Not long after Mark Gearan was named president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, he placed a call to George Stephanopoulos, an old friend and colleague from his days working in the White House.
As Gearan tells it, he asked whether Stephanopoulos believed in free speech. When Stephanopoulos responded yes, of course he did, Gearan told him, "Good, then you’re going to give one."
And with that Stephanopoulos became an early speaker in the President’s Forum, a regular series drawing journalists, authors and elected officials from across the political spectrum to Geneva. Gearan, 53, knows many of them from more than a decade of working in Washington, D.C.
Gearan’s 11-year tenure at HWS has been influenced by his experience as head of the Peace Corps and in the White House as deputy chief of staff and special assistant to President Bill Clinton.
He has helped the college adopt the Peace Corps’ mission of "bringing the world home," sharpening the school’s focus on studying abroad and encouraging 60 percent of students to do so.
But as he has expanded students’ interests outside the United States, Gearan also has turned their attention to the local community, partnering with Geneva and local groups.
Gearan has brought large-scale initiatives to the colleges, leading them in strategic planning at five-year intervals and in the largest capital campaign of their history. He also has helped lead the schools, with $140 million in revenue, through the recent recession, which diminished the endowment and brought more students in search of financial aid.
Life in politics
Not much in Gearan’s background prior to 1999 would have pointed to him becoming president at HWS. After graduating from Harvard University in 1978, following one year working as a newspaper reporter, he ventured into inside-the-Beltway politics and spent much of his career there.
He worked for then-Gov. Michael Dukakis in Massachusetts and later on his campaign for president, which Gearan managed through the Iowa caucuses and later served as spokesman. After the campaign he was picked to run the Democratic Governors Association, where he met the governor of Arkansas, Clinton.
"From there it sort of charted a different pathway for me," says Gearan, who has in his office a framed portrait of Clinton on the White House lawn with a personal note at the bottom.
When Clinton ran for president, Gearan was picked to help in the campaign during the primaries; after Clinton secured the nomination, Gearan ran the vice presidential campaign of Al Gore. Gearan continued his work after Clinton won the presidency, serving as deputy chief of staff and communications director before he was named director of the Peace Corps in 1995.
Since his youth, Gearan says, he has been drawn to the issues of the day, and that interest blossomed during his time at Harvard. He majored in government in the classroom and lived it in the dorms. He was tutored by Alan Keyes and lived in the same house as Grover Norquist, who has been involved in national conservative groups, including Americans for Tax Reform.
He recalls heated political discussion with his roommate, Hugh Hewitt, the head of campus Republicans. Hewitt now is host of a popular syndicated radio talk show, and Gearan says their conversations still continue.
"We’ve spent virtually a lifetime arguing politics, and I don’t think we’ve ever been able to convince each other," Gearan says. "But that’s what college is for, just mixing it up and thinking about issues from a different perspective."
During the summers, Gearan worked for politicians seeking election, finding that he fit well in the world of fast-paced campaigns and nearly perpetual motion.
"Like many students who go to work in Washington, I got a bit of a Potomac fever," Gearan says. "It was exciting because it’s important; it’s consequential who gets elected. If you believe in the candidate-and I’ve worked for people whom I admire and respect-then the nature of the work demands a phenomenal personal commitment."
It was a hectic life, but one filled with excitement for Gearan.
"During the Dukakis campaign I lived in four or five different states, and I traveled with Gore on his plane, so for three or four months I was constantly flying around the country, staying in different hotels," he says. "There’s an arduous nature to campaigning, but it pales in comparison to the significance of it."
Bringing D.C. to HWS
As the Clinton administration was nearing its end, Gearan started to think about what would come next, and he turned to a lifelong ambition to go into higher education.
"When the search was on at Hobart and William Smith, they were open to looking at non-traditional candidates, the ones who didn’t come up through the academy," Gearan says. "I was attracted to the college because of its commitment to global education and community service, and as a small liberal arts college it has the faculty-student ratio and facilities that create a really rich environment for students to live and study."
His work in the Peace Corps had brought him to campuses to meet with students and lecture, and the institutions were similar, he says.
For the most part, at least.
"The Peace Corps is mostly young people and those who want to make a difference," Gearan says. "There were also alumni groups in the corps as there are in institutions of higher education. The Peace Corps doesn’t have a lacrosse team, though."
Gearan has also helped infuse the ethos of the Peace Corps into a college with an already strong focus on global education. The school has achieved a rate of 60 percent of students studying abroad-putting HWS in the top 15 percent of all colleges. While they travel to traditional locations such as European countries, the college also encourages students to study in less-visited places.
"It’s a very big world out there, and we’ve sent students to campuses in Jordan, Eastern Europe, Senegal, New Zealand,
Vietnam and China, among other places," Gearan says.
The Peace Corps mission not only involves its members traveling to different parts of the globe to bring their expertise and enthusiasm for service projects; it also calls on them to bring the world back home. The same is done at HWS.
There are photo contests for students to chronicle the places they have seen, and returning students travel to local elementary school classrooms to talk about their experiences.
During Gearan’s term, the colleges also have deepened their ties with Geneva. When he greets incoming students in the fall, Gearan makes sure to welcome them not only to Hobart and William Smith but also to the city.
"I tell them that they’re part of a community that has been a tremendous host for the college for over 200 years, and as they support us we also try to support them," Gearan says.
The school holds volunteer days in Geneva and works closely with city leaders to identify areas where students can provide support and expertise. They have examined energy usage in buildings, helped set protocol for the farmers’ market and built bike trails.
