This article is the second of a multipart series on William Jewell College’s presidents- past, present and future.
Dr. Elizabeth McLeod Walls will be taking over the William Jewell College presidency from Dr. David Sallee at the start of the fall 2016 semester. She comes to Jewell following her time as the dean of Nebraska Wesleyan University. This position is not her only experience with liberal arts colleges, however. She graduated with a bachelor of arts in English and history from Hiram College, followed by a doctorate in English literature and classical rhetoric from Texas Christian University. Before her time at Nebraska Wesleyan, she worked as the director of institutional effectiveness, dean, interim president and second president at Bryan College of Health Sciences. She will be bringing her husband, Reverend Dr. Craig McLeod Walls, their two children and their dog Brownie to the Hill in a few months. The Hilltop Monitor had the chance to sit down with Dr. Walls and ask her about what she is expecting from her time at Jewell.
What drew you to William Jewell College?
What didn’t draw me to William Jewell? Its academic reputation is superb, and, in particular, the distinctiveness of academics at Jewell, which I think are quite unique to the region and to small liberal arts colleges in its peer group. I had known of Jewell for decades and always thought very highly of it, and when I saw that the position was coming open, I thought that there really would not be another position that would be more appealing to me than the presidency of Jewell. So I decided to go out on a limb and put myself out there, and it’s really been a marvelous experience ever since. Everything that I believed about Jewell has been affirmed by my experience.
You haven’t been here very long, but do you feel that you’re clicking well with the faculty, the students and all the general aspects of campus?
Yes, very much so. There’s a spirit here, and I’ve sort of taken to calling this the magic of Jewell. I can’t quite put my finger on it, I couldn’t tell you exactly what it is, I don’t know if you could even say what it is, but I think everyone here feels it and understands it. I have experienced that in every conversation that I’ve had today and certainly prior to today. There’s an energy, there’s an enthusiasm, and there’s a true belief in the possible—that’s how I would define it—that I’ve felt throughout my interactions, and it just makes me more and more excited to be part of this community.
Are there any significant policy changes that you’re planning to make or any traditions that you’re planning to build upon and why?
Well, one of the things that’s very appealing to me is that I’m coming into a situation where Jewell has a strong foundation that is allowing the College to think about the future in new ways. So it has, obviously, a strong academic foundation. It has a strong financial foundation, which, right now in the landscape of higher education, not a lot of institutions can say that. But it has a solid financial picture, and it has very strong community and alumni support. So, with those three pieces in place—and I need to also say that those things have come about because of truly wise and courageous and engaged leadership by Dr. Sallee for the past 16 years and the faculty and staff—but with those pieces in place, it gives me the opportunity to dream a little, and the luxury to listen and to learn and to have conversations. And I intend for the next year to really be doing that, to learn about Jewell from the inside out, to have as many conversations as I can, which truly is a gift for me as the incoming president. And I think based on what we all hear and collectively, sort of, create together, we will know, a year from now, where we’re going to be going and what we’re going to be doing, and I think everyone is going to be excited about that.
Do you have an idea of what your priority at Jewell will be, or will you discover it as you go along?
Certainly the latter. I’ll discover that as I go. I think it would be terribly presumptuous to come in at this point and say, “These are the following things that I’ll be doing.” I think I have a lot of learning to do.
Do you have a plan to get to know the faculty, staff and students outside the meet-and-greets that have been facilitated so far?
I was just joking with the faculty that they can anticipate that I’m going to be haunting their offices to the point where they probably will be tired of me. I think that the best possible thing that I can do is truly visit with every single staff member and faculty member on this campus in their space and spend time with them, get to know them, learn from them. You really have one opportunity to do that as a new president, and I intend to maximize that opportunity.
Will you be coming back to visit again this semester?
Yes. And I’ll be bringing my kids, so apologies in advance.
What are your thoughts on the change in environments that you’ll be making coming to such a small institution as Jewell?
Well, Nebraska Wesleyan and William Jewell are both small liberal arts colleges. They may have slightly different numbers in terms of student population, but both of them have a very strong ethic and a mission that is entirely built around the liberal arts. And so that’s a universe that I understand, it’s one that I’ve always known. I attended a liberal arts college myself, so, for me, this is second nature. And, in fact, I’m delighted at the size of Jewell. I think it’s a perfect environment to get to know students and to get to know faculty and staff, so I’m looking forward to that opportunity.
You have an extensive literary background. Are you planning to be especially involved with the English department in any way?
Well, obviously, I have proclivities toward English. I was joking around with the chair that whenever he was ready to put me into that second half British Literature survey, I’m the gal. But in all seriousness, I think it’s a very, very fine department, and I’m delighted to be able to get to know them and get to know about their research and get to know about the students’ work. But ultimately, at the end of the day, I represent all disciplines as the president of the College.
Does your husband’s being a reverend influence your opinion of Jewell’s religious past?
It was interesting to me, and it was interesting talking to people about Jewell’s religious past because I’ve heard so many different responses to that question. I think it’s something that the College is discerning and will continue to discern for a while. I’m really pleased to hear that Jewell has evolved into having a very ecumenical understanding—and I think has for a long time—of how people come to faith, and an interfaith understanding of that. I was talking to Andy Pratt this morning, and he was sharing with a good deal of pride about the extent to which the College is intentional about quoting the Qu’ran and quoting from the Hebrew Bible. So that’s important to this institution, and I think that there’s a good deal of openness at this institution, which is always a great place to start. So for us, we come from the Disciples of Christ Christian background, which is a very inclusive and open and welcoming environment, so we’re very used to that kind of a worldview, and I think it will be very natural for us to fit into that.
