'Now Do Even Better'

Don Harward demanded great things from Bates, and the College rose to the challenge.

By H. Jay Burns, photos by Phyllis Graber Jensen

You’re 18 again, and you’ve just been accepted to a few top liberal arts colleges.

You attend a reception for other young men and women who’ve been accepted to Bates. The president begins talking to the group, extolling the school’s virtues. What would you want to hear?

For 13 years, Bates President Donald W. Harward attended these receptions and told the prospective students, among other things, how hard they’d all work at Bates. “Professors demand that you give them the absolute best you can give,” he’d say, “and then give it back to you saying, ‘Now do even better.’”

That message might send some young people scurrying for the list of the best party schools. Others, however, heard the president and realized they’d found their Holy Grail. In spring 1990, Jonathan Lewis was one such kid, listening to President Harward at a West Hartford, Conn., reception.

“Part of what tipped the scales in favor of Bates was hearing President Harward speak,” he recalls. “Hearing him talk about a demanding place simply did it for me.”

Using words and deeds, Don Harward – the former collegiate wrestler for Maryville College who refused to quit despite compiling an 0 and 22 record in three years – grappled tirelessly with helping Bates establish a better vision of itself. In June, he retires after 13 years as Bates’ sixth president.

Harward helped Bates outgrow certain parts of its culture and reimagine others, like the culture of hard work he’d talk about at accepted-student receptions. Bates students finally saw rewards for the toil demanded of them: more study-abroad opportunities, a clearer relationship between course work and the senior thesis, and chances to connect academically to the world outside Bates.

Even the famous self-effacing Bates modesty has evolved into a winning sense of institutional pride. “The biggest change since I’ve been here is the confidence in the quality of the institution, shared generally by faculty and students alike,” says John Cole, a member of the Bates faculty since 1967. “Bates has managed to combine a degree of quality with equality without a presumption of unique excellence.”

Bates has established more than two dozen academic programs since 1989. “The faculty claimed the direction, the steering,” says Harward, and he secured financial support and gave institutional encouragement. Faculty knew they could experiment with new courses and teaching styles without fear of failure. “At Bates, it’s good to try new things,” says Dana Professor of Chemistry Tom Wenzel. “Faculty are encouraged to try. If it doesn’t work, it’s not held against you.”

Interdisciplinary studies emerged throughout U.S. colleges in the 1990s. Harward helped the College infuse new fields of study with age-old Bates values of equality and social justice, giving these new disciplines moral as well as academic authority. “Learning is a moral activity and learning carries responsibility,” he told Peter Moore ’78 in his very first Bates interview, and he never strayed from that mantra. “For example, you can’t just study the molecular structure of a substance, and divorce yourself from understanding the people using the substance to make things that could destroy our environment.”

Under Harward, Bates reached out to the Lewiston-Auburn community with one of the most active service-learning programs in the country and renewed civic involvement through LA Excels. He articulated that aspect of the College’s mission: “The ivory-tower notion that intellectual activity must be separate, and values-independent, is changing,” he told the Christian Science Monitor. “Colleges and universities can be contrarian, but also be engaged in the communities in which they are located.”

He helped Bates keep pace with its peers by leading the planning and building of 22 significant facilities. As he leaves, Bates is planning yet another: a new campus center.

Supremely confident of Bates values and history, knowing so many Bates people through direct personal contact, he would encourage students, as he says, “to squawk” when angry. “Bates depends on participation and involvement,” he once said. “There are few spectator activities here.” And students did squawk on occasion, most notably in 1998 over what they saw as the administration’s inadequate reporting of campus sexual assaults. By 2001, Rachel Beckhardt ’02 could tell a local newspaper, “I’ve found Bates to be an incredibly supportive environment on the issue of [sexual] assault. Bates is an incredibly open, egalitarian place…and there is an eagerness about discussing issues and putting them on the table.”

Don and Ann’s rabid attendance at Bates student events, especially sports contests, made Suzanne Coffey, director of athletics, wonder if “they’re seeing more games than I do.” Coffey recently called the president’s office to check his schedule; the next voice was Harward’s with a 10-minute play-by-play of the weekend’s basketball games.

Harward has compared being the president of an excellent liberal arts college to riding in a sports car, where the steering wheel is controlled by the faculty, the brakes by the trustees and alumni, and the gas pedal by the students. His job, he says, is to lean “purposefully” back and forth to influence the direction.

“College leadership must be a collaborative process,” he’s written. “Those who are led must do part of the leading. Each constituency must do more than cooperate; they must see the value in community objectives.”

Harward talked briefly about his leadership style in an interview in his office, a plainly decorated place with enough file folders, documents, and evidence of works-in-progress to make one believe that five presidents, rather than one, were at work.

H. Jay Burns: I would like to start with the “students on the accelerator” part of your metaphor of leadership. Is it really possible for a college president to get to know students today, with all the other responsibilities her or she has?

