Locate Finger Lakes Business Journal

Mark and Mary Gearan: Welcome Home to HWS

There are many words to describe Mark and Mary Gearan but two jump to the top of the list: gracious and welcoming. As Mark returns as president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges (HWS), one is struck by how deep their intention is to foster a warm environment within the school and ongoing inclusiveness with the Geneva community.

Last July, Mark received an unexpected call from the HWS board to see if he would consider replacing President Joyce Jacobsen, who had resigned to join the faculty as a professor of economics. “We admire the region and our colleagues, so we were honored and excited by the invitation to return. We were here for 18 years, our daughters grew up in Geneva, and one went to school here while we were away.”

Mary was equally excited. “We had been on campus for a reunion in June, and I remember thinking, ‘This is such a special place. I hope we’ll be able to get back here soon.’ Then Mark told me about the call. Within a few months, we were in the President’s House, which we love.”

She notes that returning is a different experience because their daughters, Madeleine and Kathleen, were young children back then and now are adults with careers. The Gearans also came back to a community that had been changed by COVID, and a college about to celebrate its Bicentennial, an extraordinary milestone that only 50 other colleges and universities in the country have reached.

A Return to Normalcy

The Gearans saw first-hand the toll the pandemic took on HWS because their daughter, Kathleen, was attending school during that time. “The students have been through so much not being able to participate in normal activities. So, this year has been especially poignant,” says Mary. “It was great to see everyone in person during orientation. And during the first football game, I’ve never seen it so crowded. When I looked in the stands, every seat was filled.”

Mark echoes that sentiment. “Because of our daughter, we saw the place as parents, in addition to our perspective from being here previously for almost two decades. I really admire the very hard decisions that were made and respect how President Jacobsen and her colleagues navigated the public health issues. Now there is understandable happiness because people are finally able to be together.”

This has meant a very hectic schedule beyond the leadership aspects of being president. Working together, the Gearans have days and nights filled with activities to foster community. During a recent weekend, they held an open house for students, attended a dance concert, had dinner with the Muslim Student Association, and engaged in pumpkin carving with a group of students who never experienced the activity before. “This job is a privilege and a lifestyle,” comments Mark. “At this chapter in our life, it’s a fun and collaborative effort.”

For Mary, part of the magic is the President’s House itself, a classic Greek revival home built in 1836 for a New York City auctioneer and purchased in 1884 by HWS as the residence for the colleges’ presidents. “I try to say to every student who comes here that we are the caretakers of the house. This is your house, too.”

She tells a story of the first year they lived in the President’s House. “It was in the summer, and we invited some faculty over. A week later, we invited them over again for lemonade and cookies. As a guest was leaving, he said, ‘You know, I’ve been teaching here for over 30 years, and I’ve been invited to this house twice. The first time was last week, and the second time was today.’ His remark made me realize that this house needs to be open for faculty, students, staff, and the community. I will always be grateful for his comment.”

In Partnership with Geneva and the Finger Lakes

Being a host was top of mind for Mark during the Bicentennial celebration, but this time he was focused on the interconnectedness between HWS and Geneva. “For literally two centuries, Geneva has been a remarkable host to us. Genevans funded and built the college’s first building, Geneva Hall. There are so many examples where the community has supported our students, faculty, staff, and graduates every step of the way.”

He believes the partnership with Geneva and the region is a big part of what differentiates a HWS education. “From accessing environmental issues to learning about the great and important movements of indigenous peoples, suffragettes, and civil rights, the region is important to our curriculum and to our students’ understanding of place.”

He is particularly impressed with what is happening now in the Finger Lakes. One person he points to is Mike Nozzolio, retired New York State Senator and founder and chairman of LOCATE Finger Lakes, who he describes as a “sparkplug.” Mike supported the creation of the Finger Lakes Institute at HWS to promote environmental research and education and is deeply committed to helping keep and bring young talent to the region.

