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Charles Reed, BS '63, MS '64, Ed D '70 played linebacker and halfback for the Colonials in the '60s. He is now the chancellor of the California State University System. Photo courtesy of University Archives.

Columbian College, GW’s first incarnation, opened its doors in 1821 and graduated very small classes. Yet within 40 years, it produced eight men (it was still all male) who became college presidents. They were: William Greenleaf Eliot, 1829, chancellor of Washington University; Robert Ryland, 1826, president of Richmond College; William Carey Crane, 1836, president of Baylor University; Henry Holcombe Tucker, 1838, president of Mercer University and chancellor of the University of Georgia; Charles L. Cocke, 1839, president of Hollins College; Luther R. Gwaltney, 1853, president of Judson College; William Lyne Wilson, president of West Virginia University and president of Washington and Lee University; and Richard Herndon Rawlings, 1854, president of Judson College. All eight earned A.B. degrees, which in those days was more than enough by way of credentials.

All these years later, it is interesting to ask how GW is stacking up against the standard set by Columbian. Evidently, quite well. Based on our research and information requests, we found that 13 men and women who earned at least one degree from GW are today the president or chancellor of an American college or university. It is not clear whether this impressive number makes GW, as one off-the-record source suggested, “the mother of university presidents,” but it is certainly a goodly number and, in fact, a good and interesting group of people.

Their common denominator is a GW degree, accompanied by a recollection of the intense care and concern their professors had for them. Otherwise, their paths to their current jobs have varied immensely—one owes her career to a poker game, another was a landlocked sailor—and all have their own story, as you will see. The last question each of these presidents answered was, “How do you spend your day?” The initial response was usually a sigh, laughter, or an exclaimed, “Oh, my God!” At the end of each brief profile, part of each president’s answer to that question appears in italics.

By B.B. Whitebook

Most university presidents are in middle age when they get the top job. Many, of course, have been looking forward at least to the possibility. But it sometimes happens that the presidency sneaks up on the individual, as appears to have happened to three GW alumni who are now presidents.

David L. Harlow, MBA ’67
President of Jacksonville University

After 13 years in the Navy and just coming off a tour of duty as a catapult and arresting gear officer on an aircraft carrier, David Harlow found himself transferred to Washington, D.C., and, soon enough, in the GW MBA program. “It was something they were giving me so they could have me pay them back after I couldn’t fly airplanes any more.” (About the same time, the Army was planning to get some payback from a young officer named Colin Powell by sending him, too, to GW for an MBA.)

After flying planes and driving ships for a few more years, Harlow went to work in the Navy Budget Office and later in Manpower and Personnel—“all issues I had studied and been exposed to in the program at George Washington.” His last assignment was in landlocked Millington, Tenn., as chief of Naval Technical Training, “which I’ve defined as superintendent of schools because I had 59 school houses that reported to me from all over the country.” Retiring as an admiral, he was approached to be the number two man at Rhodes College in nearby Memphis. Ten years later, he retired, again, as chancellor of Rhodes and moved to Sarasota, Fla. About a year later, he got a call to come in as the interim president of Jacksonville University. Nearly three years later, he is still there.

“Today I had four events to help raise money, then I met with two people who report to me and four board members. This evening my wife and I get a break: We don’t have a university social event.”

Walter M. Bortz III, EdD ’97
President of Hampden-Sydney College

When Walter Bortz graduated from college in 1967, he intended to go to graduate school, but for one perfectly good reason and another, that never happened. Even before he received his bachelor’s degree he began working in academic administration and eventually went to work for Stephen Joel Trachtenberg when Trachtenberg was president of the University of Hartford. He accompanied Trachtenberg to GW and served as vice president for information and administrative services. In all he had spent 25 years in higher education administration with a bachelor’s degree—the same degree that was enough for the 19th-century graduates who became college presidents. But in the 1990s, it was not enough, and so thought President Trachtenberg.

“Stephen invited Professor John Boswell and me to lunch and said, ‘Walter, you need to work with Dr. Boswell,’ and, ‘Dr. Boswell, this man is worthy of your attention.’” Well past 50 and working full time, Bortz agreed with Trachtenberg and Boswell that the only way to make a college presidency possible was to obtain the degree. He did, with an emphasis on leadership. “As Steve said at the time, ‘What have you got to lose? You’ll get a presidency and you’ll be good at it. And if you don’t, you’ll have had this wonderful educational experience.’ He was right.”

Three years after earning his degree, Bortz became president of Hampden-Sydney, our nation’s 10th oldest college.

“Today I will probably be writing a dozen letters to various people about various subjects, a lot of it having to do with support of the institution. I probably spend 50 to 60 percent of my time searching for resources … and the rest of the time is spent working with my staff and faculty on their various pursuits.”