Donald W. Harward: It’s not only possible. It’s essential. The institution is a reflection of the qualities and strengths of the students. If one is unfamiliar with the students in that basic sense, then one is fundamentally unfamiliar with what the institution is going to become. If you have any hope of leading the institution, you have to know the students because they are the character of the college tomorrow.

HJB: There are so many more ways to be a student today than there ever have been: more activities, more sports, more academic pursuits, more off-campus opportunities. It would seem to demand more variety on your part to find students off the beaten paths.

DWH: I’ve tried to send the message that the president is accessible. I’ve tried to make it very clear that I am not only willing to see students, but I am interested in them.

It might appear as though my and Ann’s interests in attending pre-admission receptions for prospective students has all to do with presenting the qualities of Bates, as students decide where they will attend. But it really has had another purpose: to make very clear to these large groups of prospective students not only my respect for who and what they are, but our interest in becoming better acquainted with them, and indicating how much Bates will be shaped by them.

For many years I have made it my business to be in Commons early in the morning, at a hour students could count on having my attention. I just made sure I had some work to do and had a cup of coffee. Students would, without any kind of agenda, be able to get better acquainted. Ann and I have tried to host students at our house on all kinds of occasions. I think that was certainly helpful.

I think the fundamental message for students is not only that they have access to me, but that I have respect for them and take them seriously. There are few other responsibilities that are as important.

HJB: Before you came to Bates from the College of Wooster, you experienced almost every aspect of college administration – except for fund raising and alumni relations. That’s been a new experience in the last 13 years: establishing philanthropic and other relationships with alumni.

DWH: There’s no doubt that the challenge of the contemporary presidency involves fund raising as a primary component. Yes, you have the CEO-type responsibilities. You are also the tribal leader, who must articulate the principles, values, qualities, and direction of the institution. They are the two key elements of presidential leadership in a college, and they’re always in balance. The occasion to speak as an institution after Sept. 11 is a good example of the tribal leader responsibility. Being able to successfully put together the strategic planning process is a good example of CEO responsibilities.

But inserted into that duality has been the expectation of fund raising. When you take a look at the studies and surveys of college presidents, you see that it has become the dominant dimension of a college presidency. In my 13 years at Bates, fund raising has now become clearly one of the job’s primary duties – and that will no doubt continue.

In meeting this duty, I’ve come to look at fund raising the way one might look at seminars or tutorials – as an educational activity. My responsibility is to help Bates forge partnerships with those who can assist the College. To be a viable partner, they need to be informed and taught how their support and their philanthropy can continue certain valued traditions and qualities in a college.

HJB: My sense was that while Bates was always good at demanding a lot from students – hard work, tough grading – Bates was less skilled at helping students connect their hard work on campus to what they could do off campus: internships, academic travel, research with faculty members, or preparation for graduate schools. Bates is excellent at that now.

DWH: I agree. The faculty have done so much to extend learning beyond the classroom. Some of that success has resulted from attention to interdisciplinary programs. We’ve also strengthened opportunities in career internships, study abroad, and service-learning in our community. It’s all helped our students better connect the academic world to the outside world of actions, decisions, and complex ideas.

When I arrived, the faculty was poised to provide leadership in the emergence of these programs. The question was, how can a strong undergraduate college, steeped in the liberal arts tradition, attend to the fact that very interesting questions do not fall into the arbitrary zones of standard disciplines, and that some of the most meaningful questions are where zones interact. We “leaned” in such a way as to give the faculty encouragement to go in that direction. Providing faculty support was one way. The faculty has grown to 170 today. Of those 35 or more new positions, many of them reinforce work and study that extends the contexts for learning and action.

In the mid-1990s, we were also explicit about linking our egalitarian spirit to the very heart of the institution. We reaffirmed the notion that learning creates a responsibility to the outside world. As a learner, you have a moral responsibility to what is other than yourself – the object of your knowledge. Through the work of the Center for Service-Learning, what has emerged is one of the nation’s premiere programs in service-learning. If you take a look at institutions of the quality of Bates, very few have succeeded in the way we have. We’ve been able to do so because our culture and history demand it.

HJB: During the 1990s, Bates student-athletes – and their peers throughout our athletic conference, NESCAC – have been on the accelerator in the area of increased national competition in NCAA sports tournaments. And now we have the NESCAC presidents contemplating a de-emphasis on athletics in the admissions process. Are we at the right spot with college athletics at Bates?

DWH: I am very proud of what Bates coaches and athletes have achieved and what they aspire to achieve. But in the early ’90s, several members of NESCAC (receiving attention in Sports Illustrated and other popular magazines) defined excellence exclusively in terms of winning, of being number one. The argument went that if we can be first among colleges in an academic program, or if we provide our students the very best experience as young musicians or young philosophers, whatever it might be, then we have an obligation to provide them with the absolute finest or best competitive athletic experience. Unfortunately, excellent athletic experience became defined narrowly as a winning experience – including postseason NCAA play.

