A diverse skill set
New president’s background combines liberal arts and technology
Katherine Rowe, the newly inaugurated 28th president of the College of William & Mary, is a veteran college administrator, a Renaissance literature scholar and the co-founder of a digital media company.
In addition, she is a former player and coach of Ultimate Frisbee, a noncontact sport resembling football in which passes are made with a plastic disc.
In short, she defies all stereotypes about stuffy college presidents.
The diversity of Rowe’s skill set was an important factor in the unanimous decision of William & Mary’s board of visitors to choose her as the first woman to lead the 325-year-old university.
“She’s in the academy, and she’s also an entrepreneur with her own company,” says Todd Stottlemyer, who was rector of the board of visitors at the time.
He was impressed by Rowe’s vision for the role of liberal arts at a time when more emphasis is being placed nationwide on technical fields in higher education.
“A liberal arts education is more relevant today than probably ever before. She talked a lot about why,” he says. “We’re in a dynamic, ever-changing economy. Jobs of today are gone tomorrow.”
Stottlemyer, CEO of the Inova Center for Personalized Health in Fairfax, believes students need to be trained in “critical thinking and analysis, interdisciplinary education, strong communications skills and the ability to do research.”
Rowe succeeded W. Taylor Reveley III, who had led William & Mary for a decade. She joins the university at a time it is marking two other important milestones, the 100th anniversary of the university’s admission of women and its 50th anniversary of the first admission of African-Americans.
William & Mary ranks regularly among the “public ivies,” state schools that rival the quality of the nation’s best private universities. U.S. News & World Report ranked William & Mary at No. 6 among top public schools on its latest list.
Rowe says she was attracted to William & Mary’s “commitment to research and to the classroom — to teaching at a very, very high level.”
She also was drawn to the school’s history. William & Mary is the alma mater of presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and John Tyler.
“I find that I look around here, and I see Jefferson’s intellectual landscape,” she says. “This is the landscape that shaped how our early republic was imagined and was implemented.”
Before coming to William & Mary, Rowe was provost at Smith College. During her four years there, Smith transformed its curriculum, greatly increased the diversity of its faculty and began one of the first statistical and data sciences majors at a liberal arts college. In addition to being provost, Rowe also was Smith’s interim vice president for inclusion, diversity and equity.
Before Smith, Rowe was at Bryn Mawr College for 16 years, during which she was an English professor, department chair and director of the Katharine Houghton Hepburn Center for Leadership and Public Engagement.
She also led two collaborative programs with Haverford and Swathmore colleges, Tri-Co Digital Humanities and the Mellon Tri-College Faculty Forum.
Rowe also was co-founder and CEO of Luminary Digital Media, a company that uses technology to enhance the study of classical texts, such as Shakespeare’s plays.
James B. Murray Jr., the vice rector at the University of Virginia and a former rector of the William & Mary board, says the president of a public university must have a good grasp of business, politics and technology. “Running a university has become increasingly complex,” he says. “It requires somebody with high intelligence and the ability to multitask, and I sense that Katherine has those skills.”
Virginia Business: What would you say your vision is for William & Mary?
Katherine Rowe: It’s much too soon to say that as a new leader coming in. You have to learn the community. So, I’m doing a lot of listening, asking a lot questions, doing a strategic scan of where this institution knows its challenges are and sees its opportunities.
That said, I am coming with a set of predispositions. [Smith was one of the first liberal arts colleges in the country to offer a major in data sciences.] That’s a field … that depends on multiple domains of knowledge and multiple domains of disciplines. That’s going to be important for success in leadership in any business, in any organization, regardless of field going forward.
I work in a data-informed way. I’m somebody who has seen my own field transformed by the advent of quantitative methods, alongside qualitative ones. In Shakespeare studies, we can answer longstanding questions because of the advent of large data sets and analysis of those data sets in new ways … That’s happened across every discipline and every industry … .
I see that enormous opportunity for William & Mary. We are wonderfully hybrid. We have an extraordinary undergraduate college and exciting professional schools. We have commitment to the liberal arts and an interest in preparing students for professional lives.
VB: How does a public institution like this thrive and grow given the constraints that we’ve seen with state funding, not only in Virginia but all over the country?
Rowe: Well, I think through new kinds of partnerships … partnerships in the private sector, for one, [and] partnerships with other institutions. One of the things I did in Western Massachusetts was forge a partnership with MassMutual to help launch a data-sciences major. They funded some faculty positions. They made accessible to us a big, high-speed facility that they built in Amherst, Mass., and we are graduating students into their think tank … It was a fantastic partnership. I’m interested in what are those paths to transformation of industry for this region.
VB: How does William & Mary capitalize on its status as a historic institution and also one of the “public ivies”?
Rowe: That public ivy concept is an incredibly exciting one. One of the things I saw in Virginia higher ed was incredible diversification. This is a remarkable higher-ed system. It has just about every version of a higher institution that there is in the country, and it does it all exceptionally well. To be a public ivy is to find that sweet spot of research-based teaching, to be a teaching university. It takes incredibly dedicated and talented faculty. It takes students who are hungry to be stretched. What it allows is a high degree of involvement with students working with faculty at the edge of knowledge.
