GENEVA — As she stood at the podium in the chilly autumn breeze that swept through the Hobart and William Smith Colleges Quad on Friday afternoon for her inauguration ceremony, Joyce Jacobsen pondered with plenty of humor about what led her to that moment.
The first woman president in the history of the Colleges pointed to her mother, Virginia Chan, a longtime academic administrator herself who had traveled from Amsterdam, the Netherlands, for the inauguration.
Jacobsen said her mother revealed to her earlier this year that at one time she had hoped her daughter would pursue a career in music or folklore. Fortunately, said Jacobsen, teachers “gently discouraged” her from pursuing either path.
“The summer before college, at music camp, when my cello teacher found out that I was going to Harvard instead of to a music conservatory, he sounded pretty darn relieved,” she told the large contingent on hand for her installation. “And in the spring of sophomore year in college, when I went to talk to my folklore professor about my term paper and he asked me what I was thinking of majoring in, and I said ‘either economics, or folklore and mythology’ he said, ‘Oh, you’ll want to major in economics. There aren’t any jobs in folklore and mythology.’”
Jacobsen subsequently became a renowned scholar of economics with degrees from Harvard, The London School of Economics and Stanford University. Her stellar academic career took an administrative turn at one of the nation’s top liberal arts schools, Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., where she was provost and senior vice president for academic affairs before coming to HWS in July following an extensive search. The job had been filled on an interim basis by Pat McGuire following the 2018 resignation of Greg Vincent.
Tom Bozzuto, chairman of the HWS Board of Trustees, said Jacobsen is the right person for the times.
“Dr. Jacobsen enters the presidency of Hobart and William Smith at a time of increasing complexity in higher education both here on campus and nationally,” he said. “It is my belief, and the unanimous belief of the Board of Trustees, that there is no one better to help us navigate this future than Dr. Joyce Jacobsen.”
Bozzuto said Jacobsen “is here because the challenges we face at Hobart and William Smith interest her deeply, and because she knows that here, she can make a real difference.”
Jacobsen said she is bullish on higher education.
She said, “People regularly ask me why I, or anyone, would want to be a college president in these difficult times. The general view is that higher education, particularly the liberal arts sector of it, is in crisis.”
She pointed to issues such as rising college costs and reduced affordability; mounting student debt; skepticism of admissions processes in light of some high-profile cases in the news; questions about the value of a college education; and college accessibility.
But Jacobsen pointed out that the history of higher education in America — save post-World War II, when there was a significant expansion of public support for higher education — reveals far more challenging times.
Those hard times were endured at Hobart as well, she said, pointing to a period in the 1800s when the college was so broke it couldn’t afford to pay for faculty — just a couple of tutors. The college president taught most the classes.
Compared to those days, said Jacobsen, “things don’t seem quite so bad.”
The challenges, she said, are “can we move to the next level in U.S. higher education to a place where we aren’t worried about how to finance higher education,” while keeping it affordable and accessible for students. Another challenge is providing a stable environment for HWS faculty and staff, she added.
‘Spunky, scrappy colleges’Jacobsen said HWS is her kind of place.
“I didn’t want to be president of just any college,” she said. “It is this particular pair of colleges … that I am serving as their president. Spunky, scrappy colleges that have survived numerous existential threats over their years and nonetheless just keep on keeping on, hustling and marketing and serving the community in which they are embedded. Aspirational colleges that contribute to keeping the light of learning alive, that keep on trying to get better, but that don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good or the ‘good enough” become the enemy of the great. Because for all the doubts about the college system, about what the value is of college, about whether it is worth its cost; for all the compromises we make in order to keep a college going, and all the ways in which we fall short of providing the ideal experience, a college still provides the single best bet for having a positive transformational experience that lays the groundwork for a successful adulthood.”
Matthew Crow, an associate professor of history and presiding officer for the faculty, delivered the faculty greeting. He said he “knew I would like President Jacobsen from the start. She is frank, funny and serious at the same time, dedicated to the life of the mind.”
He said Jacobsen “really sealed the deal for me” with a Twitter and Instagram posting of an image of the front page of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, considered the founding document of the social contract theory.
“It takes confidence to turn Hobbes’ famously stark description of life outside of the commonwealth, a life that he says is ‘poor, nasty, brutish, and short,’ into a hashtag,” he cracked.