in Pennsylvania, as an English professor, department chair and director of the Katharine Houghtan Hepburn Center for leadership and public engagement.

She also is co-founder and CEO of Luminary Digital Media, which reimagines classic Shakespearean texts with interactive reading apps with the goal to enhance student engagement and learning. She also worked for six years at Yale University as an assistant professor of English.

Rowe has a bachelor’s degree in English and American literature from Carleton College and a master’s and Ph.D. in English and American literature from Harvard University.

At Smith, she leads academic strategy and planning, which includes all academic operations, working closely with the president, cabinet and trustees on strategic priorities. She worked to revitalize the curriculum at Smith, which emphasizes teaching and learning across disciplines, so that students can solve real-world problems in the rapidly changing world, similar to William and Mary’s core curriculum.

Rowe also has served as the college’s interim vice president for inclusion, diversity and equity, chairing the search committee for the permanent holder of that title. During her time there the college hired almost 30 new academic positions, about 45 percent of them people of color.

Her remarks Tuesday morning echoed the two main facets of her work at Smith: innovation and diversity.

“A learning community that is rich in diverse persons, viewpoints, experiences and modes of knowledge-making is the best preparation for citizenship and a professional life in a pluralistic democracy,” Rowe said, “because that preparation is what will enable us successfully to navigate complexity during period of rapid change, nationally and globally. …

“We will never be done striving to affirm and not cover over our differences to address inequity and to seek to make William and Mary a place where students, faculty and staff from diverse backgrounds, income levels and identities participate fully.”

William and Mary enrolls 8,600 undergraduate and graduate students, while Smith has just under 3,000 total students. There are 664 full-time faculty members across William and Mary's undergraduate, graduate and professional programs, and Smith employs 293 professors.

Rowe vowed to keep the university moving forward in efforts Reveley started while finding more directions and ways to grow. Even before he announced his retirement, Rector Todd A. Stottlemyer said, a discussion was had about the best way to seek his replacement. A 19-person search committee was formed once Reveley set his end date, chaired by Vice Rector H. Thomas Watkins III.

Committee members hosted more than 150 listening sessions across the country, hearing from nearly 1,600 people. Hundreds of emails and comments were received through William and Mary’s presidential search website.

That feedback led the committee to focus on five areas: leadership; management; fundraising and financial management; innovation; and diversity and inclusion.

About 300 nominations were considered, which were pared down to 100 applications. That group was whittled to 12 semifinalists then three finalists whom the board interviewed.

“The search committee and Board of Visitors saw in Katherine Rowe throughout the search process a visionary leader deeply rooted in the liberal arts and, very importantly, with critical intersections with technology and research,” Stottlemyer said while introducing Rowe. “Katherine is passionate about the value and relevance of liberal arts. It is at the root of her scholarship and at the heart of every school she has attended, wherever she has worked.”

In addition to Rowe’s $500,000 base salary, she may be eligible, at the board’s discretion, for a bonus payment of up to 15 percent of her salary, or $75,000. Starting Dec. 1, 2019, the university also will make annual $75,000 contributions to a deferred compensation plan.

She will live in university housing, receiving allowances for an automobile and professional and club memberships. Her moving expenses, sick leave and other “standard” benefits are “consistent with the university’s policies and plans,” said spokeswoman Suzanne Seurattan.

After the announcement, Rowe called first on William and Mary students reporting on her selection for the student newspaper, The Flat Hat. They questioned her about her initiatives to increase diversity — she said it’s too soon to lay out concrete plans — and she in return asked what issues they thought needed to be addressed.

She seemed in awe of the moment Tuesday, at times repeating “I’m so thrilled” to no one in particular. She thanked her family, husband Bruce and adult children Daniel and Beah and others who were in attendance, for their support in joining the William and Mary community.

Rowe made sure to acknowledge that her 20 years at women’s colleges will not mean she won’t fit in to leading a co-ed school.

“It is an incredible privilege to be at institutions that are devoted to access for underrepresented students,” she said. “That’s the deepest lesson that I’ve learned, what it means to be thinking about the pipeline of exceptional human beings into fields that they currently aren’t represented. I do think that’s an asset I can bring to William and Mary, because this is an institution that has that access mission as well. It feels like a natural move to me. It may not look so from the outside, but it feels really natural.”

Hammond can be reached by phone at 757-247-4951 or on Twitter @byjanehammond.

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