Remarks at the Retirement Dinner for Peggy Ryan Williams

Ithaca College, May 15, 2008

What an honor it is to be here with all of you tonight as we celebrate Peggy, her dedicated service to Ithaca College, and her innumerable contributions to the world of American higher education. This is a bittersweet occasion as we help send Peggy off into the next chapter of her life, but any party with Peggy is a great party! And at this time of year which is so busy for a college community I have found myself over the last several weeks adding more stars, circles and exclamation points to this occasion on my calendar. So Peggy thanks for getting us together!

As I was thinking about Peggy’s retirement I naturally turned my mind to the first time I met her. Now this is a story I’m not so proud of but it does says a lot about Peggy Williams. As the more senior president in the region I should have reached out first to Peggy to welcome her as a new colleague and introduce her to regional leaders. Not one to wait around, Peggy called me and came to Aurora for a visit. This first meeting revealed much about Peggy: her ability to connect with others and her deep appreciation for building relationships, her energy, her focus on action (for Peggy there’s no time like the present to get something done). I also learned that Peggy is an educational leader who understands she is also always a student—a life-long learner. She arrived in Aurora fully conversant about Wells, me, and the political landscape of higher education in New York State. In one meeting I knew this was a woman I wanted to spend time with. Tonight—11 years later—I remember the real sense of promise and opportunity I felt as I met my new colleague.

Many of you here tonight have more first-hand experience with the achievements and accomplishments of Ithaca College under Peggy’s leadership. Most recently, the well-deserved celebration of the completion of your record-breaking capital campaign speaks to the strength of Peggy’s leadership and her ability to provide vision and boundless energy. We all know Peggy’s an athlete who has participated in a number of sports throughout her lifetime, and as far as I know she was never a varsity cheerleader, but having said that she certainly deserves a varsity letter for all the cheering she has done for Ithaca. I can tell you that in the state and national arena of higher education Peggy lifted the profile of the work you do together. Over the past 11 years the buzz about Ithaca College has grown louder and louder.

As a college president, I know firsthand the many roles Peggy assumed on behalf of Ithaca College over the past 11 years. She does it all with extraordinary grace: chief executive officer of a complex organization, academic leader ensuring that programs remain relevant for students as they assume roles in a global society, convener of committees and constituents in good times and in more challenging times, bridge builder within and outside of the Ithaca College community, and story teller— a key presidential role.

For 11 years Peggy has told the story of Ithaca College to the many internal and external audiences. She knew which chapters would always remain the same and which to rewrite and she was forever mindful that as president she is a steward of your community. She was ever aware of her obligation to help the mission live and to support it for the time she had the privilege of serving. I have always admired the obvious joy and also the humility with which Peggy approaches her work. She is keenly aware she does not do the work alone. I do not have another colleague who praises the work of her campus and trustees colleagues as frequently as Peggy does.

The power of her work extends beyond South Hill. Her decades of service to higher education nationally and internationally will leave a lasting legacy. And I am delighted to offer congratulations to you, Peggy, on behalf of your colleagues across the nation. How fortunate for higher education that our community is the lucky beneficiary of Peggy’s commitment to service. Through two presidencies Peggy has served on almost every major board. Peggy has been incredibly responsible. From the National Collegiate Athletic Association to the Council of Independent Colleges to the American Council on Education to the Canada-US Foundation for Educational Exchange—and how delightful it is that the executive director Dr. Michael Hawes is here with us tonight—Peggy shares her talents and uses her voice to address a growing range of policy issues and needs facing the education community in a rapidly changing world. Her presidential colleagues know they can count on Peggy’s leadership, wise counsel, and thoughtful decision-making. She asks the best questions, stimulating and deepening the thinking of others.

That said, there are other reasons why presidents want to serve with Peggy and fight to sit next to her at a meeting. Peggy is a ton of fun! And although we often top each other’s “sit next to list,” we’ve learned to be cautious about what this does to the dynamic of a room. Because, as you know, Peggy likes to stir things up! At one national meeting we noticed that literally all of the presidents were wearing dark suits—ourselves included—and instantly this seemed to be a problem as we imagined the outfits could be interpreted as a sameness of approach or lack of personality. So Peggy and I found a shop. She hates shopping so the best we could do was the lobby gift shop where we purchased the only colorful shirts available—bright blue rodeo-themed blouses which we felt let the true light of our personalities shine! Peggy will always approach the work with the seriousness it demands but she will also always find joy in the work!

Nationally, the diverse complex of American colleges and universities counts on Peggy because she is so smart—she can cut through to the heart of an issue, set priorities and move organizations to take appropriate action. There is so much going on today in the world of education it would be easy to become distracted by any single issue. There is so much swirling around that I liken it to Peggy’s yo-yo wizardry. In the midst of it all Peggy never loses focus on why she does the work she does. It’s about the learner, the student at all levels. It’s about her core commitment to access to inclusion and opportunity for all.

It has been my great pleasure to work with Peggy and to witness the extraordinary journey she and Ithaca College have made together.

I could go on and on, but in sum, Peggy, it is hard for me to imagine my work without you, without you working down the lake, and so in honor of your 11 years of service here are the top 10 plus 1 things I will miss most about you:

  • Your modes of transportation. For example, why drive the more than 25 miles to Aurora when you can sail your boat or ride your bike?
  • Your listening skills. You know how to be really present and available. You made time to talk with me about everything—from coeducation to when my dog was in intensive care at the Cornell Vet Hospital.
  • Your great laugh! For me it is a signal of the true pleasure you so readily find in your work—in the people and the place.
  • Your intellect. You are among the smartest college presidents on the national scene, and yet you are never arrogant about your ability but rather you strive to learn from those around you.
  • Your commitment to mentorship. You have worked intentionally to grow a generation of leaders. American higher education is rich with college presidents and senior leaders—women and men—who have been nurtured by you.
  • Catherine the Great. Your “love me, love my dog,” attitude has added joy and comfort to many lives!
  • Your balance. You lead by example and show us the way to be focused on wellness so that we are stronger and more resilient leaders.
  • Your generosity—of spirit, of time, of resources, of people. Let’s just say thank you for the gift of Mike McGreevey!
  • David. A wonderful man and an amazing presidential partner. Your chief supporter and frequently that of your friends!
  • Your drive to make the world a better place. Your focus on service, social justice, and sustainability as foundational to a quality education.
  • And the number one thing I will miss about Peggy is your huge heart. This has never been about you, but it is always about our students and how they must be prepared and ready to serve the many communities they will join!

And so, I will anxiously await news of the next chapter in your incredible life story. I offer heartfelt appreciation for all of the unique gifts and talents you have so generously shared with Ithaca College, the larger arena of higher education, and me.