As current president of Lafayette College and President-elect at Haverford, over the course of the next year Daniel H. Weiss will answer to many different constituencies.
Before he takes the helm at Haverford on July 1, 2013, Weiss will complete his eight-year term at Lafayette College. He announced his departure in a statement to the Lafayette community on May 1, the same day that his appointment at Haverford was made public. Weiss told The Lafayette, the weekly student newspaper, that he will remain on campus “to support and facilitate a seamless transition in leadership.
“I’ll be the president-elect [at Haverford], which means my primary responsibility is learning and building relationships, not making decisions and managing. And that’s a very big difference,” Weiss told The Clerk. “So I expect my primary responsibilities will continue at Lafayette as we navigate a transition, and I will be walking around with a pen and pad at Haverford as I get to know people here.”
Lafayette College is located in Easton, Pennsylvania, roughly 70 miles north of Philadelphia. Although both Haverford and Lafayette are liberal arts institutions, there are significant differences. Lafayette is an NCAA Division I school with a long tradition of Greek life and a student body nearly double the size of Haverford’s. The college offers merit scholarships but does not have need-blind admissions.
Rebecca Chopp made a similar career move in 2009 when she left Colgate University, a Division I school of similar size to Lafayette, to become the president at Swarthmore College. This April, Weiss and Chopp hosted “The Future of the Liberal Arts College,” a conference discussing new challenges and opportunities for liberal arts institutions in the 21st century. “[Chopp and I] have known each other for many years and I certainly sought her guidance in this decision, and was struck by the similarities between what I am doing and what she did,” said Weiss.
Under Weiss’s leadership, Lafayette’s endowment has recovered from significant losses sustained during the financial crisis. In the past four years, the college has increased its faculty by more than 10 percent, and developed additional interdisciplinary programs in environmental science, film and media studies, theater, and women’s and gender studies.
Within the past year, some of Weiss’s policies have been more controversial. Following a vote by the Board of Trustees, Weiss initiated a comprehensive review of Greek life at Lafayette, finding that alcohol and sexual abuse problems are higher within fraternities and sororities than the rest of the student body. The working group then created benchmarks to evaluate behavior within Greek organizations that some students say has restricted a central part of student life.
“All we are asking of these organizations is that their levels of behavioral issues associated with sexual misconduct and alcohol…not look different, and that their academic performance not be diminished,” said Weiss.
Peter Kuhns ’13, President of the Zeta Psi Fraternity, believes some of the benchmarks are reasonable but criticizes the measures for singling out fraternities and sororities. “There is a general feeling of angst around the student body, because the core social institutions of Lafayette are being put under the gun,” said Kuhns. “[And] a justified nostalgia that the social life at Lafayette is not as fun as it used to be.”
Former student government president Matthew Grandon ’12 said that while the increased scrutiny of Greek life has led to a perception that the administration is cracking down on alcohol consumption, policies on alcohol have not changed since he enrolled four years ago.
“We understand that college students drink – that that is part of what the culture of being a student is all about,” said Weiss. “What we’re concerned with..is that it be safe, and not dysfunctional in ways that undermine their college experience.”
But both Weiss’s critics and admirers seem to agree that Weiss put in a significant effort to hear out many points of view. Kuhns says Weiss was responsive to the different needs of students, faculty and administration.
“Although I may not think he strikes a balance between these three groups, he [definitely] allows a variety of opinions to be voiced before he makes his decisions,” said Kuhns.
Grandon, who has interacted with Weiss while serving on committees and during an independent study in which he helped Weiss organize “The Future of the Liberal Arts College” convention, says he exhibited a strong devotion to the institution.
“He was the type of leader where he listened first and then responded,” said Grandon. “And he constantly challenged each constituency…You could tell he was fully, 100 percent invested in the institution.”
Grandon considers Weiss a mentor. “He definitely made a huge impact on me and caused me to consider a career in higher education,” he said.
Weiss says he and the Board of Managers are mindful of concerns about the transition period’s length and stalled progress. The College’s capital campaign, which has been in the “quiet” phase for nearly a year now, will not be opened up to the public until Weiss begins his duties at Haverford next year. But Weiss says even if he assumed the presidency in the Fall, the campaign would not likely start until at least January. He and the board agreed that extending the transition would not have a significant effect, and allow him to accept the position in a manner fair to both institutions.
Although Weiss won’t be the face of the Campaign until he starts next July, he’ll be at Haverford throughout the next year to build relationships and connect with alumni or potential donors.
“I am however, also mindful of the fact that there is only one president on the campus, and it isn’t me right now, it is President [Joanne] Creighton, and she is an able and well-respected leader,” said Weiss. Although they have yet to form an advisory committee, he and Creighton have met to plan and discuss what shape the transition might take.
As to why he is moving to Haverford, Weiss says it was time for a change.
“I think the fit is a really strong one for me,” said Weiss. “It’s an exceptional institution with an approach to education that resonates with me, deeply. And I am coming to the end of an eight-year term at Lafayette, where I believe I’ve accomplished what I came to accomplish. The time was right for me to take on new challenges.”
Grandon was “shocked” when he learned of the resignation, through a campus-wide e-mail from Weiss himself.
“I say shocked because he’s done an exceptional job…and there’s a lot of stuff just from having a closer relationship that I could tell that he could continue to do really well here,” Grandon said. “That being said, I also can understand the desire to check out other options. It’s a bittersweet decision.”
But for Kuhns and many other members of Greek life, eight years under Weiss seems to be enough.
“I personally am glad that President Weiss is leaving. In my opinion he has lost touch with the majority of the student body,” said Kuhns.
Update (Wed., May 23, 8:05 PM): A few websites, unaffiliated with Lafayette College, have vocally criticized the administration for the direction it’s leading Lafayette, most notably about its handling of Greek life. Friends of Lafayette College publishes articles here, and the Chi Phi Fraternity is currently involved in a lawsuit with the college.
Photo by Jon Yu ’12 for The Clerk