Last year, a junior at HWS approached the city for a research project he was doing on municipal communications. His task was to create a media and communications program for the city, and what he created was so effective that city officials decided to make it permanent, even moving the mayor out of his office so the students who ran the department could have a space of their own.
"They set it up to be a long-term commitment," says Stuart Einstein, Geneva mayor. "It was something where the community had a need, and in this day and age you can’t afford to not have a communications department, but it just wasn’t in our budget to do it.
"I think this highlights Mark’s approach, which is that colleges shouldn’t come to the communities and tell them what they are willing or able to do for them; they should ask, ‘What are your needs, and how can we help meet them?’"
In addition to his expertise from the Peace Corps, Gearan brought his Rolodex of big-name Washington players for the President’s Forum Series. Keyes, Dukakis, Stephanopoulos, Madeleine Albright-all have given speeches open to students and members of the community.
In 2001, both Bill and Hillary Clinton visited the campus and spoke to students. In his portion of the speech, Bill noted the irony of the situation: After eight years, it was Gearan who had the title of president and Clinton who was there to offer his support and guidance.
"(The series) both sustains and enhances the awareness of Hobart and William Smith but more significantly provides students with a rich array of conversations on the issues of our times," Gearan says. "We try to balance the people who come in around different issues."
Students have been receptive, and most speakers leave impressed with their level of knowledge and participation, he says. Gearan says the students of today possess the same passion as those of his youth and before, though their idealism has a slightly narrower focus.
"It’s a very idealized generation, but it’s a pragmatic idealism," he says. "Thirty years ago students would have been saying, ‘I’m going to change the world.’ I don’t know this is a generation that would as easily say that, but they will say, ‘I’m going to change my part of the world.’"
Gearan, who lives in Geneva, remains involved with the local community, balancing his role as chairman of the Corporation for National and Community Service with a term on the Geneva library board. His wife, Mary Herlihy Gearan, is vice chairwoman of the board for Happiness House, an organization that serves disabled children and adults, and recently was named Citizen of the Year by the Geneva Area Chamber of Commerce.
Growing the college
Like the students who attend HWS, Gearan is somewhat pragmatic. A strong believer in the power of strategic plans, he pulled together trustees and other stakeholders to create a five-year plan not long after taking office.
That plan helped set goals such as the creation of a Finger Lakes Institute, which works with regional environmental partners and with support from state and local governments to promote environmental research and education about the Finger Lakes and surrounding region.
The second strategic plan, which came five years later, helped push forward a
$200 million capital campaign. Gearan says keeping plans to five years ensures that they remain grounded in reality rather than embodying lofty ambitions that likely could never be reached.
"I think it’s a good trajectory," Gearan says. "It’s long enough that it allows you to vision forward, but it’s not so blue-sky that it’s untethered from reality."
Part of the current plan is a $28 million performing arts center that Gearan envisions as a drawing point for the region. The project would include spaces for theater, music and dance and would play host to performances during the busy summer tourism period, he says.
"With this space I think we could imagine in the summer, given all the wine tours and summer hospitality in the region, that this kind of a venue would be really regionally significant," Gearan says.
He has seen HWS thorough difficult times as well. During the recession its endowment dropped 20 percent and philanthropy decreased as well. The effect has been felt most strongly by students and their families, he says, and HWS has boosted its support services for those in need of aid.
Running a school with 175 acres and 100 buildings can be expensive, Gearan says. Many of the school’s expenses also are personnel costs-close to $40 million of roughly $107 million in all-but Gearan says that is to be expected with an 11-to-1 faculty-student ratio.
The result is that students get a high level of engagement with their professors and coaches. Gearan stays close to the students, participating in service projects and playing in a garage rock band made up of other professors-named, appropriately enough, the President’s Garage Band.
"We focus-grouped to come up with that name," he says with a laugh. "It was a very high-level decision."
On campus, Gearan gets to know the faculty and most of the students too, says Maureen Collins Zupan, vice chairwoman of the board of trustees.
"I will walk with Mark on campus, and it doesn’t matter where you are: He knows everyone’s name," Zupan says. "A lot of times he’ll stop and introduce me to a student and say so-and-so just applied for a Fulbright scholarship. It’s not often you have that closeness from a president."
He also uses his power and connections to help students, she notes. When one student was on a service trip to Europe, Gearan called a congressman who was working on a similar issue and helped the student get an audience with him.
Though he comes from central Massachusetts originally and proudly displays a replica of Fenway Park on a table in his office, Gearan says his family has found the Finger Lakes a wonderful place to live. He hopes his efforts at HWS can help the region make the most of its natural characteristics and grow into its potential.
"Geneva has so many strengths, and you get the sense that it’s right on the cusp of maximizing its physical beauty with the resources that are here with tourism and hospitality," he says.
- Position: President, Hobart and William Smith Colleges
- Age: 53
- Education: B.A., government, Harvard University, 1978; J.D., Georgetown University, 1991
- Family: Wife Mary Herlihy Gearan; daughters Madeleine, 17, and Kathleen, 11
- Residence: Geneva
- Activities: Piano, playing in the President’s Garage Band
- Quote: "During the Dukakis campaign I lived in four or five different states, and I traveled with Gore on his plane, so for three or four months I was constantly flying around the country, staying in different hotels. There’s an arduous nature to campaigning, but it pales in comparison to the significance of it."
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