VOL. 10 | NO. 3 | Saturday, January 14, 2017
Rhodes College’s Presidential Transition Reflects Larger Changes in Education
By Bill Dries
Rhodes College president Bill Troutt kept it simple last month when he introduced Marjorie Hass as the next president of the liberal arts college.
Rhodes College has expanded its programs and campus during the 18-year tenure of president Wiliam Troutt, who hands over the reins in July to Marjorie Hass.
(Memphis News File/Lance Murphey)
“You have chosen well,” he told the school’s board of trustees.
Hass takes office in July, with a transition underway now. Troutt leaves Rhodes after 18 years on the Midtown campus. And in those 18 years, the institution’s outlook has changed profoundly.
Some of the changes reflect larger shifts in higher education.
“We have to be careful about the cost of college,” said Cary Fowler, the co-chairman of the Rhodes search committee, which recommended Hass from a list of a dozen finalists culled from 100-plus applicants.
“We want to make that affordable to families,” Fowler said. “We’re deeply committed to our honor code and sense of values and community service. We want actually to deepen our connection to the city of Memphis.”
Hass comes to Memphis from being president of Austin College in Texas since 2009. A liberal arts college like Rhodes, Austin was feeling the national economic downturn when Hass took over, and she succeeded in stabilizing the school’s financial footing by growing its endowment, doubling applications and improving its retention rate.
The recession hit in Memphis a few years into a $314 million capital campaign that Troutt and Rhodes undertook.
At the end of the drive in 2015, campaign chairman Spence Wilson admitted the national downturn slowed the pace for several years. But with a goal of increasing scholarships and creating faculty chairs of excellence as well as a new science center that completed the Rhodes quadrangle last year, Wilson said the campaign weathered the storm.
“It really resonated with a lot of people,” he said of the campaign’s emphasis on programs and accessibility. “When we could get our message to persons that we were targeting, they really understood this is something they wanted to invest in.”
Other changes at Rhodes have been more of an evolution. Troutt’s 18 years have seen deliberate efforts to open not only the campus but also open Rhodes’ institutional reach.
“I spent the first year really trying to listen to what’s in the hearts of people here,” Troutt told The Daily News in 2012, recalling his start in Memphis in 1999 after leaving Nashville’s Belmont College.
Hass is taking the same approach that Troutt did as she prepares to assume leadership in July. She has already talked with students specifically about classes they’ve taken as part of a liberal arts education that changed their outlooks and perhaps their career trajectories.
The inquiry, which was part of Hass deciding whether she wanted the Rhodes job, goes to a key difference between a private school like Rhodes and public colleges and universities.
The liberal arts mission remains a well-rounded student. Public higher education, meanwhile, is increasingly about not only completing a four-year or associate degree but also workforce training with more use of technology.
That said, Rhodes students during Troutt’s tenure have had more programs aimed at experiences outside the campus.
And retention as well as completion are important factors in recruiting students to public or private colleges and universities.
The Kinney Program, which includes one-time service events and ongoing volunteer commitments by 83 percent of the college’s graduates, was developed in the 1950s by Dr. Laurence F. Kinney, professor of biblical studies at the college. The Kinney Program remains an integral part of life on campus and beyond.
“We began to think about how could you best connect student service to classroom learning,” Troutt said in 2012 of what he wanted to develop from that foundation. “Then, how could you build the most meaningful relationships, community partnerships to make students service a win-win?”
The St. Jude Summer Plus program launched nearly 15 years ago and the work with scientists begins with a summer learning lab.
In 2012, Rhodes formally launched The Memphis Center – a set of six initiatives ground in Memphis culture – with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
They include the Shelby Foote Collection, the papers and library of the late Memphis author that are still being catalogued and archived, and the Mike Curb Institute for Music, whose fellows work at the city’s various music heritage museums.
A group of “friends of the college” in Texas endowed the regional studies program, through which Rhodes faculty members work with students on issues related to Memphis and the region.
Rhodes also has the first collegiate chapter of Habitat for Humanity. And Troutt says the level of Rhodes students involved in Teach for America has made the education reform effort a sort of new version of the Peace Corps for a new generation of Rhodes students.