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Once more to the lake: Gearan returns to HWS during period of radical change

Mark Gearan believes life is full of chapters and describes his current one as unexpected but welcome.

Gearan was named the 30th president of Hobart and the 19th president of William Smith colleges in July.

The private liberal arts colleges are in Geneva, Ontario County and have a total enrollment of 1,660.

Hobart is celebrating its bicentennial year, making it one of the 50 oldest colleges in the United States. William Smith was founded in 1908.

President Mark D. Gearan, Hobart and William Smith Colleges Portrait

Gearan is no stranger to the colleges, having previously led them for 18 years, which made him the colleges’ longest serving president.

And while he was at the helm from 1999 to 2017, Gearan is cognizant of the fact that it’s not the same as before.

“I’ve known it well and am familiar with it and now I’m working hard to be contemporary with it,” he said.

Gearan succeeds Joyce Jacobsen, who now serves as a professor of economics at HWS. Jacobsen was named HWS president in 2019 and was the first woman to serve in the role.

After leaving HWS in 2017, Gearan served as president in residence at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and in 2018 was appointed director of the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School.

A cum laude graduate of Harvard College and Georgetown University Law Center, he holds 13 honorary degrees.

Gearan has served in a variety of roles in American politics and government as well, including White House communications director, White House deputy chief of staff, vice presidential campaign manager for Clinton/Gore ’92 and executive director of the Democratic Governors’ Association.

In 1995, President Bill Clinton appointed Gearan as the 14th director of the Peace Corps.

Craig R. Stine, HWS board of trustees’ chair, said Gearan is the right fit for the colleges.

“On the heels of Hobart’s Bicentennial Celebration weekend and just two months into his presidency, it remains clear that there is no one more qualified to lead Hobart and William Smith into our next 200 years than Mark,” Stine said, adding that Gearan’s passion is evident in each encounter he has with members of the HWS and regional communities. “Mark has the experience, aptitude and creativity to make a tremendous impact and we are thrilled he is back.”

When asked to return, Gearan was reminded of E.B. White’s essay, “Once More to the Lake.”

In the essay, White writes about a New England lake he visited as a boy. He returns over the years and while times have changed, it remains a constant and trustworthy part of his life.

Gearan feels the same way about Seneca Lake — HWS sits on its shores — as well as the colleges and Geneva-at-large.

The region has been a family affair for Gearan and his wife, Mary Herlihy Gearan, who has continued to serve on the board of Happiness House, Finger Lakes Cerebral Palsy Association since she last lived here.

The couple’s two adult daughters attended Geneva city schools and one is a 2021 William Smith graduate.

Gearan said among the changes at HWS since his return are the faculty and staff.

He noted that some 40 percent of them were not there when he was, so part of his initial time at the helm has been introducing himself and becoming familiar with the HWS of today.

His appointment, however, is different from someone who has never served in the position before, he said.

For example, he still knows, and has worked with, a majority of faculty and staff and he is intimately familiar with the region and the long-term needs of the colleges.

The colleges are not the only thing that has changed since Gearan’s initial departure.

There have been several monumental changes over the past few years, from a global pandemic and challenges to democracy to climate change and a racial reckoning that occurred following the death of George Floyd.

The changes have impacted the entire campus community.

“I’m not aware of any sector that that isn’t different than it was five years ago,” he said.

Students, faced with virtual teaching instead of in-class instruction, were robbed of certain traditional college experiences.

Gearan noted that this year’s freshman class roared into college, eager for a return to normalcy.

Mental health issues are on the rise across the country and the colleges are not immune, prompting Gearan to call for a time of radical empathy.

As a result of the changes seen over the past few years, students’ interests are changing as well.

Gearan is seeing an increase in the number of students pursuing degrees in public health, environmental studies and civic engagement – all of which align with the colleges’ mission statement: to prepare students to lead lives of consequence.

His priority for the colleges remains unchanged; he wants students to flourish while providing a transformative experience for them.

One of his focuses will be growing the colleges’ endowment, an area where he has previously had success.

During Gearan’s first tenure, the colleges’ endowment doubled as he oversaw a capital campaign that raised $205 million to support facilities and annual giving, established 168 new scholarships and completed 80 capital projects.

He is also returning as the colleges enter the beginning stages of a capital campaign, aimed at enhancing the STEM-related offerings and renovating the buildings where they are housed.

Additionally, there are plans to add some major and minor degree programs in fields such as entrepreneurship and aquatic studies. The colleges are also adding to their athletic offerings, with women’s volleyball and men’s baseball.

Gearan is also active in the Geneva community.

He is a member of Geneva 2030, a group that is focused on bringing the community together to meet its needs with the help of various stakeholders, including leaders from academia, business and government.

While there has been polarization across the country of late, Gearan believes it is time for a new chapter.

“We have come through this time with an enhanced sense of community here,” he said.

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