On the morning of the photo shoot at the home of Washington & Jefferson College President Tori Haring-Smith, students arrived from all over campus.
Time is precious to college students, but many stopped by before their first class even if just for a little bit. Others who were not able to attend because of their schedules sent warm greetings to their President and asked if there was another way they could help out someone who has done so much for them.
During the shoot, Haring-Smith chats with the students about their current studies, future plans, and high school and college accomplishments. A number of the students have been in musicals and plays and Haring-Smith, a former theatre director, lights up during these conversations.
She asks Kenny Clark ’17, who once played Willie Wonka in a musical, if he wouldn’t mind singing something. With just a little encouragement, Clark launches into a beautiful rendition of “Pure Imagination” on the porch of the President’s House while his fellow students enjoy the impromptu performance.
This scene on the porch is typical of Haring-Smith’s presidency. She had asked for students to be with her in photos, and it is clear she is at home with the upperclassmen she has known for years and eager to get to know the freshmen who have just arrived on campus.
“It really amazes me how in touch Dr. Haring-Smith is with the students here at W&J. I think having a president who knows you personally is something special that you cannot find at every institution. She has a unique way of connecting with individuals on campus that lets us know she genuinely cares about us. That’s a great quality to have in a president,” said Clark.
Students have been the focus of Haring-Smith’s twelve years at the College. She sees her work during those years personified in a senior like Clark, who is comfortable and confident enough to launch into a performance in front of his peers on a Friday morning with no warm-up.
Interacting with students is nothing new for Haring-Smith. She has been talking to students her whole life, starting when she was growing up in Galesburg, Illinois, where her father was a professor at Knox College. She spent sixteen years as a professor at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and was a dean at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, before she came to W&J.
As Haring-Smith reached the point in her academic career where she was ready to become a college president, she knew what she was looking for. She wanted to be at a small, private, residential liberal arts college. It was important to her that the professors have meaningful relationships with students that extended outside of the classroom and beyond students’ four years on campus, similar to the environment where she was raised.
After a conversation with Tom Shoup ’75, a member of the presidential search committee and trustee at the time, she knew W&J could be the college where she wanted to be president.
“I was the first W&J representative to meet Tori in person and came away with confidence that she knew how to make W&J grow and thrive. More than a good ‘college manager,’ Tori demonstrates traits that W&J espouses: integrity, competence, and contributing to the world,” said Shoup.
“It was very clear [W&J] was a family. That was when I got really interested,” Haring-Smith said. With the similarities to Knox College, “it felt like a place I understood.”
When Haring-Smith came to W&J, she knew what she hoped to accomplish and how long she wanted to be on campus: between 10 and 14 years. This would be long enough for two 5-year plans and a campaign, but not so long that she would become blind to new issues the College would face over time.
She will have been part of the W&J family for twelve and a half years when she departs in June. She has overcome challenges and been able to move the College in the direction in which she had hoped to see it go.
Shoup is pleased with Haring-Smith’s leadership and her impact on W&J.
“Tori isn’t afraid to try new things and admit failure when appropriate. She knows how to lead a liberal arts college without turning it into a faux university. Tori’s legacy at W&J will be the permanent strengthening of the College and ‘her’ 3000+ alumni. Thank you, Tori,” Shoup said.
Upon arrival at the College, Haring-Smith benefitted from the work of the previous administration, but knew that there were financial issues that needed attention and that there was room to grow and move forward as an institution.
That work began before her first official day as president. Once the finances were back on track, the focus switched to other goals.
“My first strategic goal was to bring the world into W&J and W&J into the world, and I think we’ve been able to do that.” Haring-Smith knew one of the first steps was to strengthen the relationship between the College and the City of Washington. “We’ve worked hard at that. We’re in each other’s backyards. Like neighbors we rise or fall together,” she said of W&J’s connection with the City.
Under Haring-Smith’s guidance, W&J has become involved beyond campus borders. Students, faculty, and staff can be found volunteering around town at the Greater Washington Food Bank’s Produce to People program, with the Washington branch of Big Brothers Big Sisters, at the Main Street Farmer’s Market downtown, and more.
On a global scale, the creation of the Magellan Project, the increase in the number of study abroad programs, partnerships with colleges and universities in other countries, and the number of degree-seeking international students have all been key pieces in the realization of her goal.
Haring-Smith also knew that she wanted to increase the College’s profile on the national and international stages.
She represents W&J on the boards of a variety of national higher education organizations and serves as chair of the Annapolis Group, an organization representing the leading national independent liberal arts colleges. She has worked diligently to have W&J’s voice heard in the conversations about the current issues facing higher education.