Thomas Shepherd, MA ’75
President of Bastyr University

“The last thing I had in my mind was being a college president.” When Thomas Shepherd showed up at GW in 1973, they were building the Metro and the Smith Center. Before the site of the new GW Hospital was a parking lot, there were buildings there and his uncle, Charlie Witt, had run a gift shop there. Shepherd left Washington for a residency a week after President Richard Nixon left for good.

He had come to study hospital administration at GW and, after returning to pick up his degree in 1975, spent the next 28 years running hospitals in various parts of the country. In 1980, he was diagnosed with Type I diabetes and began to think about integrating natural medicine with standard medicine. When Bastyr University, a leading academic center in natural health sciences and a medical school for naturopathic practitioners, was looking for a new leader, the match was nearly perfect… even if it was the last thing in Thomas Shepherd’s mind.

“Paramount in our mind is raising money. Resources are always an issue… the normal business stuff of finance, planning, human resources. Part of my time is spent in federal policy issues and I’m involved in the academic and educational processes here.”

For more than 180 years, Columbian and GW have taken advantage of being in the District of Columbia by engaging distinguished people from government, the military, think tanks, law firms, and nonprofits to teach—and by attracting them to study. The importance of those associations is still strong for several alumni presidents.

William R. Haden, MA ’65
President of West Virginia Weselyan College

Bill Haden remembers the Pepco building going up when he was at GW. He sighs and says, yes, he knows, it was just torn down.

He begins by saying that the comprehensive training in administration made it possible for him to jump at some opportunities that led him along the path of academic administration: vice president at the University of Chicago and at Reed College, then president of West Virginia Wesleyan. Then he remembers Ben Posner:

“As I remember him 35 years later, Ben Posner was the budget officer for the U.S. Information Agency. He taught us on Monday nights what he practiced all week. It was very special—knowing that this was hands-on, real-time stuff that he was teaching us…

“Lyndon Johnson was president, and I remember Ben telling us in early January (because at that time the fall semester continued into January) that during Christmas he had been to the Texas White House for budget discussions. Other people didn’t have that experience,… the special nature of that experience, of having him as a professor for the study of government, getting the practitioner’s view of how all this actually worked.”

And when he wrote his thesis on how Dulles International Airport came to be built where it was, Haden’s thesis director was William Wells who had worked on the Hill for a member of Congress involved in the appropriations process for Dulles, a door-opening, eye-opening mentor.

“I spend the day thinking about the future of the institution, settling disputes—that’s called personnel—raising money. I have a list of things to do tomorrow. I may actually do most of them.

Charlene R. Nunley, PhD ’86
President of Montgomery College

When she enrolled in the GW graduate program in educational policy studies, Charlene Nunley was already the vice president for planning at Montgomery College in Rockville, Md.

“The thing I remember best is the classes I took with Prof. David Brenneman who was from the Brookings Institution. He was a phenomenal teacher and was getting ready to do some research on the effectiveness of community colleges. He asked me if I would like to do some background research because I was a community college administrator.”

When the research was completed, she was skeptical of the findings and asked Brenneman if she could go over the same questions and issues in her dissertation and, if her conclusions were different, would he co-author an article with her? Yes, he said, he would and did.

After working on the issues of financing community colleges, she was appointed to state commissions studying the same questions. She built her knowledge and her reputation, all of which helped her to get the job at Montgomery College in 1999.

“Oh, my Lord! There is no typical day … Mostly, I spend my days with a vast array of differing kinds of people: I spend time with donors, I spend a lot of time in the community, I try to get out on the campuses and see the students. What I try, I guess, is to come up with enough balance in my day so that no part of the institution or the community gets neglected.”

Charles B. Reed, BS ’63, MS ’64, EdD ’70, Doctor of Public Service (hon.) ’87,
Chancellor of the California State University System

He remembers that being on the GW football team (he played linebacker and halfback) gave “me the opportunity to fly on an airplane for the first time in my life” and to see parts of the country he had never known before. He remembers, among many others, Professors Vinny DeAngelis (“he mentored each student”) and Peter Hill (“he brought history alive every day”) and Dean Elmer Louis Keyser (“he made you want to learn”). “I was edu-cated by a faculty that really cared about its students, and there was a tremendous respect between faculty and students.”

And he remembers rubbing shoulders with a most amazing mix of students and instructors that only Washington could offer. “I took classes with the assistant secretary of defense. I took classes with people from the State Department, the Department of Agriculture, the Treasury, people who were working for committees in the U.S. Senate and House. They brought this richness of experience and that brought the theory alive. So we got the practice before we went out in the real world.”