Others, including many in NESCAC, felt such an emphasis was feeding into a general social and cultural belief that winning is the equivalent of excellence in competition. Of course we want to win when we compete. But to treat winning and excellence as equivalent has negative consequences, and as some NESCAC athletic programs adopted winning as their primary goal, we saw a founding NESCAC premise suffer: that students who participate in our athletic programs should be typical of our students at large.

At some NESCAC institutions, the students on teams – men’s and women’s – have not been representative or typical of the population at large.

Sure I’m worried about those issues. I think Bates has done a much better job than other institutions within NESCAC in keeping to the philosophy of our students being representative. That’s why we take genuine pride in our coaches and players. They do excel in competition – and they are typical. We have not defined excellence in our programs in terms of necessarily being the victor (although, on balance, with nearly 30 varsity programs, we win a lot). We know the qualities that arise from competing. We know the qualities that arise from being able to have the coaching and the facilities in which quality competition can take place.

HJB: You spoke of the role of the tribal leader. Tribal leaders have to be somewhat accepting of the limelight, and I know that you have not been particularly interested in extending the image of “Don Harward.” When we talked about a magazine story on your presidency, you said very firmly, “I’d prefer not; it’s not necessary.” Is that Don Harward being Don Harward, or is that Don Harward acting the way he thinks the Bates president should?

DWH: A president of Bates, or any other institution, is provided ample opportunity to be on the soap box and to perform those responsibilities that I associate with being a tribal leader. It is often very public, a very visible, and I think a very important element. I certainly haven’t resisted it, and in fact I enjoy it to some extent. I have tried to separate that role from personal aggrandizement. I am eager to claim the ground of tribal leader for Bates, yet do so independently of the presentation of some sort of personal dimension. Who I am is secondary, tertiary, or even lower compared to the responsibilities of the president of the institution. Maybe that distinction is not as possible as I’d like to think that it is.

HJB: At an alumni gathering, everybody had to come up with a little piece of their past, a little sort of quiz. You offered the fact that you were a winless wrestler at Maryville College. I don’t know how long you pondered which fact to share, but what would someone say of the meaning of choosing to share what is really an endearing image of Don Harward the wrestler, sticking it out through years of….

DWH: That’s tough. You’re asking me to stand outside myself; I guess that’s not possible for me. Others will have to make a judgment. Humility is not a superficial quality that spins well one time and then is taken off in some other. That’s who I am. I don’t feel a limitation on whatever I have to do because of my inclination to be self-deprecating.

I do think Bates got in me more or less what they sought. They wanted someone to keep the institution moving. They wanted someone who could reflect the qualities of the place in terms of its academic strengths, someone who understood the ethic of learning and its compatibility to our culture. I think in each of those areas I’ve taken it as my responsibility to lean, to further the College, to help others develop leadership skills, to see that “leaning” is not a solo exercise. Have I tried to keep my own ego out of it? As much as possible.

HJB: Is it difficult to engage in collaborative leadership when you are perhaps the hardest-working person a lot of us have ever known? You are usually ahead of the curve of taking in data, information, and judgments. Is it hard to pull back and let other people often come up to where you are?

DWH: Some of the most significant efforts and projects at Bates have been ones where I’ve had to learn from the process itself and be patient to learn from the process of others learning. A good example of that would be the new Center for Community Partnerships [a consolidation of Bates/community programs]. It has been an objective of mine for a long time. But I couldn’t lean; it would have been a huge mistake. There would have been resentment because it would have been a matter of simply, “the president wants to go in that direction.” We wouldn’t have a Center for Community Partnerships. We would not have a commitment from the College, only a commitment from Don Harward. What would its sustainability be?

What actually happened was the result of the leadership of many others: students, faculty, the board, and the community. They are now invested. They’re leaning on one another.

HJB: Your post-Sept. 11 e-mail message to alumni was very well received. The qualities of Bates, when simply stated in a moment of tension and crisis, seemed to resonate effortlessly. Many alumni wrote back saying, “Thank you.”

DWH: Yes, Bates responded; so did lots of other elements in our society. I did refer to that a moment ago as one of those examples of the responsibility of being the tribal leader. I did sense an urgency and, if you like, an instinctive sense of what was needed. I didn’t use the pattern that I’ve used before, of checking in with a lot of folks, because I sensed the importance of getting a note to alumni and others immediately.

I continue to think that we must, in a time of fundamental threat or fundamental challenge, rely on what we value. And for students, alumni, faculty and staff, Bates has provided a clear sense of value, a clear sense of the importance of community, a clear sense of the power and significance of ideas and the importance of clarity of expression of those ideas.

I sensed it was important to remind us of those values: the importance of community and relying on one another, the importance of clarity of ideas and avoidance of premature judgments, and the difference between propaganda and independent thinking. Because we need all the independent thinking, all the clarity of thought, all the suspension of presumption that a liberal education brings. The times of greatest demand on us ought to be the times we give primacy to what Bates delivers.