The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

Q&A with President Dudley: Looking at the year ahead

President Will Dudley discusses the institution’s silence on Israel and Palestine, how he navigates alumni blowback and plans for the upcoming year
President Will Dudley will enter his eight year in his role this fall.
Washington and Lee’s Website
President Will Dudley will enter his eight year in his role this fall.

This fall, Will Dudley will enter his eighth year as president of Washington and Lee University. College presidents across the nation increasingly faced scrutiny this year amid pro-Palestine campus protests and police crackdowns.

Presidents at Harvard University, University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University announced their resignations in the past few months.

While Washington and Lee saw little protest activity, Dudley told the Phi that he has his own challenges as the leader of a southern university with Lee’s name attached to it. The day-to-day realities of the job are also challenging, he said.

This interview with Dudley took place on Tuesday, May 7. It was originally published in the Phi’s Graduation Edition on May 27. It has been edited for length and clarity. 

There can be a perception that the president can fix everything or do everything. What key limitations do you see with your role? 

Colleges and universities are unusual kinds of institutions. They’re not like corporations, where the CEO really does get to ultimately say, ‘this is what we’re going to do.’ 

We operate under a shared governance model. There’s the Board of Trustees that have the ultimate responsibility to ensure a healthy future for the university and make sure that I don’t spend all of the money. And basically, their job is to hire me and make sure that I do a good job. 

The faculty have control of the curriculum. I am a faculty member, so I have one vote. But I’m just one out of 250 people who are voting, so if the faculty wants to revise the curriculum, that’s really not up to me. 

A big part of your role that students see is sort of a school wide communications or statements that you put out. How do you decide when and how to issue a statement? 

My basic principle is, the closer an issue is to our educational mission and our ability to execute our mission, the more likely I am to say something about it. So for example, when the Supreme Court issued a ruling on race mentioned this fall, that goes straight to how we operate.  It was important for me to speak about what it does and doesn’t mean for W&L. 

On the other hand, I haven’t issued a statement on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or Hamas’ attack on Israel, because as important as they are in the world, they’re not tightly connected to our mission. 

You mentioned you wouldn’t issue a statement on Israel and Palestine. We have a former student in Rafah right now, Nour Alshaer, ’22. Is there anything that the administration does to reach out to alumni in conflict zones? 

It’s a good question. I’ll be honest: I don’t know her personally. One feature of my job is I can’t know absolutely everything. W&L has a really powerful alumni network. Alumni are connected to each other very well, and our Office of Alumni Services works really hard to stay in touch with people. The shortest answer is, I don’t know if we have communication with her or not, or if she wants that. I am confident that any alum who wants to be in communication with the university, we’re very responsive to that. 

Based on reporting the Phi has done, friends of hers said they reached out to the administration. She said that no one’s contacted her and she feels abandoned by the W&L administration. 

I have not heard anything about that. 

Colleges and administrations are in the news so much more these days. I’m curious if anything you’ve seen has made you think differently about your role? 

You guys can’t imagine a world without the Internet, but I lived in one for 25 years. Sometimes I fantasize about what it would be like to do this job, if people didn’t have social media and email, and it sounds kind of awesome.

[For example,] the reaction to coeducation was fierce. Probably 80% of the alumni were angry about it. But all they had was a telephone. And they did call this office relentlessly, but they didn’t have social media, they didn’t have email. 

Communication was so different [when I was a college student]. The alumni, if they wanted to, just couldn’t be in your daily business the way that they are now. I love being at a school where alumni care so much. I really wouldn’t want to be at a school where the alumni were apathetic. So I don’t mean to single them out. But the ability of the world to focus on these institutions is intense. 

I don’t know if my views on my job have changed. I just have gotten a lot of experience. I started here in January of [20]17. And that summer, the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville happened. And so I had to figure out almost immediately, well, what does that mean for us? How do we deal with that? 

A couple of years later, George Floyd was murdered. That kicked off conversations about the name of the university and a bunch of related issues. So I feel like I’ve gotten a lot of experience with all that in a hurry. 

There’s some local variation with respect to which issues matter. We haven’t had a lot of Israel-Palestine activity on our campus. Whereas if I were the president of Columbia University, that’d be a total nightmare right now. On the other hand, I’ve got Robert E. Lee, and they don’t. 

When there are cases like the lockdown that happened in November, how does the communication process change?

Things like the campus lockdown… to give a sense of how my job works. I had just boarded an airplane in New York. And I sat down in my seat, and I was putting my phone in airplane mode, and I got a text saying W&L was going on lockdown. I’m sitting on an airplane, right, and there’s nothing I can do at that moment. And I was flying to Florida, which is about a three and a half hour flight. And I landed in Florida, and I turned on my phone. Two minutes later, I got a text saying ‘we’ve just issued the all clear.’

So I’m not always here, myself, which is another reason it’s important to have a really great team. We have an emergency management team, and we have a communications team, and they all know what they’re doing. So if I’m on an airplane, they can handle things. But of course, as soon as I land, I need to learn about the situation. 

Jessica [Willett] and I had a conversation about what we know, what we can say to the community. Some things for legal reasons, or law enforcement reasons, you can’t share with the community. What do we actually know, as opposed to what you know, is rumor or speculation? What are we allowed to share? 

There has been more construction than we, as students, have ever seen on campus.  What will it mean for students when those buildings are completed?

I have the same two goals every year. One is to run the school as well as possible for the students who are here. And the other is to continue making all the improvements that we can imagine to make our excellent university even better for the students in the future. 

Construction is a great example because of course it’s disruptive for everybody who’s here while it’s happening, including me. The new Williams School building is literally across the street from my house. 

But the good news is, we don’t ever build a building just to build something. We do it because we think it will help us provide a better environment for our students and our faculty to do the things that you all do. 

A lot of student movements have recently pushed for divesting from fossil fuels or Israel.  How much discretion does the university have in what it invests in? 

We don’t have our own investment office. The Board of Trustees has an investment committee, which hires an outside investment firm. That investment firm then hires managers who invest in particular businesses and opportunities. Our ability to actually control what we’re invested in is very, very limited. 

People who are calling for very targeted divestment, I think overestimate the ability of colleges and universities to do that. 

When we’re thinking about the 2024-25 academic year, what else will you be focused on? 

We’ve also got a new vice president for Student Affairs starting this summer. Sidney Evans has been in that role for 13 years. It’s a really hard job, and she’s done it a long time. And I’m excited about our new VP, Alex Miller. He’s currently the Vice President for Student Affairs at Denison College in Ohio. Bringing a new leader onto the team at that level is always a really important transition.

We’re always raising money, but we’re also in the middle of a significant fundraising campaign that we’ll probably publicly launch later this year. Another important aspect of my job is raising that money.

Is there anything you’d like to add on to your past responses?

One reason I like the job—I hope you get a sense that I like the job, because I do—it’s that I don’t need it to be any bigger or any harder. I like a challenge, and also, I like the fact that it’s never dull. 

I like it better when there’s relatively less drama. What we want to do is run a great school, right? And that shouldn’t require a lot of drama. Part of the way I think about my job is keeping the distractions at bay so that our students can just go to school and our faculty can just teach and that’s what is really important. 

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Jenny Hellwig, Editor-in-Chief
Shauna Muckle, Editor-in-Chief

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