[As part of WPI 150 and Leshin Inauguration preparations, Gordon Library’s Curation, Preservation, and Archives department is spending much of 2014 working through the records of four past WPI presidential administrations and two interim presidents. By gaining increased physical and intellectual control over nearly 30 years of recent files and memorabilia, the archives is also able to mount a retrospective presidential exhibit in the Gladwin Gallery, with a planned opening November 2014. The following post is authored by Paul Spring, temporary project archivist for the presidential papers processing project.]
Six months ago, I started working on a project in the WPI Archives to arrange and describe a large portion of the records of WPI’s Office of the President. As I have gone through this material, one thing in particular has stood out which may come as a surprise to those not familiar with the day-to-day workings of a university’s president. To many people at WPI , including students, faculty, staff, and alumni, the president may appear to be a somewhat distant figure, someone who deals with large, impersonal issues. When one looks at the actual records of past presidents, though, it becomes clear that the job of president is neither distant nor impersonal and much of the “record” produced by a president reflects this reality.
The president does deal with lots of big issues. There is plenty of historical material in the files about budgets, strategic planning for the future of WPI, new construction and renovation of buildings, the growth of the endowment, the administration of academic and other departments, and other broad subjects that affect the entire campus. There is also, however, another aspect of being president documented in the files. Based on the records included in the processing project’s scope, the president’s job is a very social one, and sometimes a very personal one, too. An enormous part of the work of every WPI president whose records I have processed has been communicating with other individuals on behalf of WPI. The president represents the university to everyone they interact with, in person or remotely – students, faculty, staff, alumni, donors, leaders in private business, government, and education. That’s why the single most common type of document in the presidential files is copies of correspondence sent and correspondence received – letters, and for the past twenty years, emails.
Some of these interactions are strictly business and perfunctory, with the correspondence being confined to form letters, but some of the correspondence and other documents are personalized and show that a lot of thought has gone toward addressing the president’s correspondent as an individual. Presidents clearly put a substantial amount of effort into communicating with individuals, from students to staff, trustees to alumni. Given the wide variety of responsibilities that presidents of WPI have, what is truly surprising is the sheer quantity of long and thoughtful letters, memos, and emails that they have been able to address to various people. When you think of the President of WPI, you should think of her or him as a dynamic individual who is always communicating with other people on both a business and a personal level.
In the early years of WPI, there were few administrative staff members. The president met or corresponded directly with individual students and faculty over pretty much all issues that impacted the WPI experience for all community members. As time went on and WPI grew into a larger and more complex organization, there was a larger administrative staff to address issues that the president once had to handle alone. At the same time, the increased presence of WPI and changes in the society around it gave the president new responsibilities. It was (and is) no longer possible for the president to interact directly with all of the individual students and faculty to the same degree. These changes have probably contributed to the likely perception of the president as a remote and impersonal figure, but this perception is not accurate. In fact, the job has remained just as social and personal as it ever was, with new ways to communicate both broadly and personally. We see this today with President Leshin’s use of 144 characters to connect with thousands – and yes, we’re trying to figure out what all those tweets mean for the future archives!
[Please note: At this time, the most recent 50 years of unpublished Office of the President records are closed and require the permission of the president and/or the chairman of the Board of Trustees to review.]