Over the years, Mark has seen a change in the number of students who want to remain in the Finger Lakes. “We have always drawn great students from the region who have family roots and are looking to stay here. But now I’m struck by the number of students from across the country who are imagining ways they can stay. I think it is a direct marker of what’s happened here in the economy and the good people that have made that a reality. It’s fascinating to me — particularly for students coming from very urban areas – that they see the beauty of the area, the kindness and generosity of the people, and the mixture of activities, athletics, engagements, and cultural opportunities.”

Mary believes that the sense of connection is also because the region is a place where students learn about and practice community service. “Community service is a very strong and valued ethic here. Students have the ability to intern, serve on local boards, and volunteer. We have special service days, and it’s great to see our students realize how all these great partners in Geneva are so appreciative of the help.”

That’s one reason why the first thing Mark says to the incoming class is: “Welcome to Hobart and William Smith. Welcome to Geneva.”  During orientation, students go into the community to learn more about its history and tour downtown. Then they engage in service projects as a way to get to know one another. “It’s a pretty intentional statement. We sit here on a beautiful part of the community with this great host of Geneva. The sense of giving back has to be very clear right at the beginning.”

Leading a Life of Consequence

The Gearans are particularly proud of the mission statement of HWS: “To prepare students to lead a life of consequence.” As Mark explains, “Being grounded in a broad liberal arts and sciences education is a great preparation for life. During their four years here, they can investigate their own curiosities and motivations to understand how they can lead a life of consequences.”

Leading a life of consequence could be the couple’s own personal mission statement. Mark has served in a variety of roles in American politics and government including White House Communications Director, White House Deputy Chief of Staff, Vice Presidential Campaign Manager for Clinton/Gore ’92, and Executive Director of the Democratic Governors Association. President Bill Clinton appointed him the 14th Director of the Peace Corps where he oversaw expansion into South Africa, Jordan and Haiti.

He is known nationally for his work in higher education and national service. He served as President in Residence at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Director of the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School. He recently was 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.

Mary is active in the Geneva community where she held leadership roles on the boards of Geneva Music Festival and Happiness House-Finger Lakes Cerebral Palsy Association. She was awarded an honorary degree from HWS  in recognition of her significant service to the campus and Geneva community.  At Harvard, she received the John R. Marquand Award recognizing excellence and dedication in the mentoring and guidance of undergraduates while she was interim faculty dean of Winthrop House.

Married for 41 years, the couple met working on a political campaign right out of college. “I have to say that literally from the first time I started dating Mark I realized that he’s just such a great, great person. We have a lot of fun, and Mark treats everyone with respect. He gives anyone he’s known and worked with a chance. I’m just so proud him.” Mark, looking fondly at his wife, explains their successful partnership in four words: “I married very well.”

The Future of HWS

During his first presidency, the colleges’ endowment doubled as Mark oversaw a capital campaign that raised $205 million to support facilities and annual giving, established 168 new scholarships, and completed 80 significant capital projects. He also made substantial commitments to diversity and inclusion, propelled the colleges’ environmental efforts, and grew programming in career services, civic engagement, leadership, student services, and study abroad.

He sees three focus areas for his second time around. The first is to build a community where people come together with newfound energy and reappreciation of being together. Second is advancement and fundraising for resources that are critical for the future. Third is enrollment. “Colleges are defined by who we recruit, attract, and retain to animate the classrooms, teams, clubs and organization.”

On a bigger scale, he wants people to understand that small, residential liberal arts colleges are a very good and contemporary way for students to get educated for a century of fast change. “So many issues now are interdisciplinary and require the kinds of skills that come from a liberal arts education – writing, communicating, critical thinking, analyzing, and working collaboratively.”

He also believes that education is an essential part of repairing polarization and challenges in our democracy. “We can fix the future with a well-educated citizenry who appreciate the importance of different perspectives. The excitement for me is providing education that is frequently transformational for students and their families, and, in a broader context, for our democracy.”

As the couple continues to build their life of consequence at HWS, Mary says that her daughter, Madeleine, may have captured their feelings best when walking with her mother in town during the Bicentennial. “I feel like we’ve been given the gift of being able to really appreciate this place and  in such a great way like just walking down St. Clair Street on a beautiful Fall day. We always have these memories, but it’s wonderful to know that we’re actually here again and can create some new ones for the students and for ourselves.”

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