Faculty and students are increasingly present at national and international conferences where they present their research to a wide variety of audiences. They are nationally competitive and earn prestigious grants and fellowships across a variety of disciplines.
Students and the Washington community aren’t the only groups on which Haring-Smith has focused. Alumni support has been a key component of accomplishing the goals she set at the beginning of her presidency.
“This group of alumni and friends is very generous, which is why we have been able to do what we have been able to do. We couldn’t exist today without the kind of support we have,” Haring-Smith said.
The John A. Swanson Science Center, the James David Ross Family Recreation Center, and many other campus improvements, which have come about as a result of alumni involvement and support from the W&J community since 2005, will affect the lives of students for generations to come.
Haring-Smith believes nothing that has been accomplished at W&J during her presidency was solely because of her, and she wants others to know that as well.
“I’m very pleased with the progress we’ve made. It’s what we did together that’s really important. It’s really a group effort and people have to recognize that it’s a group effort.”
“I think that the new president will be exceptionally lucky to have such dedicated faculty and staff and extraordinarily devoted and engaged alumni and friends,” Haring-Smith said.
No matter whom she is working with, her focus always returns to the students and how they can make the most of their time in college.
Haring-Smith’s concern goes far beyond a general interest in the students’ well-being as a group; she cares about each individual who chooses to enroll at W&J.
The goals she set for the College were focused on the complete W&J experience, such as maintaining a diverse population where students can learn from faculty and peers with opposing viewpoints and differing backgrounds. She wants them to have a friendly campus atmosphere where they can be comfortable and become part of the College community. She has worked to make sure they have the ability and encouragement to achieve their goals and to dream bigger.
“I want people to remember that here was someone who was really focused on the students and who cared about them in every conceivable way,” she said. “Every freshman that comes in is important and they all contribute in their own way.”
Haring-Smith herself is an integral part of creating a hospitable environment. She is present at events for future students and makes herself available to field questions and talk to parents. She can be found having lunch with students in The Commons or writing the Washington Fellows handbook with members of the honors program she founded. She has even been seen playing frisbee at the Labor Day picnic. Students are welcome in her home and, if you see her around them, it is clear they are comfortable around her; they know the president of the College is interested in what they have to say.
She knows the students’ stories, their concerns, and their dreams, and isn’t afraid to let them know if she thinks there is more they could be doing to get where they want to go. She stays in touch as students become alumni and is no less invested in their futures after they leave campus. Their successes are her successes; this will be the legacy of her presidency and what she carries with her as she moves on to her next endeavors.
“[W&J] is like my family. I can’t imagine doing a second presidency,” Haring-Smith said.
Haring-Smith is a person who likes to keep moving. She travels internationally on a regular basis and has lived abroad.
Throughout her career she has spent time as a professor, a fundraiser, a theatre director, and an administrator.
“I’ve always done things very intensely and then done something else,” she said of her life’s path.
After her retirement Haring-Smith will be moving to her home in New Hampshire. She has plans to work on several books about historical events as seen through the eyes of those who experienced them.
Like those who came before her, she will move from being an active presence on campus to becoming a part of W&J’s storied history. In fact, Haring-Smith aims to complete a book on the history of the College before her departure.
The impact of Haring-Smith’s work at W&J is felt through the new buildings on campus, deeper community connections, and a larger national and international presence. Soon another president will be living in the house where students feel free to stop by and use the kitchen, or walk into the living room and toss their bags on the floor, immediately at ease, and her successor will take W&J into its next chapter.
Haring-Smith feels that the current state of the College puts it in a strong position to attract a new president.
“In many ways, presidents come and go, but you have a faculty member who is here for 40 years. They are very much the backbone of the institution,” she said.
The faculty, senior administrative team, and staff were a large part of what drew her to W&J initially and are what allow her to move on with faith in the future of the institution. Their leadership will aid the College through the transitions that come with a new president.
Haring-Smith firmly believes that college is a conversation. All the interactions students have during their years on campus are part of their education, from one-on-one interactions with professors to late-night discussions with their peers.
Of all the undertakings in the last twelve years, Haring-Smith considers something that may seem unremarkable to others to be a visual representation of what she aimed to create.
When she first arrived, she was shocked at the lack of places to sit on campus. She remedied this problem with something most may now see as an iconic part of W&J.
“In many ways I feel like the Adirondack chairs are my mark on campus. Those chairs represent what the College is,” she said, while noting that facilities staff may be tired of her hounding them to make sure the chairs are always in groups, ready for people to sit down and have an exchange of ideas.
Even though Haring-Smith will be leaving campus next summer, her presence will be felt by anyone who pulls up an Adirondack chair to chat with a friend or professor on a beautiful day, benefiting from her enduring wish to create a place where they feel that they belong.