- “Take a Walk”
- The Residence Hall Experience: Why Dorm Living is Good Living
- Singing in the Holidays
- I Wanna Dance (and sing) With Somebody
- Use Your Imagination
- “Welcome to W&J, I’m your tour guide, Georgia.”
- My New Best Friend…The Teacher?
- The Few, The Proud, The W&J Rugby Team
- W&J: A Commuter’s Perspective
- W&J Presidents go to Pittsburgh and Beyond...
- My Journey with Michelangelo
- Magellan Awards: Just Because Magellan Sailed Around Africa Didn’t Mean I Had To
- The Magellan Project: Ashleigh Kazmeraski
- The Magellan Project: Marissa Stevens
- Red&Black Behavior
- W&J: Serving the Community since 1781
- Washington: Not Your Average Small Town
- Grab a Cup of Coffee with Your Microscope
- January – the New Green-Eyed Monster
- A Family of Athletes
- Liberal Arts Academia: Why Being Well Rounded Matters
- Q&A with Dr. Tori Haring-Smith
Dr. Tori Haring-Smith, President, Washington & Jefferson College
Q&A with Dr. Tori Haring-Smith
Washington & Jefferson College is a small liberal arts school with great aspirations for its students – with good reason. Ninety percent of its graduates who apply to medical or law school are accepted. It’s been ranked No. 1 in the country for producing attorneys per capita and No. 3 for physicians. And the list of alumni who are leaders in medicine, government – such as Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl – and other fields is long. Dr. Tori Haring-Smith, president of the college, described the rising reputation of this once hidden southwestern Pennsylvania gem and laid out some of the plans for the future during an interview with Endowments Communications Officer Carmen Lee.
Q: What has been your college’s biggest triumph of the past year?
A: Every 10 years colleges and universities in the country are reaccredited, and this was a particularly tough cycle to go through because there has been so much added scrutiny from the federal level. Not only did we get reaccredited with no requirements for interim reports, which is highly unusual, but we received glowing praise. If I had written a PR piece, I couldn’t have written it better. We had no doubt that we would get reaccredited, but to get a report with those types of comments is really very special.
Other triumphs are that despite the economy, our enrollment is the same as last year. Our retention is up, and on the philanthropic end, we actually exceeded our annual fund goal.
Q: What has been the biggest trial?
A: Well, the economy spooked everybody. People are just nervous, and trying to plan is difficult. Take salary increases. You might give a salary increase that you’re able to afford this year. But can you afford it the years thereafter? That’s not a question you would have asked four years ago. You would have assumed a relatively stable budget.
Q: What issue or event has had the most impact – positive or negative – on the college organization in the past year?
A: We’ll open our new $33 million chemistry and physics building in two months, and it was not built on debt, but with cash. That has had the biggest impact because it’s a building we’ve needed for years. It replaces two others: One built in 1939, the other 1912. And at 68,000 gross square feet, it’s the biggest LEED-certified in Washington County, in fact, the only privately owned one. It’s huge. You come into town, and it just frames the community. It also is giving everyone a sense that we’re really moving forward, and the economy hasn’t slowed us down at all. People think, “I’m a place that is stable. I’m at a place that knows what it’s doing and is on an even keel.”
Q: What new initiatives have been started?
A: The one that’s become the national signature for the college – one that The Heinz Endowments has supported – is the Magellan Project, which started last year. We talk a lot in this country about having access to college, but that’s not enough. You need access to the enrichment programs that make college special. You can’t say to a kid from a coal mining town in West Virginia, “We’re letting you into the college, but you can’t study abroad because you can’t afford it. Or you can’t have an unpaid internship on Capitol Hill because you have to go home and work.” If you’re going to have access, you’ve got to have access through the whole fabric of the institution. So we established the Magellan Project to provide stipends to ensure that any student at W&J would have the opportunity at least once during their college years to have an internship or an independent travel study project that they design themselves.
Q: As head of this organization, what goals do you have for it next year?
A: We’re going to have to renovate our biology building, which was built in 1981 and never air-conditioned. We’re also looking at how we can shape our three-week January term to capture the special character of W&J. It’s very much a liberal arts college, but we’re also very respectful of a student’s professional aspirations. So in that January term could we put together groups of students who would work on a community problem? It might have a life skills component, too. We’ll probably have something in place for next year’s incoming freshman.
Q: So if your college was a person, what type of personality would you say it had?
A: Earnest. And why earnest? I believe earnest because we’re serious of purpose. There’s a kind of healthy affection that is implied in earnestness. Also, there’s a sense of respectfulness here. We can talk about contentious issues across lines of difference from a position of respect.
Q: What’s one of the biggest misconceptions about your organization?
A: People perceive private colleges as elite and pricey. What they don’t realize – and this is in the state of Pennsylvania – private colleges and universities actually cost less for most students than the public ones, once you add in financial aid. Also, 98 percent of the students who graduate for W&J, graduate in four years. At a public institution, it takes some students six years. That’s two years of lost earnings plus two additional years of tuition. Private institutions also are where you’re finding access for lower socioeconomic groups. And the thing that really aggravates people like me is that you look at the stimulus money, and the federal government hasn’t gotten this story yet. I’ve actually gone down and talked to federal education officials and said, “You guys have got to look at the numbers and see that this is a myth, and you can’t have all your stimulus money at the public institutions.”
Q: Can you share a short story about an incident or event that illustrates the impact you believe your organization is having on your local community or the region?
A: Washington, Pa., is struggling to revitalize its downtown, which has been affected by the rise of peripheral malls. People just don’t go downtown anymore. So to attract people, the local business authority decided this year that it would hold “first Thursday” events from 5 to 7 p.m., but it couldn’t really get a handle on the idea. So they came to W&J’s small business consultant program and asked students to come down and help think this through. The students worked with members of the community to put it together and, knock on wood, it seems to be succeeding. They have craft tables, games. The businesses open up their doors and maybe offer samples. Our jazz ensemble goes down and plays. Students do face painting. Our students are part of the planning and the execution, and they have embraced that.
Q: Could you share a short story about an individual’s experience that captures what your organization is meant to be to the community?
A: We have a historic commitment to the local community and first-generation college students. Twenty-eight percent of our students are still the first in their families to go to college. So I was at the Phi Beta Kappa induction ceremony with a young man and his parents and his younger brother and his girlfriend. His parents are two coal miners, and they were just beaming with pride. I asked him what he thought he would be doing after graduation. He said pre-med and he was going to medical school. He also said that after he finished, he was going back to his hometown in West Virginia because “rural areas need doctors.” I saw the way his younger brother looked at him with such admiration, and I realized that young man not only changed his own life, he changed the life of his family and that will change the life of his community. I think that’s the W&J story. What we give back to the community are young men and women whose lives have been transformed and who have this incredible ripple effect throughout this region.