Charlie Reed also taught the entire time he was a GW undergraduate and graduate student, winding up as a tenured associate professor of education the same year he got his doctorate.

“Solving problems. When you have 45 thousand employees, 408 thousand students, and almost a five billion dollar budget, you work on problems. You work on opportunities, you work on relationships … Get up early, work all day, and start again the next day.”

Shifting gears and changing careers are known Baby Boomer habits, so it is not surprising that some alumni presidents did so—though it is an interesting coincidence that all three are alumnae. Here is how they made the transitions that helped lead to presidencies.

Ruth Person, MS ’74
Chancellor of Indiana University Kokomo

She grew up in Washington, her mother, Ruth Katherine Mahoney, was a GW alumna (BA ’35), so it would seem natural that she wound up studying at GW. And so it would, except that she never studied in Foggy Bottom but at GW’s Tidewater, Va., satellite center, taking courses at Newport News, Hampton, and Norfolk. Ruth Person had been working as a librarian when she saw something in the local paper about GW courses in administration.

“I was just starting to become an administrator and I thought that’s something I might want to look into. So I decided I’ll go over there and I’ll take a course and I’ll see if I like it… So I went to the first class and was totally hooked. The instructor was really wonderful. I was hooked and went through the whole program while working full time.” All the instructors brought first-rate degrees and a practitioner’s experience to the classroom, an ideal balance.

“Without the GW degree, I probably would have gone into academic administration anyway, but I would not have been so well prepared. I have an advantage over a lot of my colleagues in the academy who don’t have the formal management training I got at GW.”

“Driving around the state of Indiana. A lot of time in meetings, most of which I do not initiate. Paperwork. Informal and formal interaction with employees, donors, and community groups. Strategic planning and thinking.”

Joanne K. Glasser, BA ’73
President of Eastern Kentucky University

She remembers going to Quigley’s when it was still a drugstore. “What I remember most was the quality of the GW faculty. They were outstanding and instilled the importance of lifelong learning.”

After studying political science at GW, she was inspired by the courtroom scene in “To Kill a Mockingbird” to study law at the University of Maryland. A Baltimore native, she practiced law in various county and state agencies in Maryland. After some years, she decided she needed a change and a challenge, “and thought after the law that academia would be a kinder, gentler environment. Boy, was I surprised!”

But the laugh says otherwise. She spent nine years in various positions at Towson State, finishing up as vice president for institutional advancement and finally, as executive vice president. When the opportunity appeared at Eastern Kentucky, she was recruited for it. She is the 10th president of the university and the first woman to hold that job (though there was a woman who served as acting president in 1909-10).

“No two days are alike, except that they all are busy—and long. But I knew that when I accepted my job, and I’ve enjoyed every minute. A college presidency is not for the faint of heart—the job requires the patience of Job, the flexibility of Gumby, the energy of Roadrunner, and the sense of humor of Carol Burnett. At EKU, it is especially heartening to see so many first-generation college students achieve their dreams and go on to lead happy, productive lives. For someone whose passion is serving students, I can’t help but think I’ve got the best job in the world.”

Ellen L. Meyer, BA ’70, MA ’74
President of the Atlanta College of Art

It was her sophomore year at GW. “I was in the bookstore in the check-out line. The line was long and I had a stack of books and was frustrated because I had gotten neither the professor nor the time I wanted for a course in political science, my intended major. While waiting in line I perused Janson’s History of Art and essentially fell in love. I dropped the political science course and took the art history survey—and that was it.”

She went into art history, got an internship at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art, worked three years at the Archives of American Art while in graduate school, then went on to teach art history—it was the beginning of an academic career in art. But, as she says, “GW really left its mark on me through the strong encouragement of independent, creative thinking.”

So Ellen Meyer decided to get her hands dirty. She apprenticed in ceramics and got clay under her fingernails in Bethesda, Md. She ran a craft program in the District’s Anacostia neighborhood for the National Park Service. This experience led her to administrative work in art at the Minneapolis School of Art and Design, then to the Rhode Island School of Design, and finally to the Atlanta College of Art as its ninth president.

“My day-to-day work varies greatly, from addressing academic issues, such as the role of technology in art and design, to insuring a diverse, multicultural student body. Of course, much of my time is spent in the community, discussing issues about the college and garnering support. I reserve a certain amount of time for planning and strategic efforts. Lately, I’ve been immersed in every aspect of our new Renzo Piano-designed residence hall and sculpture building that will open this spring.”

Undergraduates, even graduate students don’t say, “Someday, I’ll be the president of a place like this.” Or, if they think so, they keep it to themselves. But some do get a sense—at least in hindsight—that they were getting a special kind of preparation.

