Bair speaks with student reportersThe Honorable Sheila C. Bair
(MyEasternShoreMD) – Washington College’s new president, Sheila Bair, has been busy since taking the helm Aug. 1.
Despite the heavy workload and packed calendar, the Kansas native and former chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. took time last week to speak with the news editors of Washington College’s student newspaper, The Elm.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
How was moving to Chestertown? Have you settled in?
“We still have a lot of boxes. My husband is actually out of town now. I asked if I could find a couple students with strong backs to help me move boxes and unpack books, and 24 members of the soccer team showed up! It was quite an organizing task but the team members were great and we got things done very quickly.
We are not new to the area. We have a vacation home on the Sassafras River, so we’ve been to Chestertown quite a bit.
Is your family going to live with you in the Hynson-Ringold house?
Yes, on weekends. That’s the only hard part of this because this was very sudden. My daughter was excited to start a new school this year and my husband’s not quite ready to retire yet, so we’ve kept an apartment in Washington. So they stay there during the week and they come out here during the weekend. But I’m here during the week all the time in Chestertown.
So you said this was sudden …
I was the senior advisor of the Pew Charitable Trusts. I had a portfolio approach. I did a lot of public speaking and sat on some corporate boards and served as a senior advisor at several other companies. All together, it was full-time work. But I’d always said that I liked leading organizations and if I had the right opportunity at a nonprofit or academic institution, I would take it.
It was actually the windmill controversy that connected me to Washington College. I had been interviewing with the (University of Massachusetts) system about becoming president of their system, but that’s five campuses, it’s public so you deal a lot with the state legislature, you have to move to Boston and there were a lot of challenges with it. But it’s a great system. It’s on a very good trajectory.
I had solicited advice from Rebecca Rimel (president and CEO of the Pew Charitable Trusts) on that and we started talking about the windmills, because both of us have homes that are close to where these 500-foot high windmills are going to be, so we’re kind of concerned about it. I’m all for green energy, but 500 feet …. (laughter).
So Jay Griswold had written a letter raising concerns about the windmills and he’d signed it as interim president of Washington College, so I said “What’s the deal with Washington College?” and that led to the conversation about the presidential search here. Rebecca connected me with Larry Culp (board chairman), who then put me in touch with Richard Creighton, head of the search committee, and in a matter of weeks, we got everything set up.
So yes, in that sense it was sudden. I always knew I wanted a job like this, but this opportunity came up very quickly.
What about working at a college appealed to you?
Being able to interact with students. That was much more attractive than working at a very large university system where you’re going to be dealing more with administrative folks and political leaders.
This school has been run very well and I’d like to build on that. I’m very focused on student debt, coming from my finance background, and we’ve got some ideas to raise scholarship money to reduce student debt. I can launch and implement initiatives like that quickly at a smaller institution.
And you know, I love this school, I love the history and I love the area. I love the work we’re doing with the environment. Our programs in American history are amazing. I wasn’t even aware of the Rose O’Neill Literary House and the Sophie Kerr Prize, but they’re wonderful too. There’s a strong literary writing tradition, which is very exciting.
And you have a reading at the Lit House coming up (Oct 19).
Yeah, I do. I wrote “Bullies of Wall Street” for a younger audience. It’s partly memoir, partly just tales from the crisis about how families were impacted. There’s a lot of economic text explaining why families were losing their jobs, losing their homes or why schools were getting budget cutbacks and things like that, helping people understand the economics.
I interviewed several families for it and every single one of them broke down in tears. Of course then I started too. I thought it was long enough since the crisis that they would have moved on, and most of them had repaired their lives in one way or the other, but just talking to them about the trauma of losing their houses or jobs, sometimes both, was very emotional. A lot of them had also run into health problems with the stress. Some lost their health insurance when they lost their jobs. They were very traumatized.
That’s a young person’s book and you’re now working with young people again. Have you always liked working with that age group?
Yes, I really enjoy working with young people of all ages. I’ve written picture books for children too. I started doing that while I was at UMass and I actually wrote several articles for Highlights Magazine for children.
That was rewarding because they have a huge circulation, and a lot of the articles I wrote were then picked up in textbooks that are taught in elementary schools. So I’ve always had, one way or another, an interest in financial education. Then when I became a mother, that interest became even more intense.
And I just think generally that my generation, the Baby Boomer generation, we just haven’t been very good stewards of the economy and certainly not of the financial system. I do think we have an obligation to try to get it fixed, and we’ve had mixed success in reforming our financial system. I just don’t want future generations to make the same mistakes we did.
If you look at all financial crises, they are pretty much driven by the same things; it’s always speculation and leverage. You can wrap it in all sorts of fancy financial jargon, but that’s really what it always comes down to, speculation and leverage and very shortsighted thinking.
If you look at the truly successful investors and innovators like Steve Jobs or Warren Buffett, they are all long-term thinkers. I like the Steve Jobs example, not that he was perfect, but it was so ironic because he turned that company into the most valuable company in the world for his shareholders by basically ignoring them and looking at the customers. So I believe thinking long-term and producing things of real value will make for a stronger, healthier economy.
