Q&A: Joanne Creighton

After two years at Haverford College, Interim President Joanne Creighton said her official goodbye late last month. We reached Creighton over the phone for an interview on May 20.

The Haverford homepage bid farewell to Creighton on June 27.

The Haverford homepage bid farewell to Creighton on June 27.

Where are you headed next?

I’m going back to Amherst, Massachusetts with my husband and dog. And I am resuming a 5-college professorship for three years. I abandoned that [position] twice so now I’m actually going to do it. I’m still tenured at Mount Holyoke. For 3 years I have a rotating professorship among the five colleges to teach, starting at UMASS, a class for English majors following [William Faulkner] and other writers who follow him and his traditions.

What kind of challenges were you looking at when you first came to Haverford?

When I first arrived right before the term began, there was quite a feeling of disconnection or polarization to some degree among various groups and concern about where the institution was going. I think that my major task and accomplishment was to pull everybody back together. And I used the theme of recentering to rally around the central mission of the institution, and [clarify] shared goals and objectives.

And how would you say that has gone?

I think that has been quite successful. I was particularly concerned with faculty, about pulling them back together and their working relationship. That was kind of a healing, a restorative, re-centering process. When Dan was hired and was not able to come for another year, he and I agreed we would do a two-year strategic planning process, so the time would be as productive as possible. So re-centering became forward planning. I’m very pleased with the nature and the success of that [planning].

I feel this progressed very well. We presented to the board and faculty the plan in April. So we have a draft – but that’s just the beinning for a 2-year process. Dan [Weiss] will pick that up and we’ll revise and expand.

I expect by April of next year there will be a final strategic plan. And then there will be a campaign roll-out in the fall. So a lot has been accomplished. I think it has energized a lot of people. Some of the very best of faculty and staff have been contributing in much ways. It’s just the beginning – there will be much more opportunities for fuller development of that as it goes on. The students in Council have some good plans about how to establish a student working group that will take the strategic plan and develop and respond to it.

What was the nature of the communication issues when you arrived?

I think the issue was one of…not knowing each other. Sort of mystifying the other when you don’t know them? I have a really strong commitment to shared governance. I feel the faculty are a very important constituent group and they share governance with the Board in the sense that they’re responsible for the academic program. So the board has ultimate authority but the faculty is responsible for that process – they’re both partners. Part of it is insisting that there will be that partnership, and I think the planning process helps that a lot because it provides grounds for discussion.

Staff have said that you were hired on to focus on internal affairs while the Board has taken the lead on external affairs. Is that how things played out or did you find yourself engaging in external affairs, like fundraising?

I did some [external work], but much less than I did at Mount Holyoke – so I spent much more time [on internal affairs] than a typical president would. The partnership worked out well in that respect because Dan hasn’t started yet, but he’s done a lot of meeting with the external groups. He was at each of the Board meetings all year and he’s had the opportunity to meet some key players. And there are still always advancement events on campus.

Did the knowledge that you would be leaving soon change your management style? Did you feel less restrained as an administrator in what you could say and demand from others?

Not really – no. I think that I felt fully President, and that I really was well-served by having a lot of experience of being a President. And what was needed was someone with experience who could just jump right in. I had a lot of competence in the job and the job needed what I could give to it. And what has happened is not at all minding the store – but moving forward.

Do you have advice for Haverford or Dan Weiss going forward? Are there problems you weren’t able to address?

The strength of the institution lies in its very powerful mission, and there’s a very widely-shared and coherent and powerful idea about a Haverford education should be. And it is grounded in an intellectual rigor and ethical purposefulness and seriousness that comes out of Quaker roots. Those are very defining qualities, and the institution is exceedingly fortunate in its legacy. There are great opportunities for the future.

The academic program needs to be front and center.

I think the liberal arts college [in general] has faced a lot of challenges and Haverford shares those challenges – largely financial because it’s an expensive type of education [that is] very people-dependent. So the inflationary aspect and salary — people’s salaries and the tuition can’t keep going up. Financial aid is already a huge piece of the budget.

It’s a bright future for the college and I think Dan will be a wonderful president who truly values Haverford – he’s very taken in the institution and interested in the leadership role that Haverford can play in the liberal arts world.

(For their traditional parting gift, this year graduating seniors each handed Creighton a fortune cookie with a custom message, in exchange for their diplomas.)

Did you eat any of the fortune cookies from the class of 2013?

I actually didn’t get them until today because they were collected for me. I opened a few and passed out some [to staff] – it was very thoughtful. There were nice little messages in there – “thank you for all you did for Haverford,” there were some very personal messages. I think it was very thoughtful.

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