CHESTERTOWN, MD—Mitchell B. Reiss was sworn in and celebrated as the 27th president of Washington College on October 2, and even Mother Nature seemed to endorse the choice. On the only cloudless day in a week of torrential rains, the sun shone from a crisp blue sky as dozens of local and state dignitaries, splendidly robed scholars, beaming trustees and proud students and friends of the College assembled on the Front Lawn for the installation ceremony.
In welcoming the crowd, Edward Nordberg, the chair of the College's Board of Visitors and Governors, said the presidential search committee had found in Mitchell Reiss “an extraordinary leader” who could clarify and fully articulate Washington College's position among the nation's best liberal arts colleges. Reiss's hope for his presidency, said Nordberg, “is to make this wonderful college as great as it can be, and to leave to his successor a small liberal arts college recognized throughout the nation for what it does best: teaching young people to live lives of purpose, instilling in our students a love of learning, and building the intellectual habits and the moral character of tomorrow's leaders.”
In his inaugural remarks, President Reiss called on the Washington College community to be a living monument to the timeless values George Washington embodied. Washington's words to Congress in 1790—“There is nothing which can better deserve your patronage than the promotion of science and literature. Knowledge is, in every country, the surest basis of public happiness”—reside at “the very heart of our mission,” Reiss said.
Washington and his revolutionary colleagues understood that the new nation required “a citizenry equipped not just with facts and figures,” Reiss continued, “but with creativity and the moral courage to safeguard our inheritance and help us form a more perfect union.”
If George Washington could revisit his College on the Chester today, “he would be immensely pleased by the high caliber of student scholarship, by the intensity of our professors' focus on teaching, and by the almost magical intellectual exchanges that take place among them,” Reiss assured. “Above all else, he would see our students learning not what to think, but how to think for themselves.”
The institution has a further responsibility, he said, “a higher calling, if you will: to help our students negotiate a pathway to becoming responsible members of their communities, their professions and their country. “We know that education alone does not instill a reverence for honesty, fidelity or a dedication to speak the truth. We know that being well educated does not guarantee success. Sadly, the headlines point to the moral failings of educated men and women every day. Titans of finance, public representatives, scientists, even spiritual leaders—we seem to see a lot of highly educated people these days who have lost their way, who have not wedded knowledge with values.”
At Washington College, Reiss said, students are expected to wed knowledge with the virtues embodied by Washington:
Integrity: We ask our students to be trustworthy, honest and fair; to be accountable for their actions and to set an example for others.
“Respect: We ask our students to appreciate freedom of inquiry and expression, and diversity of views, to protect the diversity of species on our planet, and to value the histories and the cultures of peoples different than themselves.
“Courage: We ask that our students hold fast in the face of enormous odds, that they not shy away from shaping the future. And we ask that they know their responsibility to do the right thing, especially when the consequences are grave.”
The most important of these virtues, he concluded, is courage. The 55 men in Philadelphia who on July 4th 1776, with 30,000 of King George’s soldiers and sailors anchored in New York Harbor, declared the independence of the 13 United States of America in “a leap of faith made in ink but to be purchased in blood. … This example of bold action and unwavering spirit—this profound sense of optimism at our ability to create a better future—all this George Washington bequeathed to us, his college, his living monument.
“George Washington recognized the potential of the young United States to become one of the world’s truly great nations,” Reiss concluded. “It is my fervent wish that Washington College realize its potential as one of the world’s truly great institutions of higher learning.”
Earlier in the ceremony, nine speakers brought official greetings on behalf of campus, state and national constituencies, mixing praise for the College, the campus and the new president with bits of humor.
U.S. Congressman Frank Kratovil spoke words of congratulations and welcome on behalf of the Maryland Congressional Delegation, and especially acknowledged the Center for Environment & Society for research and teaching that benefits the whole Eastern Shore and beyond.
State Senate President Mike Miller, representing the Governor and Maryland’s General Assembly, charmed the crowd with his endorsement of Mitchell Reiss. Miller said he had suggested that the presidential search committee at University of Maryland consider Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary William Gates as candidates. Washington College did even better, he suggested: “You got a new president who, as an advisor to Condoleezza Rice and Bill Gates, told them what to do.” Reiss is “the total package,” he added, with experience in world affairs, politics and academia.
Chestertown Mayor Margo Bailey said her early impression of Mitchell Reiss, in addition to “very charming” and “looks good in a suit,” was of a new college president who wanted to forge strong bonds with the community. “He understands that the success of these two communities, Washington College and Chestertown, depends on our working together.”
