Samantha Huge is no longer the athletic director at William & Mary and that’s just as well.
Recent events underlined what a poor fit she was for an academic institution with a distinctive and well-developed ethos. W&M has a sports legacy, but of a particular variety — and if you don’t get the “particulars,” you’re best gone.
That’s a principle, by the way, that applies to more collegiate leadership positions than athletic director.
A few things about W&M, right up front.
This is a great school, with an international reputation for academic excellence, overseen by a president — Katherine Rowe — who arrived in February 2018 and immediately demonstrated her considerable potential for leadership, not only of her institution, but for Virginia as a whole.
So, great school, yes. But like other great schools, with great legacies and great accomplishments, it is occasionally given to some spectacular bellyflops.
Two words: Gene Nichols. Everybody — faculty, students — loved Gene. He believed in things. Big, liberal causes. And he was ready (spontaneously ready, as in abrupt and without warning) to act on his beliefs in the pursuit of truth, justice and all that’s holy about America.
Which is exactly why he ultimately had to go. Nichols lasted less than three years as president, from 2005-2008.
President Taylor Reveley III, previously the law school dean, followed in Nichol’s wake and commanded W&M with notable success and much admiration. They were throwing rose petals at the feet of the ol' boy toward the end.
Reveley beat the odds, in other words. Which is another thing to keep in mind. These jobs are impossible. A state university presidency rivals the governor’s office for its multiple constituencies and accompanying demands.
Reveley succeeded — much as President Tim Sullivan had earlier — because he knew the place, its rhythms, its relationship to the commonwealth. Reveley’s tenure as law school dean and president spanned two decades. Sullivan had been law school dean, too.
Both men understood W&M as an institution and were prudent stewards of its legacy and tempered maestros of its orchestra, i.e. the faculty.
And it hardly stops there. Being a state university president requires an advanced degree in political management, student insight, alumni massaging and donor enticement.
But that’s what you do as a state university president. That’s what the job requires.
And, at this point, you may have noticed that we’re not dwelling much on the departed athletic director.
Here’s the reason: This business with the sports program, which matters for reasons of the heart as much as the application of resources, recently stopped being about Samantha Huge and became about Katherine Rowe.
Does Rowe get the “particulars” herself? That’s the question that’s nagging people right now.
The school took a risk by bringing Rowe in from the outside — she had previously served as provost and dean of the faculty of Smith College, a highly respected private liberal arts women’s college in Massachusetts.
Not to sharpen the point too much, but the governing arrangements for private versus public school differ dramatically.
Not only that, Virginia is not Massachusetts — not yet, anyway.
The one thing in common: These two commonwealths have detailed, complex, sometimes perplexing histories and traditions — and if you don’t understand those, if you don’t understand how that plays into their respective centers of higher learning, then you will soon run into trouble.
It’s all intertwined — the schools, the state, the people — that’s the difficulty. That’s the challenge.
As it happens, Rowe may have just helped herself, in the broad context, by cutting her loses on the athletic director. She may have a few other things to examine and correct as well before everyone calms down.
But Rowe appears capable of sorting through it all. She may be assured that the deep well of good feeling — and high expectations — accompanying her arrival in Williamsburg endures.
Virginia wants (needs) this president and her distinguished campus to succeed.
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