CHESTERTOWN — The roll-up-her-sleeves work has begun for Sheila Bair, who promised to make increased scholarship funding and decreased student debt priorities during her tenure as president of Washington College.
Bair, who already has distinguished herself as the college’s first female president, used the platform of her inauguration Saturday morning, Sept. 26, to establish college affordability and access as the first major themes of her administration.
George’s Brigade, an admissions and financial aid program, will encourage high-achieving inner-city youth to apply with friends and have their applications considered on a group basis — “because we know their transition to a small rural school will be smoothed and enhanced if they can share it with one or more friends” — and provide full financial support once they are admitted.
Another initiative, a broader fundraising campaign labeled “Dam the Debt,” will raise an additional $1 million a year in scholarship funding with the goal of reducing student borrowing by one-third.
Bair said the latter “will be available to a broad range of families, as we recognize that even families considered to be ‘upper income’ can struggle to cover tuition costs today.”
Bair, a former chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, identified the root causes of escalating student debt to include a declining savings culture among parents; poorly designed federal aid programs that don’t hold abusive institutions accountable; state budget cutbacks at public universities; and lax financial management at some schools.
She noted that a total of 40 million Americans carry at least one student loan, an increase of 11 million since the financial crisis of 2008, and the average debt load for graduates is about $29,000. Such debt hurts the overall economy as young people postpone big investments such as purchasing a house or a car or starting a business.
Bair, 61, also addressed the question she heard most often from friends and colleagues when her new job was first announced in May: “Why Washington College?”
Her answer included the school’s rich 233-year history and ties to George Washington; its academic excellence; the support and mentoring it offers students; and an educational experience designed to “open minds, not capture them.”
But the biggest factor in her decision was “the opportunity to give back in this, the likely final chapter of my career,” in ways that will help this generation of college students be better stewards of the economy than her own Baby Boomer generation has been.
Well-wishers, including more than 100 representatives of institutions of higher education who walked ahead of Bair in the ceremonial procession, crowded into a tent on the foot of the college campus. Her son Preston represented Swarthmore College.
Chestertown Mayor Chris Cerino, U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski and State Senate President Mike Miller welcomed Bair and pledged their support.
Cerino said he looked forward to strengthening the mutually beneficial town and gown relationship.
Miller described Washington College as the “jewel in the crown of higher education in the state of Maryland.”
He said as he walked across campus that morning, he felt the spirit of former Washington College president John Toll and Louis Goldstein, a WC graduate and longtime Maryland comptroller, “looking over us and saying ‘all is well.’”
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph Ellis also lightened the mood. Honestly, he said, George Washington spoke to him in his dreams the night before as he slept at Mount Vernon after giving a lecture on young Mr. Washington. Ellis noted that Washington gave 50 guineas to help get the college started, and therefore had an investment to protect. Also, according to Ellis, Washington was happy to see the college named for him now being led by a woman.
In his invocation, former college president Baird Tipson (2004-10) compared Bair to Queen Elizabeth I, “another strong and capable leader facing formidable challenges.” He asked that she be granted, among other things, great wisdom, a long life and quiteness.
Former first ladies Katherine Trout and Debbie Toll were in the audience, while 2014-15 interim college president Jack Griswold shared the dais with the other guest speakers.
The chairman of the Washington College Board of Visitors and Governors, retired Danaher Corporation CEO H. Lawrence Culp, led Bair in the oath of office.
In his introduction, Culp said that Bair in her first 55 days already has “struck the right chord with each of the college’s constituencies. She is aware of the college’s unique character and responsive to its needs. She hopes to make this wonderful college as great as it can be, and burnish its reputation throughout the nation for what it does best: teaching young people to live lives of purpose, instilling in students a love of learning, and building the intellectual habits and moral character of tomorrow’s leaders.”
Trish McGee contributed to this story.