The president of the Student Government Association, Andrew Antonio, offered words of welcome to the Reiss family and presented the President with a framed copy of photographer Bob Ramsey’s panoramic view of Chestertown’s riverfront. The SGA also presented flowers to President Reiss’s mother, Rhea Reiss, and First Lady Elisabeth Reiss.
Vicky Sawyer, Associate Director of the Center for Career Development, used her southern accent and charm to good effect, recounting Reiss’s first jobs, as a parking lot attendant fitting cars into small spaces and a stock boy in his grandfather’s store fitting goods into small spaces on the shelves. Those jobs prepared him for helping first year students fit their belongings into very small spaces on opening day, she reported. On behalf of the College staff, she presented the president with a Washington College clock “preset to 5 o’clock to remind you to go home,” and a large gold wrench, “a reminder that in higher education, there’s always something that needs fixing.”
Alumni Board chair Timothy Reath ’96 pledged the support of his group and promised to learn the alma mater, a cause being championed by First Lady Elisabeth Reiss. And associate professor of drama Michelle Volansky, speaking for her fellow professors and lecturers, recognized the faculty’s commitment to advancing egalitarianism, self-determination and justice throughout the school’s history. She then assured the new president that she and her colleagues were “ecstatic” to have him here and that “negotiating with the faculty will be slightly easier than negotiating with terrorists.”
Two special guests from higher education community added their insights. The national secretary of Phi Beta Kappa, John Churchill, underscored the need for champions of the liberal arts today and congratulated the College on naming a new president so “demonstrably capable in every way.” Mary Pat Seurkamp, the president of Notre Dame of Maryland and chair of the Maryland Independent Colleges and Universities Association, joked that she looked forward to seeing Mitchell Reiss’s diplomatic and tactical skills in action in three lesser known areas of a college president’s realm: snow removal, the legalities of downloading and mixing music, and the selection of curtain fabrics for College rooms being redecorated.
The event was strongly anchored in tradition. Kicking off the inauguration, music department chair Garry Clarke, director of the humanities program Richard Gillin and professor of chemistry emeritus Frank Creegan led the formal academic procession as the Carrolton Brass played “the Prince of Denmark’s March.” More than 120 colleges and universities were represented as officials and alumnae dressed in their schools’ gowns and hoods filed by in order by age of institution, from oldest to youngest. That meant Oxford University alumna Emilie Amt, a former professor at Washington College, led the parade as a representative of her 843-year-old alma mater, and Edgar Schick brought up the rear as president of the Baltimore International College, established in 1975.
In between, the representatives included a number of college presidents, including William Kirwan, chancellor of the University of Maryland system, Fred Lazarus of the Maryland Institute College of Art, Roger Casey of McDaniel, Ronal Volpe of Hood, William Johnston of Wesley, Thomas Foley of Mount Aloysius, and Barbara Viniar of Chesapeake College. Kent County’s Superintendent of Schools Barbara Wheeler wore the robes of her alma mater, Morgan State University. Provost Michael Halleran represented The College of William & Mary, where Mitchell Reiss spent nearly a decade as an administrator, professor and diplomat-in-residence. President Reiss’s father, Martin, and sister, Randi Reiss-McCormack, donned the robes of M.I.T. and Cornell for the occasion.
President Emeritus Baird Tipson returned to campus for the celebration, as did five former first ladies of the College: Ann McLain, Melissa Clarke, Libby Cater Halaby, Katherine Trout and Debbie Toll.
Following a flawless inauguration ceremony, everyone enjoyed a bountiful lunch spread on the first floor of Hodson Commons and outside beneath a tent.
That evening, the Board of Trustees and Senior Staff joined the Reiss family for a black tie dinner and dancing at Hynson Ringgold House.
Jay Young ’81, the chair of the presidential search committee that led to Reiss’s selection, was thrilled with the installation festivities. “The weekend was a spectacular celebration of all that is great about Washington College. All our constituencies were represented and everyone felt the great expectation, hope and excitement for the College’s future,” he said.
“Yes, Mitchell has incredible credentials in academia and in the diplomatic service, but more importantly, he shares our passion—he really gets that this is a special place, he has figured that out for himself.”
Young also was impressed with how many Reiss family members traveled to Chestertown from as far away as England and New Zealand to share the occasion with the new president and first lady and their children, Mathew and Michael. “It was lovely to have his family on campus,” Young noted. “They have all embraced this College. They seem genuinely thrilled for Mitchell to have us, and for us to have Mitchell.”
Photos: Music Department Chair Garry Clarke and President Reiss lead the Recessional following the installation ceremony. Reiss addresses the crowd gathered on the campus lawn.