Alison R. Byerly elected 17th president of Lafayette
By Michael Kelley ‘14 & Julie Depenbrock ‘13
Published: Friday, February 1, 2013
Updated: Friday, February 1, 2013 01:02
College officials announced on January 16 that Alison R. Byerly had been selected as Lafayette’s 17th president. Currently Provost and Executive Vice President at Middlebury College, Byerly assumes her new role July 1.
She is Lafayette’s first female president and that fact alone already has at least one student excited.
“I think it’s really cool that she’s a woman,” Sammy Chavim ‘16 said after Byerly spoke at Wednesday’s meet and greet with students in the Farinon Center. “I think it’s really exciting for a school that has a history of being like a boys club that we now have a woman president.”
For 23 years, Byerly served as both a professor of English and an administrator at Middlebury. She has spent time as a visiting scholar in literature at Oxford, Stanford, and most recently, MIT, according to her curriculum vitae.
Byerly holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Pennsylvania and has written two books: Realism, Representation, and Arts in Nineteenth Century Literature and Are We There Yet? Virtual Travel and Victorian Realism. She lectures broadly on digital humanities, curricular innovation, and social media of the past and present.
“She is one of the leading voices in the country today in terms of growth of technology and use of technology in teaching and learning,” Board of Trustees Chair Edward Ahart ‘69 said.
In a recent interview with The Lafayette, Byerly provided a specific example of technology and its role in learning.
“The evolution of new options like online courses offer a wonderful breadth and dimension to higher education,” she said. “I don’t think they’re necessarily threatening.”
The search for Byerly began in the summer, soon after President Daniel H. Weiss announced his resignation. In the fall, the search committee led forums with alumni and parents across the nation, discussing concerns and preferences for the next president.
The committee reviewed the professional materials of multiple candidates and those that seemed to best meet the needs of the college were asked to interviews, Vice Chair of the Search Committee Elisabeth MacDonald ‘81 said.
“I’d say we had it down to 12-15 candidates that we moved forward with,” Chair Alan Griffith ‘64 added. Along gender and ethnic lines, Griffith said, the group was “very well balanced.”
Sitting presidents and provosts were among the strongest candidates, Weiss said.
A smaller number was pooled to participate in on-campus interviews. “These candidates met with many different constituents at the college—including students, faculty representatives, and staff—and they toured the campus and downtown Easton,” MacDonald said.
Just before the holidays, the search committee made its final recommendation to the Board of Trustees. The Board unanimously approved Byerly’s appointment, according to Ahart.
“She’s a well-established and widely respected leader,” Weiss said. “She knows our institution well and I think she’s capable of doing a wonderful job at Lafayette.”
Weiss added in a later interview, “Frankly, a lot of my presidency was devoted to redressing issues that I don’t think will be issues for her.”
Part of knowing the institution well involves being able to effectively communicate the value of a liberal arts education to prospective students, a message Byerly calls “more important than ever.”
“If you read the newspaper and listen to the public discourse,” she said, “there are real questions being asked about the cost of higher education, whether it’s broadly acceptable enough, whether it’s relevant for students in preparing for their future lives and careers.”
Ahart expects the new president to be charged with “a high ambition.”
“We have been engaged in a process to continue to move the college forward,” he said. “We want to be—and be recognized to be—one of the very best of our type in the world. And her appointment signals a continuation of all of that.”
Though vague on the specifics, Byerly seems to understand the process Ahart speaks of.
“As an institution, Lafayette could go farther,” Byerly said. “My role is simply to move forward the policies that are in place when I come into office.”