The Phi sits down with incoming president Will Dudley

Dudley addresses plans for future of university, first things on his list

W&L President-elect William Dudley

W&L President-elect William Dudley. Photo courtesy of the W&L Communications department

Alison Murtagh

Washington and Lee’s Board of Trustees announced its selection of William C. Dudley as the university’s next President on Feb. 12, 2016. Dudley will step into his new role on Jan. 1, 2017. The Phi had the chance to speak with Dr. Dudley to learn about his goals for his presidency, and how he plans to transition in the move from Massachusetts back to his home state of Virginia.

1. After President Ruscio announced his retirement, what made you want to become the next president of the university? What most attracted you to the university?

You know, I think a few things. One, is that I’ve known about [Washington and Lee] my whole life because I grew up in Virginia. So partly, the connection to my home state is appealing. And also, it feels a lot, in good ways, like Williams [College], where I’ve worked for a long time, in that it’s got a really long tradition, commitment to excellence, and also commitment to sustaining excellence by changing over time, and innovating as times change, and that’s how you become a quality place and stay a quality place. So, just really attracted to coming to a first-rate liberal arts institution, and Virginia is a bonus.

2. What was your first impression of the university and the current student body?

When you get into one of these searches, you first experience the place on paper. So I was reading about it, and in general I was impressed by the things I already mentioned—by the quality, and the history, and the tradition. Other things that are really distinctive about W&L that are appealing to me are the honor system, and the responsibility that the students have to run the honor system and maintain it over time. I think that is very impressive and very important. I like the connection at Washington and Lee between the liberal arts and pre-professional education, and legal education. I think that’s very distinctive. I don’t know of another place that does that in the same way or does it as well. And I also got the impression that it’s a place that, well on the one hand, students, and then alumni or former students, just absolutely love, and that’s important to me and I’m used to that. I want to be at a place where the students think it’s the best place in the world and the alumni think it’s the best place in the world, and that comes off loud and clear. And as far as I can tell, by and large people also seem happy working there. The faculty and the staff seem happy with the institution. So all of that made a big impression on me.

3. How have your positions as Provost and Professor of Philosophy at Williams College prepared you for your new role as President?

I think the provost role is very direct preparation because in my provost role I am responsible for allocating college resources, and that includes both positions—faculty and staff positions, and also annual budgets and budgets for capital projects. And so I have a lot of experience in thinking about how we, and putting into practice how we, allocate our resources to try to provide a really great education at a price that is affordable, supported by significant commitments to financial aid which make possible a very diverse student body. So I have a lot of experience with those things, and I also, as provost, oversee admission and financial aid, and our library’s information and technology, and you know I could rattle off the things I oversee. But basically, all the operations of the college that support the academic mission. And so, that set of responsibilities is really great preparation for being the president. I also, partly as provost but also before that as a faculty member, have done a lot of work with our alumni. As a faculty member I’ve spent a good amount of time both on campus and out on the road talking to our alumni—which I enjoy doing. That connects to their engagement with the school and eventually also connects to fundraising, which is a critical part of the president’s job.

I would say as a faculty member, the most important thing that we do is teach students. I’ve been doing that for 18 years and I love doing that, and I think it’s important to have a president who understands firsthand what that’s about.

4. How do you plan to connect with Washington and Lee’s student body?

I suppose in any way I can. I think the first thing that I need to do when I get down there is start getting to know people—and that includes students for sure, at the top of the list. And also faculty and staff, and eventually alumni. The president needs to know people and I am really looking forward to meeting people. So part of it will depend on the students and the ways in which they would like to engage with me and get to know me. I hope that they would like to know their president, and I hope that they would be creative in helping me to figure out how to get to know them and vice versa. I’d like to try to do some teaching. That’s something that our previous president here, Morton Schapiro, did and is doing at Northwestern [University] where he is the president now. In fact, I team-taught with him while he was president at Williams in a class on the philosophy of economics and higher education—which is actually part of what got me interested in being the provost in the first place. I think that the best way to know students is to teach them. Obviously I can’t teach all of them, but I’m going to try to sprinkle in a little bit of teaching if I can.

5. As an undergraduate at Williams, you were a member of both the Water Polo and Swimming and Diving teams. Will students be seeing you a lot at Generals’ sporting events?

Absolutely. Williams, like W&L, is a place where many students participate in sports. I’m a lifelong both athlete and sports fan, and so I will definitely want to be seeing the W&L athletes in action.

6. What do you hope to accomplish as President of the university?

There’s a line I’ve heard Ken Ruscio say, or I’ve heard other people say, […] and the paraphrase is basically, he walks into his office every morning and thinks, “Just don’t screw it up.” And I think that’s because you’ve got a school that is more than 250 years old, that has been led by some incredible people, and has decades of students and faculty and staff and alumni who have built it into something really tremendous, and so it’s not a place that’s broken or needs a revolution or that needs to be fixed. It’s basically a place that is in really great shape, and what we all need to do together is just keep asking ourselves, “Are there ways in which we can improve?” First, I need to listen and learn. I’ve spent all of like 3 days at W&L in my whole life, and so I need to spend some time getting to know people and understanding what they think could be better, and then helping lead the campus in conversations about how to move it forward.