Ten Years with Peggy

After an on-the-go, community-building decade, President Williams announces her upcoming retirement.    by David Maley and Maura Stephens

President Peggy R. Williams announced in July, shortly after marking her 10th anniversary in the position, that she plans to retire at the end of the academic year. Williams took office on July 1, 1997, as the College’s seventh—and first female—president.

Williams feels the timing is right for her to retire. “Among many things, by next May we will have concluded two significant milestones—the completion of our $115 million comprehensive campaign and our 10-year re-accreditation review,” she says. “This will provide an excellent platform for a new president to continue to advance Ithaca College.”

Board chair Bill Schwab ’68 responded to the announcement on behalf of the board of trustees, to whom the president reports. “Peggy has provided Ithaca College with outstanding leadership through a period of immense change and challenge in higher education,” he said. “It would be impossible to list all of her accomplishments. We are deeply appreciative of all that she has done to strengthen the College academically, administratively, and financially. She will leave having built a solid foundation for the College’s future.”

Williams began her leadership by launching a campus-wide College planning process that involved the input of people from all areas of campus life. That process culminated in the Institutional Plan, a compendium of essential priorities and goals for the next two decades that has guided everything done on the College level ever since. Everyone on campus was included in the planning process—setting a tone for Williams’s entire presidency.

Shelley Semmler, vice president for institutional advancement, points to this as perhaps Williams’s most striking personal contribution to the campus culture and community. “I think that what’s most important about Peggy’s leadership is her collaborative style,” she says. “She is great about letting people do their job. She does not second-guess. She has tremendous respect and trust, especially with the senior team but truly with everyone at the College.”

Williams has devoted the majority of her working life to higher education, accumulating 36 years of experience—including 19 as a college president. “I have been at Ithaca College longer than anywhere else,” she says, “and I think that reflects my respect for and love of the College. I said in my letter announcing the retirement that I cannot imagine a better group of faculty, staff, and students that I could serve. It’s very true. I will miss the community spirit of Ithaca College, which makes it a very special place.”

Many people think that community spirit is strong because of Williams herself. Carl Sgrecci ’69, vice president for finance and administration, says, “I’d say Peggy’s most important success is in developing a sense of campus community, which in fact was one of the goals in our facilities master plan. We wanted our buildings and campus layout to help foster such a sense. But Peggy’s way of finding community is less structured; it’s literally the global way. Peggy has had a unique way of pulling together faculty, staff, students, and alumni and making them feel great about the College.”

One huge cross-campus effort that Williams will see through to completion is the once-a-decade self-study process for the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, through which Ithaca College receives its accreditation—Williams’s second.

Another of the most ambitious undertakings she has overseen is the College’s first-ever comprehensive fund-raising campaign, now in its last six months—a much bigger and more complex enterprise than first meets the eye. Williams has been an integral player in the success of the campaign, having crisscrossed the country many times, since even before the public-phase launch of the campaign last October, to speak at events, meet with potential donors, and carry the College’s message. The campaign is especially important to Williams because its success will help to make the goals of the Institutional Plan, which has been such a guide for her presidency, come to life—goals that included the strengthening of academic offerings and experiential learning; enhancing the learning and living spaces on campus; and developing resources to enable the College to become less tuition-dependent and reliant on debt.

“I’m a finance person, and I could certainly point to growth in the endowment since she became president, but Peggy’s greatest contributions have not only been financial,” Sgrecci points out. “She leads by example, and she is good at stepping back and letting other people take ownership of their work. It’s the mark of a great leader to take pride in the overall success of the organization without having to take all the credit—to thrive on seeing the organization as a whole progress. We vice presidents all get along well, and that comes across, I think, when we have the [semi-annual] all-College staff meetings. Peggy genuinely takes pride in the fact that the vice presidents get to talk about our areas of responsibility. All in all, it is a delight to work with her.”

Brian McAree, vice president for student affairs and campus life, agrees with Semmler and Sgrecci that Williams has had tremendous success in building a sense of community on campus, and adds that this success has also spread to the College’s South Hill neighbors and beyond. “Peggy values out-of-classroom educational experiences as much as in-classroom education,” says McAree. “You don’t always get that with a college president. But it is an important experience for students at a residential college to be involved in the community where they live for four years. Local city, town, and county officials have told me that they appreciate Peggy’s support, and how she encourages students to become involved.”

At the request of the board of trustees, Williams will continue to serve the College during a sabbatical year in 2008–9; after that, she says, “My husband and I will live in the same place. That will be a nice change, after 11 years.” She’ll move back to Vermont, where David Williams has kept their longtime home, and the two will split their time between Vermont and British Columbia.

Nobody who is familiar with her current busy schedule will be surprised to hear that after retiring, Williams plans to remain active in many of the professional and community organizations she now serves as well as on the board of St. Michael’s College in Vermont, which she just joined.

“When she first came here,” Sgrecci says, “Peggy liked to use the analogy that she was boarding a moving train—she said that the College already had a lot of vitality and so much was going on here. Well, I’d say she not only boarded the train, but she took over the engineer position quickly and added momentum for an entire decade of progress.”

These lists are not comprehensive, but give a good idea of the broad scope of innovations and initiatives that have taken place during the tenure of President Williams.