New Newspaper Profiles President Fordby Jamie Loo • December 8, 2004
Andrew Ford became a historian because he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life.
"I’ve always argued that everything is history," Ford said. "A historian can do anything he wants. When I figure out what I want to do, I’ll be able to do it."
A historian by definition records history, but Ford has been making history in his own way by being the 14th president to lead Wabash College. Born in Watertown, Mass., on May 22, 1944, Ford said his mother encouraged him to become a lawyer after he graduated from Seton Hall. He said he actually took the law exam LSATS, and applied to schools but decided he would continue his history studies in graduate school.
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin at Madison with a master’s degree in history, Ford began making his mark on the history of higher education in 1971 at Richard Stockton College in Pomona, N.J.
Ford became an American diplomatic history professor at the state college, which was just opening that year. When he went for his interview, Ford said he couldn’t even find the campus because it was hidden in the pinelands, the roads were not paved yet and there was "absolutely nothing there."
The campus wasn’t even completed when school in September began so classes started in a condemned building in a city not known for its colleges.
"First semester was held on the boardwalk in the Mayflower Hotel at Atlantic City," Ford said. "The kids went out at lunch time and played touch football in the sand."
Ford said he chose to be a professor at Stockton over other options because he was intrigued at "getting in on the ground floor" of a new college. It was an exciting experience because it was "a place without history, without tradition" and as a professor he got to be a part of the building of the college. Ford said he remembers the faculity debates during their first faculty meeting, particularly one about how the transcript system would work.
"That was absolutely fascinating And every bit of academic governance came up that day," Ford said.
Being part of the beginning of a college was hectic but an incredible learning experience, he said. Ford said he got to learn about the inter-workings of a college that in a more established setting we wouldn’t have been able to see. For example, instead of easing one class at a time into the college, their first year they had a freshman class and a junior class because having juniors helps to generate revenue. After teaching for a few years, Ford became assistant to the vice-president for academic affairs. He said he felt he was a better communicator between faculty and administration, since he was a faculty member before and could understand both sides pretty well.
After Stockton State College, Ford moved onto the New Hampshire College and
University Council, a consortium of four-year accredited public and private schools in the state. Ford then became the chief academic officer at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island and served in the same role at Allegheny College at Meadville, Penn.
In the summer of 1993 Ford came to Wabash College. Ford said the college has changed a lot over the past 12 years and believes that right now they’re "pretty happy. As happy as an academic institution can be." There are two former college presidents that Ford says he admires, Byron Trippett and Thad Seymour. Ford has met Seymour, who was dean of students at Dartmouth College before coming to Wabash.
"He is a big robust, jolly guy with a wonderful sense of humor," he said. Ford said Seymour was president between 1969 and 1978, which was a difficult time for the college and for the country. He said he admires Seymour for the way he kept the campus together during his presidency.
"Other places (campuses) were burning," he said. "He would walk on the campus doing his magic tricks, keeping the students going to class and kept them from doing something stupid."
The way higher education administrators should lead their institutions is by focusing fully on their mission statements and Ford tries his best to do that at Wabash. The mission statement of Wabash College is to educate young men with a liberal arts experience to "think critically, act responsibly, lead effectively, and live humanely."
"These qualities are needed today as much as they’ve ever been needed," Ford said.
Working in the best interests of students is also something that he finds crucial to being a good administrator.
"I really do believe students come first. It doesn’t mean they always get what they want but they do come first," Ford said.
Ford said the students at Wabash are "good kids" and working with them is one of the best parts about his job. He often stops to talk to students as he walks across the mall and makes an effort to go to events. Students also know they can stop by his office any time, he said.
"They drop in occasionally. Not as often as I’d like, but they do," he said.
Jim Stephens, a sophomore at Wabash, said he’s interacted with Ford on several occasions and that Ford is very accessible to students. The campus is working on a new strategic plan, and Stephens said Ford has personally asked for student participation to work on it. "He makes himself very present in student’s lives," he said.
Pat O’Rourke, a freshman, said Ford is a recognizable face on campus and that it’s not unusual for students to approach him and talk. "He goes to all the big campus events," O’Rourke said.
Ford has worked with the Main Street Committee in Crawfordsville, which is part of a national organization for revitalizing downtown areas.
He also served on the Main Street Committee when he was at Allegheny College. Working on the committee has given him the opportunity to interact with people in the community of all different backgrounds that he said he otherwise probably wouldn’t get to work with, he said. "The city is so important to the quality of life at the college," Ford said.
If a city isn’t healthy and attractive it hurts the college as a whole, but Ford said Crawfordsville doesn’t have to worry about that because it "is a genuinely friendly town."
"It’s a town that’s extraordinarily supportive of its students and you don’t find that often," he said.
When they recruit people to work for the college, Ford said that one of the big selling points about this area is the strong school systems and the county’s strong sense of its own history. It’s also a place where people go out of their way to help people, he said. Ford said he remembers that when citizens found out the Meals on Wheels program was having financial trouble a few years ago, people in the community donated enough money to make sure the program survived.
"I’ve always been struck by how generous this town is."
In his spare time, Ford said he enjoys reading and sometimes plays golf in the summer. Ford’s daughter, Lauren lives just outside of Chicago, Ill., and said he gets to see her and his granddaughter, Elsa every few weeks. He and his wife Anne, enjoy spending time with Elsa and that she is at the age where she is curious about everything. He said young children and college students have a real "sense of wonder" about life, asking questions, looking for answers and critically thinking about things. It’s an energy that he admires.
"In many ways it’s all about wonder. It’s what makes life so rich," Ford said.
Jamie Loo is a reporter for The Paper of Montgomery County.