Special Report: President Hass Outlines Priorities of Leadership, Excellence, Diversity

Marjorie Hass seated at desk
Marjorie Hass settling into her new office at One Dupont Circle.

​CIC welcomed its new president, Marjorie Hass, on July 12, 2021. She joined CIC after a career dedicated to strengthening independent higher education in various leadership roles, most recently as president of Rhodes College (TN).

In a message shared with all members on her first day at the Council, Hass wrote, “Having devoted my career to independent higher education as a professor, provost, president, mentor, and leader, I am a deep believer in the transformative educational power of CIC member institutions.” She emphasized, “CIC’s membership consists of institutions dedicated to a distinctive and important tradition in higher education, and the Council exists to increase their impact and excellence.”

Before taking office at One Dupont Circle, Hass worked with president emeritus Richard Ekman, the Board of Directors leadership, and CIC staff teams to prepare for her new responsibilities. Ekman retired on July 9, after 21 years of service. In order to support the transition—and to write about the recent history of independent higher education— he will serve as a senior advisor for the next several months.

When joining the staff Hass said, “I’m delighted to be starting at CIC after a long period of anticipation and preparation. CIC has a dedicated and talented staff, and I am committed to building on what was accomplished under Rich Ekman’s leadership. The work we do here makes a significant impact on our members and their students, and I am excited to help CIC move from strength to strength.”

As CIC’s new president, Hass will be listening intently to members to learn more about the pressing issues they currently face and the ways in which CIC can contribute to their continued success in the future. Meanwhile, to introduce Hass to the members and friends of CIC, highlights of both print and video interviews with her are available now (see below).

Marjorie Hass holding eyeglasses

Meet Marjorie Hass: Interview

Marjorie Hass, CIC’s new president, and Paula M. Miller, former editor of the Independent, sat down for an interview on July 8, 2021. Hass described what drew her to CIC, key challenges affecting independent colleges and universities today, and how CIC serves and supports its member institutions.

What drew you to the CIC presidency at this time, after two successful college presidencies? What made you decide to make the switch?

It really was a sense of calling—perhaps what CIC’s NetVUE [Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education] initiative would call “vocation.” I have loved being president at two different institutions. I was excited about the work we were doing at Rhodes. I was not looking for a new job. But the CIC opportunity felt important to me, and it was such a good match for the ways that my passions and advocacy have evolved over the last decade, that I felt I needed to think seriously about the opportunity when it was presented to me.

How have the passions you mentioned evolved—what are they now?

I think independent higher education is at a significant inflection point. There are, of course, the pressures that have been with us for some time—including pressures to find affordable ways to provide excellence and ensure that our curricula are both deep and relevant to new generations of students. We’re also seeing increasing pressure from legislators to regulate course content and teaching methodologies. This is a moment when independent higher education has a role to play, not only for our own students, but for the broader world. We have an obligation to preserve and protect the kind of education and open inquiry that we know transforms students’ lives.

What wisdom gained from your college presidencies do you expect will be most applicable to leading CIC?
I come into this role with a deep understanding of the challenges presidents face and compassion and admiration for the work that presidents and other campus leaders do. I hope that experience translates into ensuring that CIC programs are relevant and responsive to the needs of our membership. In terms of leadership, leading a college gives you a firm and immediate lesson in how to keep your eyes on the strategic vision while also managing the day-to-day challenges.

What differences between leading a college and leading an association do you see as potentially challenging?

Good question. I have spent my career working at independent colleges. In fact, this is the first time in my adult life that I’m not employed on a college campus. On the other hand, over the past decade, I’ve been increasingly involved in mentoring future leaders and helping to diversify the leadership pipeline. I’ve been engaged in national conversations through my work with CIC and a number of our other sister associations. My increasingly national and even international perspective has been part of my preparation for this new role. That said, I’m already missing the daily rhythms of campus life, so I’ll be living vicariously through our members. I’ll be very eager to hear their stories about what they see as they walk down the quad and engage with students, faculty, and staff on campus.
If it would help you with the transition from a campus to association environment, we could arrange for CIC staff members to call you in the middle of the night with various crises…

Please don’t! One of the real challenges of the college presidency is that you do live in something of a state of permanent issues management, it gets harder and harder to find time to step back and reflect. One of the things that I think CIC offers to its membership is the space, the time, and the kind of collegial framework in which reflecting on the bigger, strategic issues can occur.

Speaking of big, strategic issues, what do you see as the top priorities for independent higher education now and in the very near future?

Diversifying and strengthening the leadership pipeline is critical— where will the leaders of the future come from who have the skills, the passion, and the willingness to take on this work? Other issues arise from the long overdue racial reckoning that is underway—as well as the backlash against it. This is a familiar dynamic in moments of cultural crisis and change. As we would expect, college campuses are central to that dialogue and debate. Independent higher education has an opportunity and a moment to claim space for thinking about how what we do on campuses prepares students to live in a vibrant, diverse, and democratic society. Another priority is the ongoing challenge of how to fund an education of true excellence. We know that it’s not possible for students alone to carry the burden of that investment. We have to make ever more visible the contribution to society that our students make and promote a broad understanding that investing in independent higher education is investing in the things that we, as a nation and as citizens in a democracy, hold dear.

