Spring 2024 Issue

Uphill Gains

By Katherine A. Rowe
William & Mary President

Higher education in the United States faces a steep uphill climb. The challenges confronting colleges and universities are the starkest I have seen in my career. Trust in higher education has eroded; though the data remains strong on the long-term value of college degrees, students and families want to know that their education will ready them to navigate a future that seems filled with uncertainties.

As any long-distance runner knows, however, we can make the most gains on the uphills. William & Mary is America’s first university. We have a special obligation to lead today. Holding onto and rebuilding faith in higher education means we must deliver on three fundamental obligations as the Alma Mater of the Nation.

First, W&M must continue to ensure our students have a great on-campus experience. A W&M education should stretch students in transformational ways, so they graduate ready for global citizenship and professional life in the 21st century. As one of W&M’s most brilliant and distinguished alumni, Michael K. Powell ’85, D.P.S. ’02, puts it, “The jobs of tomorrow belong to those trained to solve tomorrow’s problems.”

To meet those challenges, W&M is continuing to evolve our curriculum. We weave 21st-century knowledge and tools into the enduring values of the liberal arts and sciences. W&M’s new School of Computing, Data Sciences, and Physics and new majors in marine science and cybersecurity ensure that graduates will have both the range and technical savvy to address urgent challenges facing our nation and world. Robert M. Gates Hall, honoring our chancellor and former U.S. secretary of defense, the Honorable Robert M. Gates ’65, L.H.D. ’98, will position W&M as the destination for research on global security, democracy and conservation.

Our second obligation as America’s Alma Mater is to recruit and retain extraordinary people. When accepting the Raymond A. Mason School of Business Principled Achievement Award this spring, Buffalo Bills Coach Sean McDermott ’98 remarked, “Our building starts with people, and it ends with people.” As a championship coach, he knows that success is only limited by the quality of the people who make up our community — their openness to transformation and commitment to supporting one another with grace in that growth.

For that reason, W&M systemically cultivates the arts and crafts of respectful disagreement that are so important in a pluralistic society. As part of our Vision 2026 Democracy initiative for the past four years, we have fully integrated a civics curriculum — called “Better Arguments” — into new student orientation. Our leadership boards, faculty, staff and even alumni have participated. Keep your eye out for opportunities to join us.

W&M continues to invest in exceptional talent. Generous donors at all levels support professorships, coaching and exceptional resources. In FY23, we raised nearly $20 million for scholarships. W&M has made major strides toward our ambitious goal to increase in-state Pell recipients to 20%. As the next horizon, we are looking to increase aid for out-of-state students — an essential commitment for a national university.

If we deliver on these two obligations — to continue to focus on outcomes and recruit and retain outstanding people who will drive innovation — then we will fulfill our third obligation as the Alma Mater of the Nation: to raise W&M’s prominence in our nation and world.

W&M has readied generations of students to lead in their time. We have solidified W&M’s stature as the No. 1 public university for internships. For three years in a row, W&M has received national recognition from the National Association of Colleges and Employers for our commitment to innovating career services. The Wall Street Journal has once again ranked W&M among the top public universities for high-paying salaries in finance, management consulting and tech.

As I write this column, we are two weeks out from Commencement for the Class of 2024. This extraordinary cohort began their college careers in the thick of pandemic. At their Convocation ceremony in 2021, Judge John Charles Thomas HON J.D. ’16, HON ’18 called on them to be “magnificent builders.” They graduate ready to build at their next destination, be it a job, military commission, graduate school or service opportunity. When I talk with them on campus about how much effort they committed to be here, now, on the threshold of their degrees, I feel immense pride and hope. They remind me that, with a resilient mindset, we can make the most gains on the uphills. Congratulations to the amazing Class of 2024: the people who will always find a way.