Spring 2022 Issue

‘Unprecedented, As Usual’

By Katherine A. Rowe

As I write this column, spring is blossoming across the Williamsburg campus, COVID–19 is easing (for now) and students are in the home stretch of the semester. Many on campus are weary from 24-plus months of uncertainty and rapid pivots. Yet the delight of returning to something like “normal” — a word I have avoided assiduously for two years — is felt wherever I gather with William & Mary people here and around the country.

That “normal” now means “always ready to adapt” is one of the great lessons of the present moment. Every year at William & Mary, a COLL 150 professor asks their class to develop a slogan to recruit next year’s entering class. Here’s how a spring class of ’25ers proposed we should describe the university today: “William & Mary: Unprecedented, As Usual.”

Pride in our resilience, pride in our ability to adapt: These are inspirations for William & Mary’s new strategic plan. Vision 2026 focuses on what comes next. What are we learning from the moment we are in? How might we sustain and scale the best of the innovations we have achieved under pandemic? What capacities does W&M bring to address the most important challenges our society faces? My conversations on campus and around the U.S. this spring — with students, alumni, parents, faculty and staff — have explored these questions.

From many different perspectives and roles, soberness has emerged along with the optimism expressed by those COLL 150 students: a shared sense that it’s time to get real, now. For a world-class university, the fundamentals are simple. Student success is grounded in a great experience on campus. They need to learn in transformative ways: ways relevant to their lives as citizens and professionals in a pluralistic democracy — where freedom of expression enables the open exchange of ideas that fuel positive change. And they need to land jobs. That means landing their first job as well as those that will follow, throughout rapidly evolving careers.

As we embark on our next chapter, William & Mary looks forward to building on the foundation of the last three centuries — knowing that we should always expect unprecedented challenges ahead. Vision 2026 is ambitious. It looks broadly at our educational mission in the 21st century. And it is framed around problem-solving: the work of a great university and the core skill we aim to cultivate in our graduates and our institutional culture.

Our four pan-university initiatives — data, water, democracy and careers — prioritize areas where William & Mary has a competitive advantage in addressing urgent global problems. Here are some highlights of the distinctive strengths William & Mary brings in these four areas. In my columns next year, I will take deep dives into each area and share ways alumni can join us directly in these efforts.

DATA: In the 21st century, a hallmark of an educated person will be the ability to work with data of many kinds, at scale. The toolkit of data analytic — statistics, computer modeling, machine learning, artificial intelligence — has become essential to critical thinking today. Infusing these skills into the broad range of a liberal arts education ensures our graduates will flourish as citizens and professionals in any path they pursue.

WATER: Since 2001, nearly three quarters of natural disasters have been water-related: floods, drought, erosion and more. The frequency and intensity of such events are expected to increase. For our region — the Chesapeake Bay watershed — the challenges are real and immediate. William & Mary’s broad expertise in water ecosystems and management is already preparing the next generation of professionals and scientists to address them.

DEMOCRACY: The ability to conduct civil debates about issues of deep disagreement is a topic of serious concern for many, worldwide. Higher education must ensure the space for lively and respectful disagreement. Students at America’s universities should see intellectually rigorous, thoughtful engagement modeled by faculty, alumni and guests — as well as the humility potentially to acknowledge error. William & Mary is the institution to grow these crucial capacities for citizenship in the 21st century.

CAREERS: More than one-third of internships are unpaid, making it difficult for students to accept an internship opportunity if they don’t have the financial means to do so — leaving many of our students behind in their job searches. By 2026, William & Mary will guarantee each undergraduate the opportunity for a funded internship or applied learning experience without extending time to degree.

Vision 2026 will ensure that William & Mary continues to define standards of excellence in liberal arts and sciences and professional education. In the same way that we sought alumni input to develop our strategic plan, we will also rely on your support and engagement to implement it. If you are interested in specific paths of action, the Vision 2026 website introduces them and tracks progress. And please stay tuned for future columns to explore each area more fully.

William & Mary has led in powerful ways during the most challenging times. The key to that success has been understanding the moment that we are in while seeing the possibilities ahead. At this juncture, W&M has particular power to unite our community and to prepare tomorrow’s leaders to think boldly and act humanely to address the most pressing issues of our time.