In February 2015, Colby-Sawyer College’s eighth president, Thomas C. Galligan Jr., informed the Board of Trustees that he would not seek a third term. His ten years of service will conclude on June 30, 2016.
A search committee chaired by trustee Pete Volanakis and composed of board members, faculty, staff, a community member and a student worked with the firm AGB Search to identify candidates and manage the process of appointing the college’s ninth president. The committee voted unanimously to approve Susan D. Stuebner, Ed.D., as the ninth president. She will assume the duties of the office on July 1.
In this second of a two-part farewell to President Galligan, he goes back to the beginning to consider his path to the Windy Hill and the early days of his presidency, its highs and lows, his philosophy on leadership, his Colby-Sawyer family, and what the future holds.
Read part one of President Galligan’s farewell interview, “Many Adventures Await: President Galligan Prepares to Move On.”
Based on your history, was a college presidency inevitable for you?
When I became dean of the law school at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, I went to a workshop for new deans. Another new dean said her goal was to be a college president, and I wondered how she knew that. I had no thoughts about being a college president. I became a dean because I was a professor of law complaining about my dean, and I figured if I thought I could do a better job, I should put up or shut up. Later, I was persuaded to be a candidate for the presidency of the University of Tennessee, and I did pretty well in the process. I’m glad it didn’t go my way, because it wouldn’t have worked out. But it kind of got me thinking. After eight years, I told my boss I wasn’t going to be a dean anymore, and he said I shouldn’t give up the idea of another administrative appointment, and so here is the power of suggestion: He said I’d be a really good college president at a private school or a small state school.
Were you familiar with Colby-Sawyer or the area at that point?
Our son, Patrick, was a junior at Bates College and our oldest daughter, Sarah, was in her first year at Dartmouth. In the fall of 2005, soon after I got back to Tennessee from visiting them, I received an email from Colby-Sawyer’s search firm that said the college was looking for a president. I called my boss and asked what he knew about the place. He said, ‘What I know is good. I’m going to nominate you.’ He did, and the search firm called and told me to write a letter. I’m a lawyer, so my letter was a paragraph long. They called back and said, ‘You know, that’s a great letter. It’s really short. But this isn’t a law school, so write a longer letter that addresses some of the things the college is looking for.’
I was talking about this recently with Tom Csatari, our board chair; he remembers the letter and thought it was a little long. He’s a lawyer, too.
I was invited to interview in Manchester and then to campus. I did the first interview alone, which was great because then I could visit Sarah. Susan came for the second one. We stayed at the New London Inn. We ate at Peter Christian’s Tavern. Nobody knew who we were. It was really nice to be anonymous in New London in the winter. And I knew, for the interview, that I shouldn’t get emotionally involved.
The next day, Beth Cahill, our former vice president for Advancement, picked me up at the inn and took me to breakfast. I remember sitting in the Board of Trustees Conference Room in Ware Student Center the next afternoon. I was with Anne Winton Black ’75, ’77, who was the board chair then and the Search Committee chair, and Bill Berger, who was board vice chair. I was talking to them and listening intently, but the window was right there, and snow had started to fall, and I realized right then I was emotionally involved. So, lucky for me, here we are.
What’s the biggest difference between Dean Galligan and President Galligan? Oh, gosh, age. But every day you’re learning. So when we say that Colby-Sawyer’s internal mantra is Always Learning, that’s true, and it fits me as much as it fits the institution. I’m the same person, just with more experience.
How do you come into a new community — a small college in a small town — and establish yourself as its leader?
You hope that people are as nice as they seem, and at Colby-Sawyer, they’re even nicer. At least most of the time. You listen, and you smile, and you absorb.
