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  • Writer's picturePatricia Salkin

Former White House Lawyer Returns to Hobart and William Smith Colleges for Second Presidency

While it is common for college and university lawyer presidents to have government law experience (see, May it Please the Campus: Lawyers Leading Higher Education), it is unusual for a president to leave office and then be brought back years later to re-assume the campus leadership role. That is precisely what happened in July 2022 when Mark Gearan rejoined Hobart and William Smith Colleges (New York) as the 30th President of Hobart and the 19th President of William Smith College. Gearan had been president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges for 18 years from 1999-2017. He left to become the director of the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School. E. Gordon Gee, who held 7 presidencies at 5 institutions, is another lawyer president who did the same thing in terms of returning to once again lead a campus (at Ohio State and at the University of West Virginia).

Immediately prior to joining Hobart and William Smith Colleges in 1999, Gearan served as Director of the Peace Corps, having been appointed to that post by President Bill Clinton in 1995. During his successful tenure at the Peace Corps where he was credited with igniting more interest in the volunteer service and grew the Corps from 6,700 volunteers to 10,000 volunteers, and with improving management operations and strengthening the agencies ties to thousands of former volunteers. Prior to the Peace Corps, Gearan held a variety of positions in government including White House Communications Director and White House Deputy Chief of Staff for President Clinton. Gearan is a veteran of the political campaign trail serving as the Vice President campaign maanger for the 1992 Clinton/Gore campaign and as Headquarters Press Secretary for Michael Dukakis’s 1988 presidential campaign. Gearan worked on the Hill as Chief of Staff for Representative Berkley Bell of Iowa, and he was an intern for Congressman Robert Drinan, S.J. President Gearan also served as executive director of the Democratic Governors Association between 1989 and 1992.

His official biography at Hobart and William Smith Colleges goes on to state, “Gearan is known nationally for his work in higher education and national service, and recently served as Vice Chair of the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service created by the U.S. Congress. He is a past chair of the Board of Directors of both National Campus Compact and the Corporation for National and Community Service.” It should be no surprise that in 2014 when former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was looking for someone to lead the gaming commission to help select casino sites, he called upon Mark Gearan.

Many former government lawyers are selected for campus presidencies precisely for the skill set they have built while working in government and perhaps for the network they can call upon to support the campus. For example, government lawyers have experience in expecting the unexpected – waking up to the morning news and having to go to work to address the headlines of the days while still managing routine tasks. Government lawyers help to frame messaging typically designed to be transparent and to instill a sense of public confidence in the system and response. Government lawyers operate comfortably within the complexities of a legal and regulatory environment to problem-solve and to advance agendas. Working within a team structure, communication, negotiation, and the art of the compromise are also key government lawyer experiences and skills. Further, understanding how government works, where to look to for public support for campus capital and operating expenses, as well as potential legal reforms to help advance campus initiatives are all valuable tools for an institutional leader to possess. Higher education depends on effective Town-Gown relationships.

It is worth noting that Mark Gearan is not the first lawyer to be appointed as president at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. In 1982 Carroll Brewster was appointed president and he served until 1991.

Mark Gearan earned his JD from Georgetown University Law Center.


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