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Retiring Washington And Jefferson College President Reflects On The Changing Campus

Washington & Jefferson College
Washington and Jefferson College President Tori Haring-Smith will retire in 2017 after 12 years at the school.

Tori Haring-Smith says it took many years get beyond being introduced as Washington and Jefferson College’s first female president.

Haring-Smith assumed the role in 2005 and recently announced she will be retiring effective June 30, 2017. She says the biggest challenge coming in was working with alumni to help them understand how their college had changed since becoming a coed institution in 1970.

“To the older students who graduated by 1970 it was almost inconceivable that they would have a female president,” Haring-Smith says.

During her tenure, Haring-Smith says the college has grown in both the number of students and their diversity. She places a particular emphasis on the increase in international students, of which there are now more than 100.

“It was very important for me … to bring W and J to the world and to bring the world to W and J,” Haring-Smith says.

Washington and Jefferson has what Haring-Smith calls an amazingly rare blend of students across the political and ideological spectrum. She says she taught at Brown University for nearly 20 years, where that was not the case.

“It was very comfortable because everyone agreed with everybody else and nobody ever challenged them,” Haring-Smith says.

She says teaching students to acknowledge differing backgrounds and points of view enriches their educational experience and serves as an important building block for democracy.

To this end, Haring-Smith helped found the Magellan program, which allows students of all economic backgrounds to study abroad during the summer. The students work with faculty to make proposals and develop budgets for their trips.  

“You can be wealthy or you can be poor and you can go off this summer … to work at an elephant sanctuary in Cambodia,” Haring-Smith says.

Over 10 years, the program has used $1 million to fund 500 trips. Haring-Smith says the students are totally changed when they come back.

“We want our students to be free in the world because whatever they do is going to be global,” Haring-Smith says.

She says Washington and Jefferson is well positioned to handle challenges currently affecting higher education. The university landed jobs for 93 percent of last year’s graduates across several sectors within 6 months. They lead the country’s higher education institutions in future lawyers per capita, and place third in future doctors per capita.

Haring-Smith says the college does a good job of accommodating students from diverse backgrounds and making sure they receive the same educational experience.

“By the time the students graduate, I can’t tell what high school they came from. I can’t tell what their socioeconomic background was,” Haring-Smith says. “They have all become curious, successful, focused students who are succeeding.”

She says to adapt going forward we have to understand that students coming in with shorter attention spans aren’t necessarily inferior, they just possess a different skillset. She also stresses the importance of the arts.

“Without the arts, we’ve lost our humanity,” Haring-Smith says. “Our humanity is inherent in our ability to express who we are.”

She says controlling college costs requires a return to the belief that education benefits everyone, pointing to the decision to make high school universal in the early 20th century.

“We did it with the notion that it would be for the common good, that all our children and the entire community needed this,” Haring-Smith says. “Now we want something just for kids like us.”

Haring-Smith intends to spend her retirement doing research and writing books, including a history of Washington and Jefferson College and a book about the mothers of Pearl Harbor. She plans on visiting archives for the latter project, which has led her to wonder whether we’ll lose our connection to history now that everything is online and impermanent.

“As I prepare to leave, I realize all my records are electronic. Do I print all that out and leave it for my successor?” Haring-Smith says. “As I do that, I realize the history of the college is at stake.”  

More Essential Pittsburgh segments can be heard here.

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