There’s something I learned as a dean. When I went to the University of Tennessee, people were so friendly, and everybody wanted to get to know me, and I thought: Wow. When I was a brand-new lawyer, it wasn’t quite like this, and when I was a brand-new professor, it wasn’t quite like this. And isn’t Knoxville a wonderful place? Susan kind of looked at me and said, ‘Don’t you get it?’ Position makes it easy to enter a community. A lot of people want to meet you. So if you’re even a little extroverted, it’s pretty easy. But you’ve got to be careful, and you’ve got to be yourself. I realized early on that I’m just going to be who I am. So it’s going to be Tom Galligan going to the grocery store, and if I’m in sweatpants and haven’t shaved, well, that’s the way it is.
What was hardest about the transition?
Our youngest daughter, Jennifer, was starting high school and her sister, Aisling, was a senior in high school, and we wanted her to finish in Tennessee with her friends. So, for that first year, Susan and I were in different places. The six of us drove up here to move me in. And then on a Sunday in August, they all went back. I’ll never forget how lonely I was that night. That was rough. I ran around Pleasant Lake three times. It tired me out.
I would think so. That’s about 18 miles!
It’s funny in retrospect; Aisling was in Knoxville and remembers that Susan came up here at least every two weeks. Jenny and I were in New London, and we remember that Susan was here about a week every two months. I would never want to have that experience again. But at the same time, it was amazing because Jenny and I had this wonderful year that now, when we talk about it, everybody else in the family gags. She and I are probably the two most volatile people in the family, but that year we were so nice to each other. I remember one time we were driving and I said something, and she said something, and we looked at each other ready to explode and then we realized, Oh, we can’t do that; we’re all we’ve got. So, it was a hard year, but it was a really good year, too.
There’s that fine line between having your support system and having room to be your new self in a new place, too.
Right. And when I arrived, we had missed our goal of recruiting 300 new students and had 238, and I knew nothing about undergraduate enrollment. That was going to be part of my learning curve. When my family drove away, I realized I had to deal with that issue, and I had to learn so much in a short amount of time. And that was a pretty lonely feeling, too, but one of the things I learned was that Colby-Sawyer is a really supportive place. People stopped by to see how I was doing and if I wanted coffee, faculty and staff both. But it was a lonely first month. Inside, not the people.
What is leadership to you?
I think a leader is first among equals, while some think leadership is something we can bottle and teach. What you really are, when you’re a leader, is a barometer. You have to come up with ideas, but you have to trust not only your own sense of what’s right based on your values and the community’s values but also what you sense the community wants to do, is ready to do and can do.
Students, faculty and staff come to you with concerns large and small. How do you handle such an influx?
I try to be responsive and listen and say yes as much as I can. Mostly, I wish I had more resources with which to fund the wonderful projects people propose. As for complaints, you try to respond to as many as you can and not sound defensive or angry. But in that regard I’m lucky to have great friends who lose sleep for me. Exercise is a great cure for negative energy, too. I recommend it.
You’ve wanted people to think and act for themselves yet have noted many want to be told what to do, though they’d say otherwise. What do you make of that disconnect?
We all think we want freedom, but with freedom comes responsibility, so sometimes it’s easier to be told what to do. Whoever sits in my chair is not an expert at everything. Mary McLaughlin knows more about residential education than I do.
George Martin and Bill Foti know more about athletics. Jean Eckrich knows more about exercise science. And so on. The president needs to rely on the experts, empower, ask a few questions, and get out of the way. And the experts need to be aware of how much confidence the president has in them.
How did staying in the classroom affect your presidency, and why was that so important to you?
I understand when I’m teaching and the semester is coming to mid-terms or to the end of the year the stress that my students are under and the stress that my faculty colleagues are under. I get a better understanding for the life cycle of the institution. I would never be anywhere as an academic and not want to teach at least some of the time. The reason I got into this in the first place was teaching. The greatest energy in any institution of learning is the classroom, whether physical or virtual. The sparkle of learning when somebody gets it is incredibly infectious and exhilarating. That’s why I love it.
