When College of William and Mary Provost Geoff Feiss entered the world of higher education administration as an associate dean at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, he had a problem: He didn’t own a tie.
“Geologists don’t wear ties,” Feiss, a former geology professor, said. Feiss compromised by wearing a bow tie, which he now says is his signature look at the College.
“Everybody here now thinks of me as the guy in a bow tie, but I think of me as the guy who has to wear the bow tie because he has to wear some type of tie.”
Feiss, the soft-spoken, least conspicuous component of the College administration, will retire this June after more than 10 years as an administrator at the College.
As provost, Feiss was charged with overseeing research, admissions and the registrar, as well as creating and expanding interdisciplinary and specialized academic programs like the neuroscience concentration and the Sharpe Community Scholars program. He also helped oversee the construction of new buildings including the Integrated Science Center.
When he arrived in Williamsburg as Dean of Arts and Sciences in 1997, Feiss wanted to expand facilities and resources for interdisciplinary studies. He planned to hire more faculty and improve campus diversity. Since then, the faculty/student ratio has dropped to 11:1, and the percentage of minority students — now at 25 percent — has almost doubled.
Feiss was also tasked with creating a productive environment for research and creativity.
“When you’re a dean or provost, your task is to find the creative energy that’s here and nurture it,” Feiss said. “My job is to find the opportunities for students and faculty.”
That task was often compromised at a College that has struggled for years with a small endowment and persistent budget cuts.
“We had very severe budget cuts in the early part of the decade when I was still dean, and now we’re doing it again. It’s kind of a punch in the stomach,” Feiss said.
Since becoming Provost in 2003, Feiss has played a less public role than others in the College administration. Perhaps his most outspoken moments occurred last year after the resignation of former College President Gene Nichol, when he spoke on behalf of angered faculty and students and described Nichol’s resignation as comparable to a “death in the family.”
“A sudden transition like that is more than difficult, it’s traumatic; there was a lot of change to manage at that time … a lot of misunderstandings as to how this had happened,” Feiss said. “It became a very difficult time. Emotions were raw, people got angry on all sides of these issues.”
After College President Taylor Reveley became interim president last February, Feiss said that he offered to step down, but was asked to remain another year.
“Geoff has made a very significant difference for the better at William and Mary, playing a leading role in shaping its academic life,” Reveley said in a College-wide e-mail. “He has provided vital aid and comfort to me during the last seven months. We have worked together seamlessly for the good of the university and will continue to do so this academic year.”
Reveley also said that the College will conduct a national search for a new provost. It is likely that the new administrator will come from the College, as Feiss himself was the arts and sciences dean before his appointment to provost.
Feiss received a BA in geology from Princeton University, and an MA and a doctorate in geology from Harvard University.