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What's Up Magazine

Mitchell Reiss, President of Washington College

Jan 06, 2011 11:30PM ● By Anonymous

Prior to his position at William & Mary, Reiss served as President George Bush’s special envoy for the Northern Ireland Peace Process from 2003–2007, and before that as director of policy planning to the U.S. Department of State. He was also the chief negotiator for the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, and is widely published on issues of international trade, security, and arms control. He is a graduate of Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., where he competed
in intercollegiate tennis and squash. He has two children, a son at Brown University and a daughter at the McDonough School, and currently lives in Chestertown with his wife, Elisabeth.

What’s Up?: What do you perceive as the most important services a college can provide to its students?

Mitchell Reiss:
I think it’s giving young men and women the time and space to grow and develop and mature, both intellectually and socially; to provide a safe environment, both physically and intellectually, where they can test themselves, where they can test ideas, where they can figure out things for themselves. I think that’s what Washington College strives to do, and that’s what the best liberal arts colleges do in this country.

WU?: What significant aspects of your background and experiences as an educator do you think will help you as the new president of Washington College?

MR: Well, I think the experience that I had as an undergraduate, both in the classroom and on the playing field, gives me appreciation of how to get the balance [between work and leisure] correct. I think the ability that I’ve been able to experience in a number of different professions shows the importance of a sound liberal arts education. Most of our students today are going to hold at least dozen different jobs by the time they’re 30. The notion in the past that you join an employer and work for 40 or 50 years afterward is antiquated; that just doesn’t exist anymore. Our students are certainly going to need the skills, the adaptability, and the nimbleness of intellect to tackle a number of different challenges.

What are your thoughts on students today who are struggling to pay tuition and accumulating debt at private institutions?

MR: This is something that I worry about everyday; it’s something that I think everyone in higher education struggles with. I understand that the cost of higher education is a burden for many American families. The good news at Washington College is that we’ve been able to offer a record amount of financial aid this past year—more than $18 million—due to the generosity of our alumni and friends. We are trying to address the need for families that still believe in the value of a Washington College education.

WU?: As the 27th president of Washington College, are you initiating any brand-new programs or policies?

MR: Sure. We just adopted a new program with Oxford University where our students will be studying later this academic year. One of our graduating seniors will be automatically admitted into the graduate program at Oxford. We’ve just launched a new summer internship program at the U.S. mission in Brussels at NATO. One of our outstanding young students is going to be spending next summer there. Only three colleges in America have that relationship, and now Washington College is one of those three. And, just to name another big-ticket item, we are looking very hard at how we are going to develop the beautiful five acres that we have on the Chester River. This waterfront campus will be a real showpiece. That’s a pretty big agenda for the first 100 days or so, but there will be many more exciting things coming in the future, I’m very confident.

Are there specific ways you’d like to change or influence the future direction of higher education?

MR: I think it’s important that higher education, especially the quality of education that you get, remains affordable for American families. Education traditionally has been the escalator to middle-class status, to the American dream, and that has to remain available or else we’re going to lose something that’s extremely important to who we are as a nation. I think we also need to take a close look at what it is we’re asking our students to do in the future. It’s not enough to simply give them the knowledge that they need to be successful and send them on their way. Recently, we’ve seen a great many very intelligent people falter and fall because they haven’t been very well-equipped to deal with some of the ethical and moral challenges that they face. It’s not imposing certain value systems on a student; I think it’s talking about the timeless values of integrity, honesty, and character. [These traits] certainly characterized our founding patron, George Washington, and the virtues he tried to instill through the example of his life. It’s a tall order, but I think we’re off to a good start at Washington College. I ask everybody who’s reading this to please come to our beautiful campus and check us out, and bring all your friends. I think lots of exciting things are happening here.

Editor’s Note: Events Editor Emily Wilson jumped at the opportunity to interview a fellow member of the Tribe. She graduated in January 2010 from the College of William & Mary, in Williamsburg, Va., where Reiss taught until this past July. Go Tribe, and Hark Upon the Gale!