Turn people on to the joys of learning
A conversation with Joyce Jacobsen (June 1, 2021)
By John Mitchell and Maxwell Bigman (Decade Ahead Project)
“New York State was a very proactive state,” says Joyce Jacobsen, President of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in the bucolic Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York. “[Governor] Cuomo was like texting us twenty times a day telling us what to do.” She recalls that he told colleges, “You all just need to shut down and send your students home.” Faculty had to flip their classes into an online format in a week, which was very stressful. “Faculty wanted to take longer, but I said we just have to get it done,” Joyce recalls. An economist, she also relates that, “We are tuition dependent and would take a huge financial hit if we had no room and board.” With both college finances and the interests of students in mind, Hobart and William Smith continued in Fall 2020 with about two-thirds of the students in person. Proud of bringing students to the campus of the liberal arts college, Jacobsen says she values “education for the whole person, not just for career orientation.” Colleges are our “banks of how to accumulate and propagate knowledge,” Joyce continues. “I want to turn people on to the joys of learning.”
Joyce Jacobsen became the 29th president of Hobart College and the 18th of William Smith College on July 1, 2019. Previously the Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs at Wesleyan University, she was also the Andrews Professor of Economics and an award-winning teacher at Wesleyan. An expert on labor economics, Joyce is author of Labor Markets and Employment Relationships (Wiley-Blackwell, 2004) and editor of The Economics of Gender, Queer Economics: A Reader (Routledge; 2007).
Navigating the pandemic less than a year into her new role, Jacobsen reflects that leading was “very challenging as a new president.” Not only was the job new, but as the pandemic unfolded “faculty governance broke down.” The “Provost and President had to make decisions quickly.” Fortunately, Hobart and William Smith were able to draw on the statewide Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities (CICU), whose members include over 100 independent New York State colleges and universities. With all of the complexity of the pandemic, “I got to know a lot more college presidents than I would have otherwise,” Joyce says. Rather than face challenges alone, CICU showed how important it was “ to work collectively as colleges and universities.” Collaboration through CICU gave regional small-college presidents “strength to be able to say they’re following best practices.” However, that did not make the year easy. With so many decisions under such pressure and uncertainty, the Hobart and William Smith provost who took office in January 2020 decided to resign after a year in the job.
With the murder of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter marches, anti-Asian violence and a chaotic presidential election, student activism and alarm rocked Hobart and William Smith like so many other colleges and universities. Recognizing the need to address student concerns, the colleges hired a Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion who started July 1st. He was “able to help deal with the issues as they arose over summer.” As unrest continued into the Fall, Joyce tells us that “having students on campus and being able to deal with it in ‘real time’ helped.” It was “important to have students from all four years on campus” so students could meet in clubs and other organizations. Having “sports back has helped with morale” as well, Joyce tells us.
At a time of uncertainty, students “want to be in a college community to have your peers and professors to talk about the issues.” Instead of working through student duress remotely, she is glad they “were able to process it as a college community together.”
Our conversation ends by reflecting on the plight of small liberal arts colleges. At Hobart and William Smith, Jacobsen aims to “get students in the door and add value at different fronts.”
Unfortunately, “liberal arts has gotten a bad rap,” she says. “As president, I want to preserve the idea of the liberal arts — education for the whole person.” As an economist, Joyce is comfortable preparing students for successful employment. But, she says, “Prepare students for a career — that is difficult for English literature. Demand for humanities education is shrinking. Demand for language education is shrinking. STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) is where students are moving.” The need to combine liberal arts — education for the whole person — with fundamentals that lead to promising career paths, what Joyce calls “pragmatic liberal arts,” poses a particular challenge for small colleges. Drawing on the insight of working through CICU, Jacobsen suggests that “schools under 1000 will be hard to run unless they are part of a larger consortium. I don’t think we will have as many schools 25 years from now.” Surveying the landscape of higher education, Joyce believes that for universities more prestigious than her own that they will be fine, and might even benefit, while schools below hers seem to be in trouble. Joyce predicts that “mergers will be likely” raising questions of how a consolidation of higher education might affect the landscape of universities: what schools will close? What schools will merge? What responsibility might well resourced institutions hold to save the sector?