You were talking a little earlier about the student debt, so coming from the FDIC and your financial background, what goals do you have in mind for WC in terms of finance?
I think first and foremost, I’d like to get the debt lower. And we will do everything we can to hold the line on student costs. There are costs to run the school, obviously, but if there have to be tuition increases, we need to explain to students why the money is needed. I think students get frustrated, and rightfully so, when the tuition goes up and they don’t understand why.
I also want to raise more scholarship funds from donors so that we can have more students relying on scholarship aid and less on loans. That would help reduce debt levels.
I think this school does a good job already, but maybe there’s a little more we can do just in terms of (giving students an) understanding of what debt means. If you’re borrowing so much a year, what you’re going to have at the end of four years, what the monthly payments are going to be and what kind of income you need to comfortably support the payments.
But also, I’m hoping that as we build up more scholarship funding, students who benefit will appreciate that, and when they graduate and enter the work force, they will give back to a special fund for future scholarships. Starting off, that can and should be a very small dollar amount, but it will be a way that they can give back and support the classes behind them.
In terms of issues other than financial, if you look at the inaugural addresses from presidents back, they talk about scholarship and citizenship. So what are some citizenship values you want to focus on?
I think being aware of the world around you and the impact of your actions on society is important. And again, getting back to the finance example because that’s my background, if you’re in the financial services industry, understanding the consequences of the financial system and its potential for doing harm or doing good.
I think if you make a loan to someone that they can afford so they can buy a home or start a business, that’s a wonderful thing because it benefits both parties. If you make a mortgage loan that’s got a huge payment for the borrower, and you go out and sell that loan to some investor for some profit and run away, that’s harmful. That’s harmful to the customer, harmful to the investor, and if everybody does it, that’s harmful to the economy, as we saw during the financial crisis.
I think the interdisciplinary approach, which is what we try to embrace at WC, is really the way to instill those kind of good citizenry values and help students understand their world in a broader context. Whatever your field – business, finance, education, energy, health — you should understand the history of your industry and its role in the economy, and its relationship to government and the political system. Ethical conduct and philosophy, my major — I think that’s an area of study that can be applied to a wide variety of fields.
Environmental impact, again, is a huge issue. More and more companies need to understand the environmental dimensions of their decisions, how they power their plants, light their offices, where they’re building their buildings, how they’re building their buildings. Environmental considerations need to be integrated. We’ve got a great environmental science and studies program at WC. I’d like to explore whether we could organize some executive educational programs, to bring corporate leaders together to talk about these issues.
You were talking about getting your philosophy degree. What kinds of things were you involved in as an undergrad?
Oh, wow I’ve got to stretch my memory here. I liked playing tennis. I liked drinking beer, I’ll admit. Kansas was a dry state, but there was 3.2-percent beer you could buy legally when you were 18, so there were a lot of 18-year-olds drinking 3.2-percent beer and gaining a lot of weight. I might add you had to drink a lot of 3.2-percent beer to feel anything. I was a tutor. I was also a reader for blind students, and it was interesting, after I became chair of the FDIC, one of our employees came up to me and she was married to one of the blind students I had read to. That’s one of those things that falls into the small world category.
We also went on road trips. We liked to go skiing and we’d all pile into a VW van and go out to Jackson Hole (Wyo.) to ski. We could barely afford the lift tickets. I did intramural sports. I was always a klutz, but we had intramural basketball and touch football. Brings back good memories.
In general, what do you want to say that you’ve accomplished at the college a year from now?
I hope I have raised a lot more scholarship funding, and hopefully that will equate to a measurable decrease in average debt loads next year. Maybe that will only be a couple of percentage points but at I’m hoping at least to get on that trajectory.
I’d like to get our first-year retention rates up. I think we need to focus on that. I’ve seen studies that show that a first-year student’s decision to return is impacted a lot by first impressions. We need to make sure they feel welcome and they’re able to find a group of friends who share their interests. In the dorms, we’ve made some improvements, but we’ll continue making that a priority. I’d also like to raise the percentage of students who have found jobs at graduation, or have been accepted to graduate schools. We do pretty well there, but we can do more. It’s been a tough job market for young people, so I want to redouble our efforts there. Increasing internship opportunities is part of that.
So those are the areas that for the first year I’m looking at, but also just continuing the wonderful interdisciplinary approach we have with the faculty and again trying to get more funding and support for that as well.
We heard you were talking about getting the Wi-Fi to run a little more smoothly.
Oh my gosh, yes. You can put that on the list. I joked with our IT people, “Look, I went to the Evergrain bakery years ago and the Wi-Fi remembers my computer. I can leave this office for 10 minutes and it doesn’t remember.”
So they are working on a fix for that, yes. It’s annoying, but it’s also inefficient. How much study time are you going to be wasting when every time you try to research another article you have to log into the Wi-Fi?
I’m sure that will make you very popular on campus.
Oh, well I’ll just do that then (laughter).
One last question: What is your favorite thing to get at Evergrain?
Oh, that’s hard. Probably the muffins. Blueberry if I had to pick, but they’re all good.