Over 80 percent of our undergraduates, according to some recent research, are doing research with faculty. They are working at the limits of that faculty’s field, generating new knowledge. What that teaches [students] is going to be incredibly valuable in any profession. The name of the game is to not work in fields where we know the answers. Going forward, we will be going into fields where we don’t know the answers. To have an experience as an undergrad, being in a place where the answers aren’t known and participating in generating those answers, and asking the right questions — that’s the transformative experience we want for our graduates. That’s what’s going to help Virginia; what’s going to help our economy; what’s going to keep people here.
VB: You’ve said “diversity accelerates innovation.” Would you explain that, please?
Rowe: Sure. I think that’s something corporate America has learned before higher ed. It’s one of those areas that we can learn from what’s happening outside our sector. We know from research on problem solving … that the more diverse the team, the more effective the problem solving. That has to do with bringing different expectations — core assumptions, as well as different knowledge base — to coming up with solutions.
You’ll end up with a wider range of solutions when your team is very diverse. You tend to … generate more potential alternatives with a diverse team than you will with a homogenous team. Starting out with more diversity in any sector of the economy is going to get you more swiftly to solving a business problem, launching a new product successfully, developing new questions … .
We see this in higher ed, too. When we diversify disciplines, when we bring in new scholars and teachers, they bring new bodies of evidence, they ask new kinds of questions, they bring new methodologies, and they generate new methodologies. We accelerate the pace of innovation in disciplines like English or psychology by diversifying the people who practice their backgrounds.
There’s also a lot of evidence that the more you diversify, the more you push, the more you increase the education of the community as a whole on the various ways in which to be a professional in that community. Deloitte has a wonderful study called “Uncovering Talent,” which is about the productivity benefits of inclusion in corporate America. They studied Fortune 500 companies.
The more you allow people to express their full selves at work, the more productive they get.
VB: Let me ask you about your role as an entrepreneur. Tell me about Luminary Digital Media and how apps help students?
Rowe: No one grows up as a native speaker of Shakespeare. It’s an acquired skill … This company was born — with my partner who is at Notre Dame now, Elliott Visconsi — out of the desire to lower the barriers of entry, to make that challenging, exciting, really cultural significant material available much more widely.
There’s two elements to that. One is applying what we know about learning … difficult languages. Another is increasing pleasure, straight up. So, we found in iOS the capacity to sync audio performances with text. The key feature of this app … is that you can read and listen at the same time.
You’re reading the text on screen [while listening to the play being read by performance actors from the Folger Shakespeare Library]. The text is scrolling as they’re performing. So, you can be on a single line and listen to it or listen to the whole scene or have the play unfold.
It’s also social. It’s an enhanced eBook with social margins so you can create classroom teams and then share notes in the margins.
One of the biggest [problems] of students who are having difficulty with Shakespeare is that they can’t say the characters’ names. There’s Bassanio and Antonio, right? If you hear the names said, and there’s emotion in their interaction together, you can understand plot at a basic level … The goal was to lower the barrier of entry to the students, [to get them past] questions about plot … to more complicated and interesting questions — from what questions to why questions.
VB: So, we get to the real main question of the day, your Ultimate Frisbee career, how did that start?
Rowe: Carleton College, first week as a freshman. I had been very athletic but not on teams. I think the first thing I want to say is that this is not a hobby for me. It’s actually the arena at which I learned leadership and learned what it is to be part of a team. That was the outlet for me …
I helped found the Carleton College Women’s Team, which is a storied team. In the Boston area, I helped found the league that still runs youth programs, high school programs and summer leagues. When I stopped being a competitive athlete, I transitioned into being a coach. I think that’s what taught me how to do higher-ed administration because a successful championship coach is coaching long arcs of change and growth …
But mostly I love the transformation of young adults into athletes and their sense of joining each other to compete together for a shared goal at their utmost. Seeing that transformation is really something.
Katherine A. Rowe
Rowe was inaugurated as the 28th president of the College of William & Mary on July 2.
Career: Provost and dean of the faculty, Smith College, Northampton, Mass., 2014-18; co-founder and CEO, Luminary Digital Media, 2011-18; professor of English, department chair and director of the Katharine Hepburn Center for leadership and public engagement, Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, Pa., 1998-2014; director, Tri-College Digital Humanities Initiative (Bryn Mawr, Swarthmore and Haverford colleges), 2010-13; assistant professor of English, Yale University, 1992-98.
Education: Master’s and doctorate in American and English Literature, Harvard University; bachelor’s degree in English, Carleton College. She also has completed graduate work in Cinema and Media Studies at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
Books published: “New Wave Shakespeare on Screen,” with Thomas Cartelli (Polity Press, 2007); “Reading the Early Modern Passions: Essays in the Cultural History of Emotion,” co-editor (Penn Press, 2004); and “Dead Hands: Fictions of Agency, Renaissance to Modern” (Stanford, 2000). She also has editing credits in the “Cambridge Guide to the Worlds of Shakespeare” and introduced G.B. Evans’ “The Tragedy of Macbeth.”
Board memberships: Rowe serves on Harvard’s Board of Overseers’ Visiting Committee of the Library and the Executive Committee of the American Council of Learned Societies.
Family: Rowe is married to Bruce Jacobson, a telecommunications entrepreneur. They have two adult children, Daniel and Beah.