I also love to be able to think about whatever I’m teaching. I love the intellectual side of it, and the challenge of trying to communicate it clearly and engage with people to think about it. Teaching lets me know what the typical Colby-Sawyer student is like in a way I wouldn’t if I just sat in this office and met the students who lead the student government or the students who are in trouble or who just want to stop by and introduce themselves. None of them are typical Colby-Sawyer students.
Who is the typical Colby-Sawyer student, then?
I’d say it’s someone who has done well in school but has some space between what they’ve done so far and what they can do. They might be a student who went through high school and realized, Gosh, I guess I have to go to college for my career. They get here and are looking four years ahead, anxious to get on with life, but then they realize they’re actually in love with being a student in a place where they can achieve at a level, intellectually and outside the classroom, that they never have before. And so to use a business metaphor, the value added to their intellectual life and their professional life is huge.
It sounds like something worth waking up for.
Yes, it is.
What risks have you taken, and what risks do you wish you had taken?
Progressive Scholars was a risk, and I’m really proud of that program. The huge effort to have more students from other countries was a risk, and I couldn’t be more pleased that we took it.
It was a risk to borrow money to redo Ware into a student center. It was a risk every year to hire more faculty because the budget is never certain, which is why support from our alumni and friends is so important. Developing online programs was a risk. Sometimes I wish I had pulled the trigger on a few things faster, but then again, things happen when they do for good reason.
In terms of my value structure and what I believe about education, Colby-Sawyer was at a crisis point regarding its lack of diversity. In retrospect, I would have loved to have gone out to some major foundations and donors beforehand to get some funding for those programs. On the other hand, when you’re living in a global world and you’re three percent nonwhite and less than one percent international, you need to take action. Another risk was changing athletic conferences. That was Shakespearian in its drama, even Othello-like. To have stayed put at the time, though — I couldn’t have slept at night.
What role has Susan played in your presidency?
A huge role. She’s been incredibly supportive and a part of college events, but she’s also been really active in the community as a volunteer in the Garden Club and was its president. She served on the board of The Fells. She plays tennis. She’s in the Colby-Sawyer College Singers and the Kearsarge Chorale. This year she is chair of the Kearsarge Chorale Board. So she’s been wonderful, and she’s been a great citizen of New London.
After 10 years in this town, what are some of your best memories?
Well, the college, really. The memory etched in my mind is seeing the Loop. You go back to points in your life and you can just see it. The Loop will always be crystal clear to me. Driving up Main Street at night in the winter when the library’s lights are on is so cool. Our fields on a clear day, the terraces … those are the most wonderful visions. I remember running around Little Lake Sunapee one Labor Day with Sarah and it started to pour — I remember how wet we were, and it was just so fun to be running with my daughter.
Best memories … whenever I get up in front of a room full of people, I’m nervous. I get butterflies. Even in class a little bit. And certainly when you get up in front of 1,500 people at Commencement — I’m listening to the National Anthem, and I know as soon as it’s done, the first half hour or so is me talking and I feel my knees … but I will never forget how great it feels to be up there — once the knees stop shaking — in front of all those people with everybody in caps and gowns. The best part is saying, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the Class of whatever year it is’ and to hear the eruption. So Commencement will be among my most cherished memories because it’s really fun.
The people, too, you know, the friends that we’ve made. We went on an alumni trip to Spain in 2013 right after really hard decisions had to be made. I remember how great everybody was on the trip. And alumni are key to the support of the school. There have been some incredible leaders and loyal alums. What would be great for the institution is if the group of those involved was even larger, so I envision a great future with more opportunities for recent alumni to keep them connected to Colby-Sawyer.
There were some tough times, too. Those hard decisions you mentioned involved the 2013 layoffs of 15 staff members. Was that the low point of your presidency?
Oh, absolutely. No question. The reductions in personnel and the affiliated decisions were by far the hardest I’ve had to make.