It’s interesting that you talked about openness and the inclusive aspect of Jewell. Do you intend to focus on an increase in diversity on campus?
Yes. That one’s a strong yes because it’s not dependent, necessarily, on any sort of agenda that I would have. You know, one of the things that we spent a good deal of time talking to the Board about was—and this is a common issue, this isn’t specific to Jewell. But when you think about the fact that 93 percent of the faculty at William Jewell are Caucasian—and roughly 20 percent of the student body are students of color, and that number is going to grow, just as it is nationally—that ratio’s not okay. And one of the things that we need to do is start being very—well, and I know Jewell is doing this work, and it’s doing a lot of outstanding programming around diversity and inclusion already—but I think continuing that work, being intentional about creating a faculty and staff that are reflective of the society that we’re attempting to serve and, so that’s the first piece. And the second piece that I think is so important, and will be a hallmark of my leadership at Jewell, is consistent, open dialogue about diversity issues. So one of the things I do intend to do, and this I am sure about, is have monthly dialogue with students. Brown bag, really casual, but just a chance for the president and students to have an unscripted conversation. But it will be around diversity, and it will be every single month. Because, when situations like Missouri happen—and the reason that Missouri happened wasn’t because of one incident or one decision that the president made. It was because they weren’t already having the conversation. And so when you have an environment where that conversation is just part and parcel of the dialogue going on at the school, the identity of the school, the values of the school, then it’s much easier to have those conversations when difficult things come up that challenge us and make us think critically about who we are as a community. So that’s a piece that I am comfortable committing to right now.
They mentioned in the announcement email that you were hoping to continue Dr. Sallee’s legacy. How do you conceptualize that and what specifically that he has done are you helping to build upon with your presidency?
I really cannot say enough about Dr. Sallee’s wisdom and courage as a leader. He has guided this institution through what could have been a really polarizing experience for Jewell, and it turned out to be, I think, a generative experience for Jewell. And it says so much about his leadership and the collaborative spirit that he’s created with faculty and staff that they have been able to, that we have been able to, come out the other side to really have, I think, fruitful and meaningful dialogue about things like spirituality and identity and things like that. And it says a lot about Dr. Sallee that Jewell is where it is right now. So my intention would be to always be building upon that collaborative spirit, that sense of courage and adhering to the mission of absolutely defending academic freedom no matter what the situation is. Those are basic precepts of his leadership and will be basic precepts of mine and, I think, form the basis for a really vibrant future for Jewell.
How would you describe your administrative leadership style?
My leadership style—I’m a listener. I listen very, very carefully. And I think you have to spend a lot of time listening before you really can engage with someone and begin to advance change through that person or work really closely with that person. So I’m spending a lot of time now listening, and I will be spending time listening for many, many months to come. Because when you listen, you understand what’s important to someone. You understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. And once you understand those pieces, you can work right alongside them and support them. If you don’t take the time to listen to them, then you’re going to have your agenda, and they’re going to have their agenda, and that, at the end of the day, is counterproductive. So spending a lot of time listening to people. And if you were to talk to my team at Wesleyan, what they would tell you is I am very energetic, I like to get things done, I move quickly, I have a number of people around me who feel very, very comfortable, and I know my team here will, too, be very honest with me and very candid, and they’ll say, “Elizabeth, it’s time to slow down. You can’t keep moving this fast.” So, I love to have that kind of give and take with my leadership team. And, you know, I keep celebration and a sense of humor at the forefront because this is hard work, and it’s really really good work, but if you don’t pause and celebrate what we’ve done and what we’re doing, it can be enervating. So you have to take time. One of the things I love is Jewell Time. I think it’s so great because building community and celebrating and taking the time to say, “This is what we do and isn’t it incredible?” That’s really all we need to do to be able to keep going and stay motivated.
It sounds like you’re going to be very involved in students and have students heavily involved. Are there any student life initiatives that you’re planning to take, change or build upon?
I’m going to have to get the lay of the land before I can really answer that question adequately. I will say I’m terribly impressed by the support that’s given to students now through Student Life. The retention work that’s done at this institution is second to none. It’s superb. Other small colleges could take a lesson from what Jewell does. Back to the point about community, I see that interwoven through all of the efforts of faculty and staff to keep students here and keep them engaged. So, I wouldn’t want to mess with that formula because that’s working really, really well. But obviously, over time, as you learn about things, there are always ways to improve, there are always ways to grow, and luckily here at Jewell, there’s energy and excitement around constant improvement and serving students. So I think that will inevitably happen.
Is there anything else that you want the campus to know?
Gosh, we’re pretty boring. No, just forgive us when our children are loud or do or say anything that would be embarrassing for William Jewell College. And we have a dog coming, too. Her name is Brownie. She will be eight on March the third. She’s a rescue dog. She’s a Brittany Spaniel. She’s fabulous, she’s really, really great, and she’s going to love the students. And we’re big walkers, so you’ll see us walking around with Brownie a lot. And all the students will be welcome to come over and give Brownie pets. She’d love that.
Feature photo by Elizabeth Messina.
A previous version of this article was published without the full name of Dr. Elizabeth McLeod Walls.