New Hobart William Smith president knows value of liberal arts

Joyce P. Jacobsen steps into the presidency at Hobart and William Smith Colleges at a difficult time.

Joyce P. Jacobsen, new president of Hobart William Smith Colleges in Geneva
Joyce P. Jacobsen

Not just a difficult time for HWS, which lost a president last year after a plagiarism scandal, but a difficult time for liberal arts institutions everywhere.

The pool of applicants is shrinking, and there have been some recent announcements of liberal arts colleges closing.

Jacobsen’s plan? Double down on the value proposition of a liberal arts education.

“All schools have to be aware they have to make a value proposition case,” said Jacobsen, 57, who is currently working as provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at one of the mostly highly respected liberal arts colleges in the country, Connecticut’s Wesleyan University. “We don’t have to change what we’re doing to be a good value proposition.” Jacobsen said HWS should “focus on competencies, the idea that liberal arts training makes you a flexible person.”

A career-specific academic program “may look like a better path in the short run,” she said. But “we don’t know what will be in the work force 30 years from now.”

The liberal arts college’s narrative needs to explain how students enter a college without a focus but gain one after four years. Some don’t find that focus, though, Jacobsen noted. Part of the college’s job is to reassure families and students “there’s not one true calling.” But students benefit from a flexible mindset and skills they gain from their education.

“No doubt, colleges, liberal arts colleges, are facing a more challenging future simply because of the demographic changes that are affecting our country,” said Thomas S. Bozzuto, chairman of the HWS board of trustees. “What I hope Joyce will be able to do is keep Hobart and William Smith as an educational institution that continues to provide extraordinary, hands-on education that allows for the growth of the individual regardless of the changing circumstances.”

These changes, felt most devastatingly by two New England colleges that have announced plans to close in recent weeks – are not to be dismissed easily.

“Hampshire College (in Amherst, Mass.) sent a shock wave through a lot of people,” Jacobsen said. “I think it’s going to be some shakeup of the smaller end of the market. The ones that survive will be stronger.”

In the short run, Jacobsen intends to work at getting to know Hobart and William Smith Colleges intimately.

“For me, the immediate goal is just to make sure I really understand the place in a really holistic sense—faculty, staff, students, alumni, parents.” She plans to tour the campus, walking through each building top to bottom to get the lay of the land.

There’s a new capital campaign to head, and a proposed science center to finance and build. And perhaps a new strategic plan for the colleges shaped by her skill-set.  In a recent interview conducted by phone from Middletown, Conn., Jacobsen also expressed a desire to get to know leaders in the greater Rochester area and work with them.

A scholar focusing on the intersection of gender and economics, Jacobsen has worked at Wesleyan since 1993, first as a professor and later an administrator. She was educated at Harvard University, the London School of Economics, and Stanford University.

Jacobsen’s academic interests helped pique her interest in Hobart and William Smith, as its precursor institution, Geneva Medical College, granted a degree to the first female doctor in the nation. Jacobsen herself has made history by becoming the first female president of the colleges.

Bozzuto said Jacobsen’s qualifications and the outstanding recommendations colleagues provided for her made her the best choice as president.

Bozzuto said as a college board chair, and operator of a business with 2,700 employees, he’s done many, many interviews and checked many references.
“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 comes from an academic background in Reno, Nev., where  her late father, 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.

Jacobsen’s husband, Bill Boyd, a math scholar, will move with her into the president’s residence above Seneca Lake. She officially takes office in June, but plans to visit beforehand, just as she plans to visit old friends in Middletown as much as she can afterward. The couple has two children together and two children from Boyd’s previous relationship, all grown, along with five grandchildren.

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RIT offers language majors to create more global students

In a nod to the growing globalization of jobs, Rochester Institute of Technology is introducing new undergraduate majors in three languages in the fall, expecting to add at least two others within a few years.

The bachelor of science in Applied Modern Language and Culture is meant to be a major taken with an accompanying major in a technical, art or design field, but can be taken as a stand-alone degree, university officials said.

“It’s the first degree that integrates language studies with technical studies,” said Hiroko Yamashita, director of RIT’s Department of Modern Languages & Cultures and a Japanese professor. The college will roll out majors in Japanese, Mandarin and Spanish in the fall, and expects to add French and German soon.

Currently RIT offers classes and minors in 10 languages, including American Sign Language, Arabic, Italian, Portuguese and Russian and those for which majors will now be available. Students already have been able to declare a minor in any of those languages, or take three courses in one language as an “immersion.”

Key components of the RIT language majors that set them apart from majors at traditional liberal arts colleges include a capstone project involving both technical and language expertise, and study or work abroad in a country using the language. Yamashita said ideally students would both study abroad and undertake an internship or co-op position abroad.

“There’s only so much classes can teach,” Yamashita said. Students “have to go out to the real country and immerse themselves in the language and culture.” Experience abroad will also teach students how interpersonal skills may differ from culture to culture.

The impetus for the expanded language program came from both students and future employers, RIT officials said.

“Almost unanimously, employers are trying to take advantage of what’s become a global economy,” said RIT’s Dean of Liberal Arts, James Winebrake. “They need to extend across the globe, and that means China and Japan and the Middle East.”

Yamashita said the expansion happened organically, with the new majors coming out of the classes that are most highly subscribed by students. They also have natural pairings with some of RIT’s existing majors, such as Japanese with game design, for instance.

“We have hundreds of students on campus that are taking a minor in one of our foreign languages.  Our largest minor is often Japanese. It’s driven by a lot of the RIT professional offerings in computing and gaming and some the arts – anime and those types of things,” Winebrake said.

Yamashita said incoming freshmen have already been accepted into the new language studies majors and she expects quite a few current students to add a language major to their other major starting in the fall.

Randall Conrad of Greece has  changed plans a couple of times since he arrived at RIT two years ago, but now plans to gain a degree in Japanese. Currently listed as a computer science major, he will switch to Japanese and add a second major in audio engineering if discussion about making that program a major becomes reality. If it doesn’t, he’ll minor in audio engineering before he graduates, he said.

“My dream is to be an audio engineer in Japan,” Conrad said, but as he wants to follow his girlfriend in California, he intends to complete his degree and see if he can find work in a West Coast office of a Japanese audio-related company such as Sony or Yamaha.

To accommodate the growth in the language program, RIT will be hiring a new full-time Mandarin language professor, Yamashita said, and will likely add part-time instructors as the demand grows.

Because some majors offer less latitude for taking courses beyond what’s required for that major, students may have to plan early if they want to add a language major onto something like computer science, Yamashita said. But the extra demands of a second major can be worked out with planning and coordination.  A co-op position abroad in computer science, for instance, might fill requirements for both the computer science major and the language major, she said.

Winebrake predicted the number of students graduating with two majors instead of a technical major and a language minor will increase.

“What I think is we’re going to get a significant portion of those students who, with just a few more classes, will turn that minor into a double-major,” he said. “It’s a cultural shift of the university to have the language and cultures degree on campus, which reinforces the importance of international education and global awareness we try to emphasize on campus.”

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