Getting to know Washington and Lee’s new president

W&L President-elect William Dudley

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


A new year brings a new president for Washington and Lee. President Will Dudley, who assumed office on Jan. 1, sat down with the Phi to discuss how the presidency has been going so far and to provide insight on some of his short-and long-term goals for office.

Q: How has the transition been since your start on Jan. 1?

A: I’ve been trying to meet as many people as I can and get to know them. It was hard to find students the first week because they were still on break, so that first week was quiet here. I had a reception for the students I could find on campus, which was a lot of athletes and the RAs. I have begun meeting the departments and getting to know people in smaller groups. I’m on a listening tour, getting to know people and hearing about what they’re working on and their perspectives.

People want to know, “what’s your vision?,” and I just try to emphasize that I want to learn a lot and hear other people’s thoughts about what we’re really good at and opportunities to get better. So many people around here know the place better than I do and that’s why I just want to learn and help harness people’s energy and good ideas to move the place forward.

Q: What has been your favorite part of the job so far?

A: I really love learning and I have a lot to learn, so that’s fun. I really enjoy the variety of the job and I enjoy the variety of people with whom I get to interact and with whom it’s important for me to interact. I’ve been a teacher and faculty member for 15 years so I really love college students and I enjoy faculty members. It’s a pleasure and privilege in this job to get to interact with all those people and I also like the intellectual challenge of trying to understand the whole university and how all its parts fit together. Partly it’s trying to understand where we need to go and partly it’s trying to build all the relationships with people so they’re excited to go there.

Q: What are your thoughts on starting your tenure in the middle of an academic year?

A: It’s going to be new whenever I start, so I’m not sure if it makes a difference that I’m landing in January. What I want to accomplish the rest of this academic year is to make a very concerted, sustained and successful effort to meet as many people as I can and to listen as well as I can. I would really like opportunities to meet students both formally and informally, so I will be trying to think creatively on how to do that. But I would encourage students to not be shy. If there are students who want to invite me to come hear their performance or who want to get a group together to get lunch or a cup of coffee, I will do my very best to do that. I would like to do that.

Q: How does the campus climate at W&L compare to that of Williams?

A: There’s a lot that the two schools have in common, which is part of what attract- ed me here and I guess part of why the trustees hired me. They’re both really excellent small liberal arts institutions that have more than a couple hundred years of history, that are in small college towns and that are actually both right along the Appalachian Trail. They have a lot in common in terms of their traditions and goals. This place is an old southern place and Williams is an old New England place, so there are some cultural differences there. But I see more similarities than differences.

Q: How do you think your previous role as provost at Williams has prepared you for your current job?

A: My role as provost at Williams involved allocating the resources of the college and trying to make it as good as it can be. I think that job was really good preparation for this one because it had a broad overview of the whole institution, including admissions and financial aid and thinking through how we could successfully attract the caliber of students that we wanted to attract and how could we support them well enough financially so they could afford to be there. Then it involved thinking through how we could provide resources to support the whole academic enterprise, including the library, information technology and the things that we needed to have in order for all of our faculty and students to be successful.

I also did a fair amount of work with our alumni in both small and large groups. Another thing W&L and Williams have in common is really passionate alumni. The alumni at both places truly believe their school is the best place on earth and I love that about them. That’s what makes me feel at home here. We also depend on their support to make this place run and that’s a bigger part of my job now.

Q: How do you plan on reaching out to the W&L alumni base?

A: Our advancement operation exists to make sure that happens successfully. One of the really fantastic things here is the quality of the people, and that includes not just the students, faculty and all the professional administrators, but also a presidential cabinet with people who are experienced and who know what they’re doing. A lot of times alumni come to campus for reunions and other events, and those will be great opportunities for me to meet them. I will also get out on the road and meet W&L’s various regional alumni associations around the country. That will probably be a project for my first couple of years as I work my way around and get everywhere. But I really do like doing that work. The alumni here are really welcoming, and I think part of it is because they love this place so much and they want to make sure I love it, too.

Q: What are some of your goals for the presidency?

A: W&L is not an institution that is in trouble or is broken or needs to be transformed. That’s good because that’s not really what I want to be about. It’s in very good shape. Ken Ruscio was a wonderful president who did a great job for a decade and so W&L’s an institution with a lot of positive momentum that needs to be sustained. That’s a nice position to be in because I think my style is to listen, learn and understand things as well as I can before I start making judgements and decisions. W&L is really well run and people care about it a lot. I’m not sitting here trying to think about what mark I’m going to leave, I just want to help the place continue to get better.

At it’s core, I think what most people care about is that this place remains high quality. We just need to continue to attract and enroll great students and make sure that we’re finding talented students from everywhere and from a wide variety of backgrounds and the same thing with faculty and staff. We want to continue to be competitive with the very best people from all walks of life and I’d say that’s a focal point for a lot of people. W&L is such an excellent place and we want to make sure its story is told and that it is well-known everywhere.

Q: What are some things people might not know about you?

A: I was a math and philosophy double major as well as a swimmer and water polo player in college. I love pretty much any kind of outdoor activity or athletic endeavor. I like to make furniture as a hobby. It’s hard for me to imagine having time to do that while I’m in this job, but that is something that I’ve learned to do and I enjoy doing. I have an 18-year-old son, Cole, and a 16-year-old daughter, Ella.