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