Catharine “Cappy” Hill ’76 will be the 17th President of Williams College. You read it here first. We need (or, the powers on the search committee will argue that we need) a quick hire, known to Williams, comfortable with our culture, and experienced with both leadership and hard economic choices. Cappy Hill fits those criteria perfectly.
Quick Hire: The financial crisis makes this the most dangerous era for Williams in a generation. We need new leadership and we need it now. Although it would be nice to conduct a nationwide search lasting a year or more, perhaps installing an interim President like Carl Vogt ’58 in 1999-2000, the College lacks the luxury of time. Hard choices must be made and the earlier they are made, the less damage to Williams. Although Morty will serve as a good steward for the next 9 months, he is in no position to demand sacrifices from various stakeholders nor to make promises as to future benefits. He is a lame duck, with at least one eye focused on his responsibilities at Northwestern. So, Greg Avis ’80 (chair of the executive board of the Trustees and of the Presidential Search Committee) will want to have the job filled no later than this summer. That means a fast search, with a preference for those candidates that Williams knows well already.
Known: Members of the search committee will know Cappy as well as they know virtually any other candidate. She is a Williams alum, a former faculty member and senior administrator. She was a finalist for the presidential search in 1999 that selected Morty. She is a known quantity. Select Cappy and there will be no surprises. The biggest mistake made by the Trustees in the last 20 years was the selection of Hank Payne. They won’t make an error like that again.
Comfortable: Cappy is as comfortable with the Williams ethos as anyone can be. One son is an alumnus and another is a current student! She knows what makes Williams tick, what makes it special. She bleeds purple. And she is a golfer! The greens of Taconic are calling . . .
Leadership: If you had to design the perfect President to lead Williams through a period of economic turmoil and difficult spending cuts, you would have two conflicting goals. First, you would want someone who knew Williams inside and out, who had served as Provost (more or less the chief financial officer of Williams) for many years. Second, you would want someone with experience outside of Williams, ideally someone who had already served as a college president, someone who has insider knowledge of how another elite liberal arts college prioritized its spending, ideally a less-rich college than Williams, a place that spent fewer dollars while providing the same quality education. Unfortunately, those two qualifications are almost never found together in one person, unless that person is named Cappy Hill.
1) Williams would not steal Cappy away from Vassar. Hah! Williams stole both John Chandler and Hank Payne from Hamilton without hesitation, after only 5 years in office. Indeed, Cappy is following precisely Chandler’s path of faculty member, department chair, senior administrator and then a different college presidency for seasoning. If Williams was willing to steal Chandler and Payne, we will steal Cappy. Her short tenure (3 years as of this summer) will make Greg Avis ’80 feel guilty, but only a little. His responsibility is to Williams.
2) Williams passed over Cappy once and will do so again. Perhaps. There was something that made Williams choose Morty over Cappy and maybe that something will happen again. But I doubt it. Being runner-up to Morty is still a good showing and her winning the Vassar job means that there was nothing substantively wrong with her application.
3) Williams may want Cappy but she will turn us down. Perhaps. Chair of the Vassar Board of Trustees William Plapinger should be a nervous man. He led the search committee that selected Cappy. He would hate to lose her. If he is smart, he is calling her right now, trying to (gently) pin her down on her future plans, double-checking that her committment to Vassar is as strong now as it was three years ago. He will not want to be so crass as to demand a promise from Cappy that she will remove herself from the Williams search, but he will strongly imply that it is unfair of her to expect him (and other senior trustees) to work hard on the current capital campaign unless she is fully committed to the future of Vassar. Luckily, Cappy is smart enough to put him off.
4) Cappy is a great candidate but there are a dozen others. True! There are many good candidates (and future posts will handicap the race) but none as perfect as Cappy. In fact, I can’t come up with anyone who comes close, at least according to the criteria I outline above. (Suggestions welcome!) She is an even money bet, at worst.
Allow me to be the first to welcome her back to Williams.