The College of William & Mary on Tuesday named an English literature scholar and senior administrator of a prominent women’s college to become the first female president in the school’s 325-year history.
Katherine A. Rowe, provost and dean of faculty at Smith College, was the unanimous pick of the governing board of the public university in Williamsburg, Va. She will take office in July as William & Mary’s 28th president, succeeding the retiring W. Taylor Reveley III.
“She is a passionate and articulate advocate for the liberal arts,” said Todd A. Stottlemyer, who is the rector, or leader, of the school’s Board of Visitors. “She’s a combination of a Renaissance scholar, a humanist, technologist, innovator and entrepreneur.”
Founded in 1693 under a royal charter, William & Mary is the second-oldest institution of higher education in the nation after Harvard University and counts Thomas Jefferson among its alumni. It has about 8,600 students, mostly undergraduates, and is known for its distinctive blend of traditional liberal arts education with small class sizes in the setting of a research university that awards master’s, doctoral and law degrees.
When Rowe was interviewing for the job, Stottlemyer said, “she knew our history and our traditions cold.”
Rowe, in a brief telephone interview, called William & Mary a “wonderfully forward-looking” school that has long been an innovator in law, education and liberal arts. “Throughout that 325 years, this has been an institution that is a leader,” she said. Continuing to embrace change will be important to advancing William & Mary’s mission in its fourth century, she said. She also paid homage to the historical importance of a school located in a cradle of Colonial America, calling William & Mary “the alma mater of the nation.”
“When you think ‘data science,’ you probably don’t think ‘Shakespearean scholar,’ ” Sue Hanna Gerdelman, another member of the Board of Visitors, said in a statement. “But that’s what is so exciting about Dr. Rowe and developments in the digital humanities, which is already a point of pride at William & Mary. Katherine is comfortable in a world of possibilities, where barriers between science and the humanities have fallen away.”
Rowe holds a bachelor’s degree in English and American literature from Carleton College, and master’s and doctoral degrees in those subjects from Harvard. Among her passions outside the classroom is the disc-passing team sport of ultimate, a popular pastime on college campuses. For a number of years, she played and coached ultimate, and she co-founded the Boston Ultimate Disc Alliance.
Reveley will step down in June after a 10-year stint as William & Mary’s president. The university in 2015 announced a $1 billion fundraising campaign, a major effort for a public school, as it seeks to bolster its financial position at a time when state funding of higher education is much lower than it once was. William & Mary ranks 32nd on the U.S. News & World Report list of best national universities, public and private, and competes with the University of Virginia for top students within the state.
William & Mary said Rowe will receive a base salary of $500,000 a year and may be eligible for bonuses of up to 15 percent of that sum, based on annual evaluations. The university also will also pay $75,000 a year to a deferred compensation fund for Rowe, starting in December 2019, and provide housing and other benefits.
Rowe’s arrival in Williamsburg will coincide with another milestone for women at William & Mary: The university this year marks the centennial of the debut of female students at the school. Rowe’s appointment, as the first woman to hold an office that 27 men previously held, comes in an era when female leadership in higher education is routine. Stottlemyer called it “a coincidence” that Rowe will break the gender barrier in Williamsburg, saying she was the board’s first and best choice.
Rowe said she was “so honored” to be the first female president. But she noted that a woman was central to the school at its inception. “It’s worth remembering that this is an institution founded by a woman leader, as well as a man,” she said. They were the school’s royal namesakes, Queen Mary II and King William III of England.