Another title, new identity: College President Katherine Rowe shares life lessons from various career achievements

College of William and Mary President Katherine Rowe decorated her office in The Brafferton with her diverse art collection and collaborative whiteboards. COURTESY PHOTO / STEVE SALPUKAS, WILLIAM AND MARY

Each week, The Flat Hat profiles one person — a student, faculty or staff member, or alum that is deeply connected to the College of William and Mary. This week, The Flat Hat spoke with new College President Katherine Rowe — the university’s first female president ­— to learn about her career and her visions for the future.

This summer, The Brafferton received a new resident and a makeover. College of William and Mary President Katherine Rowe officially began her term July 1 and brought with her a standing desk, large white boards and a desire to connect with all facets of the university’s rich history.

Learning, Growing, Transforming

When Rowe started her undergraduate years at Carleton College, she thought she might be a chemistry major. Instead, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English and American literature. This was just one of Rowe’s many career “reboots” as she calls them — a way to constantly transform her career while always learning.

“I like being at the edge of knowledge — at the edge of my own knowledge,” Rowe said. “Throughout much of my career, I have been moving myself into new domains of learning.”

Since then, she has earned a master’s and doctorate in English and American literature from Harvard University. She’s been a faculty member at Yale University, an English professor at Bryn Mawr College and provost and dean of faculty at Smith College. As a professor, she focused on adaptations of William Shakespeare’s work, moving through history to examine prose, radio, film and web adaptations of his plays.

In 2005, Rowe also enrolled in graduate work at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts — there, she was taking media studies courses. She said she went in hoping to learn how media studies scholars discuss web adaptations and new technologies, but came out with an appreciation for the process behind how teachers teach and how knowledge is created.

“… It was amazing and challenging,” Rowe said. “It led to me becoming an administrator, and I really came out with a new sense of self. ‘Media history’ is now my focus of study. It was a real turn in my path [toward] communities like William and Mary, where I’ve found my crowd.”

Developing New Skills, Learning From Old

Weaving her way through different degrees and career titles, Rowe has held many identities: teacher, scholar, coach, mother, provost and president. She says that each of these identities has influenced how she approaches leadership. She also has learned how to cross-train through these identities. For example, she said that she learned from bringing her children to play dates that it is always important to stop before people are done. As a mother, this meant leaving a play date while her children were still happy. As a leader, this means ending meetings while people are still in a productive, positive mood.

Her most recent role, serving as the provost at Smith College — and serving a stint as vice president for inclusion, diversity and equity — has also taught her lessons she wants to bring to the College.

“There are three principles at Smith College that I have brought away and apply broadly to my life,” Rowe said. “The first is that there are many ways to be a teacher. The second is that all teaching is improvable. The third is that the best teaching is inclusive.”

Since moving in just a few weeks ago, Rowe has worked to meet students on campus and share parts of her life with them. In rapid-fire question sessions, she has told students that her favorite movies are “Alien vs. Predator” and “Some Like It Hot,” her favorite music artists are Macklemore and CAKE, and that her favorite food is oysters. She also said she’s hoping to learn from students how they — and their student communities — view pressing issues in higher education like affordability.

“From the very beginning … William and Mary had some very special things that I connected with strongly,” Rowe said. “Our students care about breadth. … They also have a commitment to service. How do we create the community that we want here? Everyone is thinking about that. I also am deeply connected to long histories.”

A Life-Changing Catch

One of her other identities — coach — stems from many years playing Ultimate Frisbee at the international level. Her first game not only hooked her on the sport but gave her a sense of boldness.

Early in her freshman year at Carleton, her resident assistant put together an Ultimate Frisbee team for her hall and encouraged all students to play. In the first scrimmage, Rowe said her RA took a risk — he made a long throw that he trusted her to catch. She did, and she scored.

“He took a risk on a freshman, and it made me much bolder,” Rowe said. “Ultimate Frisbee is already an incredibly inclusive sport in its aspirations. It’s self-refereed, so it’s on the players to create the community that we want.”

Rowe says that no matter where she travels, she has found a team to play with and players that will invite her to stay on their couches. Visiting Ultimate Frisbee matches, and other Tribe Athletics events, is just one of the many things she’s hoping to do on campus. She’s already met with senior interviewers, Orientation Aides, members of the Tribe football team and she’s looking forward to meeting the College’s Wellness Ambassadors (she’s already toured the new Integrative Wellness Center).

To meet new students, she’s planning on holding office hours for students. At these meetings, she’s asking students to do “show and tell” — bringing something with them that they’re proud of. She’s also hoping that students will show her their favorite spots on the College’s campus.

“People have been asking me ‘What’s my favorite place’ on campus, and I haven’t picked just one yet,” Rowe said. “Instead, I want students to come take me for a walk and show me their favorite places.”


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