Gregory H. Williams, JD ’71, MA ’79, PhD ’82
President of City College of New York

Greg Williams had been a full-time deputy sheriff while an undergraduate at Ball State in Indiana. The ex-lawman came to GW to study to be a lawyer. He also spent four years running the GW Washington Project, getting the University more involved with the communities of Anacostia and Adams Morgan.

“These were formative years. A lot of the work of a president is outreach and engagement in this day and age—and in essence I’ve been doing that for 30 years. I began that work at GW and had a chance to work with folks in the community, with faculty. It was very formative in exposing me to life in the academy and as a university administrator.”

When he applied for the Washington Project job, GW President Lloyd Elliott himself insisted on interviewing him—Elliott’s idea being that “this guy was going to represent the university, so I better see what he’s like,” even though the position was not all that high-ranking. “Lloyd Elliott taught me a good lesson in administration.” Williams has applied what he learned from Elliott ever since, getting to know those who report to him as well as those who do not but represent his institution before making any final decision.

“I spend a lot of my time talking at fundraising activities … and a lot of time trying to convey to all our constituents what is going on at the college. There are misperceptions, so I see my role as being the major spokesperson for the college. I get to talk with graduates like Colin Powell and Andy Grove, and to politicians, and individuals who are interested in what we are doing.”

Julianne Still Thrift, PhD ’83
President of Salem Academy and College

Had it not been for a poker game, she may never have been a college president. “My department head at GW played poker with a guy who was head of one of the higher education associations in Washington. During the game, the association head said he desperately needed someone who was a good analyst and a good writer to work with him. My department head made the connection for me and I started writing about the economics of private higher education. I never wanted it to lead toward a college presidency or thought it would lead this way, but it did… I wasn’t really won in a poker game, but I do think life is somewhat random.”

The connection between GW faculty and the higher education community in Washington, of course, made all the difference then, but now, she says, “The biggest qualification for a successful college president is energy. I know people would like it to be something more interesting, like intellect and preparation, but the truth is I have more energy than other people.”

“Oh boy! I probably talk on the phone to 30 or 40 people a day and just walk in every day eager to work. The hard part about small colleges is not having enough time to write. Most days I will literally not have a 10-minute break between phone calls and meetings that start as early as 7 in the morning.”

Scott Cowen, MBA ’72, DBA ’75
President of Tulane University

He came back to the United States after spending three years in the military and was wondering what to do with the rest of his life.

“There is no doubt that I would not be a university president if it weren’t for the GW experience. I will tell you why. When I went to GW, I had no intention of getting a doctorate whatsoever. My wife at the time was living in Washington, and that’s how I wound up at GW… so I figured I’d go to the local school and get a master’s degree as a sort of segue from this intense three-year period to doing something else with my life.

“But during the two years I was there, I guess a number of the professors saw something in me that suggested a future career in the academy, and they persuaded me to stay on for the doctorate. If it were not for their encouragement, persuasiveness, and financial support, I never would have gotten the doctorate—it’s that simple. They were absolutely instrumental in pointing me toward a career in the academy. And that’s exactly what I did. My academic career started at Bucknell University and continued on at Case Western Reserve University, the University of Virginia, and Tulane. I give a lot of credit to GW and the professors I had for why I am where I am today.” Even though GW wasn’t “a household name,” he found he could compete with anyone from any school because of the GW preparation.

“Meetings — how’s that? My day starts at seven every morning and ends at 10. Yeah [laughs] a three-hour day. It’s really a 24 by 7 job, interacting with people… on a wide range of issues, strategic, personnel, and clearly resources.”

Carolynn Reid-Wallace, PhD ’81
President of Fisk University

When she got her BA from Fisk in 1964, she had no plans to return 37 years later as the president—and the first woman president—of the university. That came later; first came GW.

On the one hand, “I can tell you that GW was a very different institution then than it is now … Well, I may have been one of five people of color in my day, and three of those people were maids or janitors. I’m being a little facetious, but there were no black students or professors in my department.”

But on the other hand, “There was a tremendous sense of community in this urban institution, which is a little rare … and I never found faculty to be inaccessible … . I remember very clearly going to dinner parties and other parties at the home of my major professor. That was quite special. And it wasn’t just me—it was me and my classmates and we weren’t a small liberal arts school.”

She believes that the closeness, the intellectual training, and the ability to observe how administrative processes work, which she acquired at GW, were critically important to her success, especially as the vice chancellor for academic affairs at the City University of New York, where she had 21 colleges and 200,000 students in her care, an important step in her becoming a university president.

“I spend my day five different ways: a little bit of time in the office, then out on the campus, sitting in classes, eating in the cafeteria; then, time with the larger community of Nashville; then a lot of time on the phone reaching out to people, not necessarily givers or influential people. And I’m out raising money every single solitary day.”