The Magic of W&M
How Constraints Spark Creativity
September 1, 2018
Katherine A. Rowe
William & Mary President
The Renaissance, circa 1600, is the period on which I’ve done much of my work as a scholar and teacher of Shakespeare’s plays. During that time, in England, anything we would think of today as “theatre” was very sparsely furnished. Playing companies had limited props, no real scenery to speak of and the costumes they used were recycled from previous owners.
So why do so many of Shakespeare’s history plays feature kings and queens? Partly because some of the only costumes available at the time were hand-me- downs from a royal household or noble family. Playwrights used the resources available; as a result, the world has a brilliant corpus of Shakespearean plays dramatizing the challenges of noble families.
Theatre professionals today would tell you this is still true: constraints spark creativity and imagination. Most entrepreneurs would say the same. I’ve kept this principle in mind throughout my career because it is widely applicable: when we want to catalyze innovative thinking, we need to lean into our constraints.
For years it’s been clear to me that the public sector of higher education is generating the most innovative solutions. Fresh pedagogies, new sources of research funding, novel fundraising and organizational innovations ensuring affordability for students of promise are all marks of today’s public colleges and universities. Higher education faces many constraints; public institutions have a track record of responding with resourcefulness and creativity.
William & Mary has long impressed me as one of these innovators. Nothing like the William & Mary Promise — with its particular mix of securing excellence, fostering innovation, generating new revenues and creating predictability for in-state students — had been attempted in higher education when it was announced in 2013. It is a precisely creative response to a problem that seemed intractable: how to deliver an Ivy-caliber education while maintaining the affordability of a public university.
In the classroom, William & Mary adopted the College Curriculum, a general education that is intentionally cross-method and cross-discipline, designed to teach students to bridge qualitative and quantitative modes of thinking. That flexibility will pay dividends in coming decades and help students surmount some of the world’s thorniest problems. This ability to connect different modes of thinking and disciplines, a hallmark of U.S. public education, has provided the country a competitive advantage for decades. It marks us as the world’s Gold Standard in education. And it’s an arena in which William & Mary excels.
More recently, when William & Mary announced our billion-dollar campaign, For the Bold, we were the smallest public institution — and the only one without a medical school or engineering program — to launch a campaign at this level. We are clearly committed to being self-sustaining, to facing external financial constraints.
William & Mary’s entire history is marked by remarkable responses to the constraints of the day. This school year marks the 100th anniversary of the first women students admitted to William & Mary, but gender equity wasn’t the school’s only motive. In truth, World War I had drastically reduced male student enrollment. William & Mary admitted the first 24 women to fill its empty seats; these pioneers kept the university financially solvent. Again, progress in response to pressure.
This isn’t to suggest that we won’t welcome, as Taylor Reveley LL.D. ’18, HON ’18 has said, “the happy day when we can do more with more.” We surely will, and remain focused on our financial future through private fundraising, entrepreneurship, innovation, efficiency and public and earned revenue.
The real magic of this enterprising creativity at W&M – what makes it possible in the first place — is a firm and unusually productive bedrock of community.
When I meet William & Mary students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents and friends, it is clear we enjoy an astonishing cross-generational commitment to the university. People spontaneously share their ideas with me about sustaining an intentional intellectual community. It’s unusual to have a community be so systematically front-of-mind — and to hear this repeated in so many early conversations.
But as Shakespeare’s Henry VIII observed, “’Tis a kind of good deed to say well: And yet words are no deeds.”
Even if no one at William & Mary had spoken of it to me, the commitment and love that its people hold for the institution would be apparent in its deeds. It shows in the ingenuity of the William & Mary Promise, the vision of the COLL curriculum, the aspiration of For the Bold. It shows in the hallowed traditions, and the responsive changes — creative in the face of constraints — that ensure its relevance in the 21st century.