In what ways can CIC membership help members respond to these challenges? Why should colleges and universities be CIC members?

CIC has a tripartite mission. We focus on developing and supporting leaders, we focus on helping our members access the resources they need to advance excellence on their campuses, and we focus on enhancing public understanding of the contributions independent higher education makes to society. I think all three of those aspects are pressing right now.

Having served at three campuses that were CIC members, I know how important each of those pieces of the CIC mission are. CIC’s leadership development programs are second to none—CIC really has a strong track record, and I want to continue to build on that. In terms of advancing excellence, in the last ten years, CIC has distributed $35.8 million to member colleges and universities and State Councils from grants contributed by foundations and other funders. That’s in addition to providing services that strengthen fellowship and resources for excellence beyond just the dollars. And finally, in terms of making the case for our colleges, it’s always frustrating to pick up a newspaper and see higher education misrepresented. We have to be firm advocates and we have to take advantage of new media. CIC has a chance to do that on behalf of our membership and to amplify the work our members do in this regard.

What CIC programs and services would you like to see developed in light of these priorities?

We want to continue the programs that our members tell us are useful to them. We know we have a strong suite of programs, but we’ll also be looking strategically at everything CIC does in order to make the best choices about what to offer. I have spoken with a number of member presidents already, and I will be doing a lot of listening this year. Some of the themes I’ve heard really resonate with me. For instance, I know that there’s a need to support presidents who are “the first” of some kind—I’ve been the first Jewish president and the first woman president at different campuses. So we need to support presidents and provosts and help campuses be prepared for what breaking down those barriers means. I also know that we need to go beyond echoing the pundits who say the business model of higher ed is broken—we need to provide real and practical solutions for our members to consider. We also need to provide a space of sanctuary for reflection and camaraderie because the work is hard.

Any concluding remarks to share with Independent readers?

I would just like to emphasize that CIC is the Council of Independent Colleges, and I think the “of” is important. We don’t claim at the association to have the answers to every problem and question. What we do is harness the wisdom of our members, we amplify good ideas, we bring members into conversation not only with each other, but also with wise thoughts and ideas from other related sectors. Engagement in CIC matters. Our association is only as strong as the engagement of our member presidents. One of my priorities is to work closely with each of our member institutions to enhance that engagement.

Marjorie Hass seated at table with mug

Meet Marjorie Hass: Biography

Marjorie Hass became president of the Council of Independent Colleges on July 12, 2021. From 2017 until her appointment to the CIC presidency, Hass served as president of Rhodes College (TN). During that time, she expanded the college’s engagement with the city of Memphis, enhanced inclusive excellence, and led a comprehensive and inclusive strategic planning process to position the college for success in the next decade. Previously, Hass served for eight years as president of Austin College (TX) where she defined a strong vision for the college’s future, pairing academic excellence with a commitment to educational access for talented students regardless of financial background, along with a strategic approach to securing the resources needed to achieve that vision. Earlier, she spent more than 16 years as a member of the philosophy faculty and subsequently as director of the Center for Ethics, interim dean of the faculty and vice president for academic affairs, and provost at Muhlenberg College (PA).

Hass was a member of the CIC Board of Directors from 2012 to 2016, serving as vice chair for resource development on the Executive Committee from 2014 to 2016. She has been a frequent presenter at CIC’s annual Presidents Institute and most recently served as a faculty member for CIC’s New Presidents Program. Hass also has been active in the leadership of other prominent higher education associations, serving as a board member of the Association of American Colleges & Universities and as former chair of the board of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. She is the author of the new book A Leadership Guide for Women in Higher Education. Hass earned bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in philosophy from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has published widely on the philosophy of language, logic, and feminist philosophy and is an award-winning teacher.

Her husband, Lawrence Hass, was a professor of humanities at Austin College and a former professor of philosophy and theater arts at Muhlenberg College. He also is an internationally celebrated sleight-of-hand magician and teacher of magicians. They have two grown children.

Meet Marjorie Hass: Quick Takes

What specific thinkers have shaped your philosophy on leadership?

Ludwig Wittgenstein and Hannah Arendt have been important influences in my general philosophical thinking. Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. have influenced me on how to use language to make change.

You’ve participated in several CIC Presidents Institutes over the years—what are your favorite features of the Institute?

I’ve learned from every panel and presentation, but I most value the friendships and collegial conversations.

What were the first places you visited after you moved to Washington, DC?

Eastern Market and Union Market, since we live nearby. When the museums began re-opening, we visited the National Gallery of Art, which is a long-time favorite.

What do you prefer to read outside the fields of higher education and philosophy?

I read deeply in art history and psychoanalytic theory.

A Conversation between Marjorie Hass & Roslyn Clark Artis

Benedict College (SC) President Roslyn Clark Artis conducted a video interview with Marjorie Hass on July 26, 2021. Artis serves on the Executive Committee of CIC’s Board and was on the search committee that selected Hass. Watch their engaging ten-minute discussion about such topics as expanding the leadership pipeline; strengthening campus diversity, equity, and inclusion goals; and why philosophers might make great leaders.