Joyce Jacobsen ready to spark Hobart and William Smith to further heights

The world of academia sometimes pits professors against administrators.

“Academics tend not to like their administrators because administrators tell us what we can’t do,” said Richard Grossman, professor and chair of economics at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.

Joyce Jacobsen
Joyce Jacobsen

But when Joyce P. Jacobsen – now president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges – was an administrator at Wesleyan, that wasn’t the case. As provost, dean and department chair, Jacobsen had occasions to say no, but she always listened to objections and explained her reasoning, Grossman said.

“She’s just a wonderful administrator. Very fair. The great thing about Joyce, even though I had a disagreement, we could argue over the issues but it was never personal,” he said. “We would talk it out and then move on from there.”

“I think they’re really very lucky at Hobart to have her,” Grossman said. She is good at understanding the big picture, yet also detail oriented, he said. “It’s unfortunate for Wesleyan that she left, but I think she’s been ready, she’s a mature administrator. She’s ready to lead.”

A longtime economics professor before becoming an administrator, Jacobsen is starting her tenure at Hobart and William Smith with a thorough getting-to-know-you campaign. Before arriving July 1, she promised to visit every floor of every building on campus, and she wasn’t joking. A recent tour of all 52 student residences, from a four-student-one-professor house to the dormitories, required an electric golf cart and more than four hours to complete.

Touring Houghton House, which houses studio art, she found the room that was painted to look like the inside of an Egyptian tomb. She was less descriptive of what she found in the basements of fraternity houses, but allowed that she found them interesting.

Once the athletic teams return to campus, she intends to go to a game of every HWS team. That’s not a new stance for her. At Wesleyan, she did the same because her job included oversight of the athletic department.

Meanwhile, Jacobsen is getting a deeper dive by recording podcasts with various members of the HWS community, including staff and alumni, such as 1981 graduate Chris Lavin. He is both a town-and-gown representative, who, as a Geneva native had a far-ranging career in journalism before returning to his hometown to lead the Geneva Community Center and its Boys and Girls Club.

“I learn a lot about these interviewees,” Jacobsen said. She was familiar with podcasts because her husband, retired math professor Bill Boyd, makes copious use of them. And she has a lot of experience being interviewed. So when an HWS staffer suggested the idea, Jacobsen was game to try it.  Once students arrive on campus, she plans to include them among those she interviews, as well as other town officials.

In terms of getting to know Geneva and the surrounding area, Boyd has led the charge on that, Jacobsen said, by creating a spreadsheet of all the local eateries and checking them off one by one. Jacobsen said he goes alone to lunch at some, and they go together to those that interest her the most. But they haven’t traveled to any wineries yet. After all, it’s only been a month since her arrival.

Jacobsen’s path from growing up in Reno, Nev., the child of two academics, to becoming the first female president of Hobart and William Smith, might seem somewhat pre-ordained. And while parts of the journey were carefully planned, Jacobsen insists other parts were not.

Her father, the late William Jacobsen, was a linguistics professor specializing in Native American languages at the University of Nevada at Reno, and her mother, Virginia Chan, who now lives in the Netherlands, was an administrator for the college’s Basque Studies program. The teenaged Jacobsen thought she’d go into public service even after she settled on economics as a major. She interviewed for some government positions, she said, but teaching opportunities ultimately lured her aboard.

Similarly, though much of Jacobsen’s research has focused on gender and sexual identity aspects of economics — she actually assessed the economic cost of treating women unequally from 1900 to 2050 — she didn’t start out with a feminist focus. While in graduate school, Jacobsen agreed to write a paper with one of her economics professors on women’s quest for economic equality, and then ended up pursuing the topic for her doctoral dissertation.  A reading group at Rhodes College in Memphis, where she first taught, further encouraged her to use economics to explore gender inequality.

Jacobsen started teaching at Wesleyan in 1993 and earned a reputation for being an outstanding teacher.

“She’s always very concerned about her students both personally and academically,” Grossman said. While raising a family, she also squeezed in some visiting professorships, spending three summers at Harvard, and other periods of time in the Netherlands, Chicago and Colorado. In 2007, she was awarded the Binswanger Prize for Excellence in Teaching, Wesleyan’s top prize for professors. She also became chair of economics and then, in 2013, she became a dean and started her ascent through academic administration.

Grossman said, “I’ve never met an administrator who is more organized.” He described Jacobsen poring over plans for a renovated building at Wesleyan. While other people were getting bleary eyed from frequent review of the plans, she continued to be able to ask questions about the plans and point out potential issues in the schematics.

“She does something in a systemized way,” Grossman said. “She cares that people are treated well. I’ve never met anyone who’s as on top of all aspects of running a university as Joyce.”

Thomas Bozzuto, HWS board chair, has said of Jacobsen, “I’ve never heard references as extraordinary and consistent as the ones we got on Joyce. People talk not only about her personality, but her ability to make decisions and keep people on board even when she made decisions they might not have agreed with,” Bozzuto said. “One of the things we heard repeatedly was she was thoughtful, analytical, data driven and she made decisions objectively.”

Jacobsen’s accomplishments at Wesleyan include introducing the minors program and spearheading a campaign to fund renovation of the international studies building that is home to the economics department.

Despite being comfortable in Connecticut, Jacobsen said “I had topped out administration at Wesleyan.” The current president has a lengthy contract.

Jacobsen — ever the researcher — also wanted to see if her administrative skills translated in a place where she didn’t have as much social capital as she had at Wesleyan. Though not everyone has known her as long as Grossman has — he was a classmate at both Harvard and London School of Economics — Jacobsen’s ties at Wesleyan after 26 years were deep.

At HWS, Jacobsen already has a full plate of goals.

“This is a really fine institution,” she said. But in reading a history of the colleges, she couldn’t help noting “it’s a story of really tenacious survival.”

“They’ve never really been secure in a sense like… Harvard,” Jacobsen said. Therefore a primary task of hers will be to provide the school with a stronger sense of financial security.

“Part of the goal is galvanizing the alumni base, getting people excited about these plans,” she said. Toward that end, she will share plans to build a new science building and improve financial aid for students. And then, of course, there’s a little thing to plan for in 2022, like the college’s bicentennial and its accompanying capital campaign.

Jacobsen often talks about making a value proposition to parents and alumni, stressing the worth of a liberal arts education.

“The idea is to develop a set of competencies that will help you throughout life,” Jacobsen said. There may not be one path to do that, but “what you don’t want is a child who doesn’t graduate and has debt.”

The ideal is students learn to write well, learn new technologies and do things quantitatively, she said, pointing to herself as an example of how a student learns a skill-set that will work in different areas down the road. While she remains an active economist who continues to research and write, she’s applying skill-sets from economics to her newer field of academic administration — negotiating with unions, understanding the ramifications of policies and decisions, and, of course, finances.

“She’s clearly been ready for a while to take on leadership of an entire university,” Grossman said.

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Joyce P. Jacobsen

Title: president, Hobart and William Smith Colleges

Age: 58

Education: Bachelor’s degree, economics, Harvard University, 1982; master’s degree, economics, London School of Economics, 1983; doctorate in economics, Stanford University, 1991

Family: Husband Bill Boyd; children, Catherine Boyd and Kenneth Boyd; stepchildren Will Boyd and Kara Boyd Nunn; and five grandchildren.

Residence: Geneva

Activities: Economic research, cooking, attending music events.

Quote: “The idea (of college) is to develop a set of competencies that will help you throughout life.”