And there were sad times. Corey Worsham was a student and a soccer player who died on Thanksgiving weekend during my first fall. I’ll never forget that. And I don’t want to list a bunch of people, but I think one of the things you get out of this job is a longitudinal history of the institution really quickly, which is great, but you also then deal with transitions of birth and death. And so I remember those times and those people.
Have you had to make sacrifices for this job?
No. I don’t think that way. That first year being separated from Susan was really hard. I love movies and haven’t watched as many as I’d like. And sometimes you have to do things that, for various reasons, you’d rather not have done. For instance, somebody might make a decision you wouldn’t have made, but you’ve got to back them up. So there’s a kind of internal cost with that. But I don’t feel sacrifice. I just think I’ve been lucky to have had the job and the opportunity.
One of the hard things about these jobs is that sometimes people take your decisions personally, and that’s hard because your relationship or your potential relationship with someone can be adversely affected by that reality. But I would say I’ve made incredibly wonderful friends whom I hope are better at keeping in touch than I am because I’m really bad at that. If they’re good at it, though, they’ll be friends of mine for the rest of my life.
What do you love about the law, and how did being a lawyer influence your presidency?
What I love about the law is that at the end of the day there are very few set answers — the law is constantly changing. That and the fact that since law touches our lives in almost every way, you need to be conversant in a lot of stuff to be a good lawyer. Sounds like the liberal arts are helpful, right? So, my legal background taught me, in part, how to keep teaching myself. It taught me how to ask questions, and it made me more accepting of, if not always comfortable with, uncertainty.
What is the place of liberal arts in 21st-century education, and what is its place at Colby-Sawyer?
The place of liberal arts is firm. It has to be because it’s the foundation upon which all learning is built. And so STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — is critically important, but science and math are liberal arts. That’s half of STEM. The liberal arts teach critical thinking. The liberal arts teach the ability to communicate. The liberal arts teach the ability to understand somebody else’s perspective. The liberal arts teach us how the great knowledge of our world is, in sum, a mirror. It’s a mirror and a prism at the same time.
The liberal arts give us the skill to adapt in our lives. I never took accounting, but I like to think I’m pretty good with a budget. Those are liberal arts skills. I never took public speaking, but I had to learn how to communicate my message. So it’s a liberal arts skill. I appreciate popular culture, but I hope I can relate it back to other things and realize what’s rubbish and what maybe has some enduring value. That’s all the liberal arts, and I think our business graduates will become CEOs because of their liberal arts education. Our nursing graduates are more compassionate and better able to succeed because of their ability to analyze and to write. When I read about the presidential candidates, I’m better able to evaluate my choice based on my liberal arts education. And when I look up at the stars at night, I don’t wonder what they are. I’m amazed by them, but I understand a little how the universe works because of my liberal arts education. So my life is fuller.
I don’t think the liberal arts are always going to be the heart of every educational experience, but they’re going to make the other things we do richer because they’re a part of it. But, at the same time, they don’t stand alone. So our philosophy majors have to have an internship, and they put what they learn to work in the field. I see it as part of a wonderful combination. That’s what makes Colby-Sawyer so special — we really do combine the liberal arts with professional preparation.
What are your hopes for the college?
My hopes for Colby-Sawyer are that it figures out even more ways to emphasize the liberal arts and engage in professional preparation. I hope every classroom is a 21st- and then a 22nd-century classroom.
I hope we have even more alternative education models to extend our mission both through the distance medium and maybe through more hybrid programs. I imagine that our graduate programs in nursing will be thriving and that we will have expanded into other graduate programs.
I would hope that we are financially strong and stable but still providing opportunity to significant numbers of students who could not otherwise afford a college education. I hope that when we look at the population of our students, they are from all over the United States as well as from New England. I hope we have new majors.
It will be great when I come back to visit and can watch a night soccer match under the lights. And I would love, when I walk down Main Street, to see stores that cater to a student population. And I would love, after I went to that night game, to be able to go to some wonderful little place on Main Street and have breakfast at 11 p.m. surrounded by a whole bunch of Colby-Sawyer students.