Q&A with New Board Chair Sue Washburn ’73
Sue Washburn ’73, a member of the first four-year cohort of women admitted to Franklin & Marshall, became the first alumna to lead the institution as chair of its Board of Trustees on July 1. She recently sat down with Franklin & Marshall Magazine to discuss her special connection to the College and vision for her alma mater.
What life lessons did you learn from being among the first female students at Franklin & Marshall?
I was the first in my family to go to college and I didn’t know anything about F&M. My Latin teacher got a letter that said, “If you have a student who is interested in studying Greek, please recommend him for the Samuel Mohler Scholarship.” So she recommended me and I wrote to F&M for an application. The director of admission wrote back to me, “We’re not a coed institution, but our Board of Trustees is voting on this issue next month. Thank you for applying, and if we do not decide to accept women, we’ll send you back your application fee.”
As we all know, the trustees did indeed decide to make the College coed—and I received the scholarship. At F&M, I developed a level of comfort working in a majority-male environment. I learned to find my voice and to speak it. I learned how to stand up for myself and also how to ask for help. Both of those things—and knowing when to do which one—are important life skills.
One other thing I should mention: I thought I was a good student until I got here! On this campus, I learned how to really study—how to truly pay attention, how to focus, think critically, and how to manage my time.
You attended F&M during a dynamic, chaotic time in American history. Several surveys suggest that the class entering college nationally this fall will be the most activist in decades. What’s your view?
I believe that colleges and universities have to be places where you have tough discussions about difficult issues. When I think back to the 1960s and early 1970s, it was not only a time of campus foment, but also a time of great educational ferment. The more opportunities you have for discussion, the more you have the chance to shine the light on important issues on a campus. In that way, a college campus is a microcosm for our larger society. I welcome dialogue; I welcome engagement; I welcome opportunities to reach across divisions and differences.
If you had to summarize your vision for F&M in the next decade in one paragraph, what would it be?
I truly believe that the world needs Franklin & Marshall College. We are known for rigor, academic excellence and our outstanding faculty teacher/scholars. I believe that we have demonstrated the value of recruiting talented students from across the country and around the world, and I also believe that we have shown the benefits of access and inclusion for our campus. In fact, we’ve celebrated that. I think we can serve as an example and invite other institutions to join us in those efforts. So I see Franklin & Marshall as a leader in this national conversation, and I see Franklin & Marshall educating and developing amazing change makers. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that?
Why is broad investment by F&M alumni, parents and friends important to the College’s future?
I hope it’s important to everyone who is a member of the Franklin & Marshall family. This is our college. If together we share the belief that F&M is a valuable institution and the world does indeed need our college, then working together to support this institution, to secure and ensure its future naturally follows. It’s critical to have institutions that can lead. I believe that we are one of those institutions.
What was your biggest challenge as an F&M student?
Absolutely, the level of academic rigor. I had never really been away from home. It was a totally new environment for me, and I probably enjoyed the social aspect of campus a little too much in the beginning, because I had been a good student in high school and didn’t think I needed to study very hard. Then I failed my first F&M exam. I remember calling my mother and saying to her, "Mom, I failed my first exam here. I don't know if I can make it at this college." And my mother said, "Well, Susan, I think you're talking to the wrong person."
So I went to my professor and said, "I obviously didn't do well on this exam. I need to work on my study skills. Is there a chance that I could do any additional work that could help bring up my grade?" He worked very closely with me and he pushed me, and I'm ever appreciative of that because it really set me on the right path.
What is your fondest memory from your four years as an F&M student?
I can't think of only one. There are so many. Being an engaged and active student. Making friends who are my friends to this day. The first time Dr. Robert Russell said to me, "Miss Washburn, you're absolutely right!" The many times when the light bulb went off for me in class. The late-night sessions in someone's room talking with fellow students about what we were studying and learning and also what was going on in the world. It was a time of a lot of self-discovery and tremendous intellectual growth.
As a first-generation college student yourself, what advice would you give to the 160 or so first-generation students entering F&M this fall?
Be prepared to study really hard, probably harder than you ever have. Don't be afraid to raise your hand and ask for help. Seek advisers, mentors and counselors; it's important to develop your support group. And engage with others—never feel alone. If you have questions about the material, other students do, too. If you're feeling a little lost on campus, others students are feeling that way, too. Finally, truly embrace everything that F&M has to offer because there is so much that this college provides. I suppose all of that is good advice for any student, but if you come from a background in which you have no basis for comparison and you don't know exactly what to prepare for, it's even more important to know that this is a caring and supportive community that wants every student to succeed.
How has your professional experience in higher education strategic planning, finance and marketing shaped your perspective as an F&M trustee?
I've had the opportunity to work with many kinds of institutions throughout this country and outside the U.S.—Ivy League schools; large, public research universities; smaller, liberal arts colleges… I've worked with schools that are quite sophisticated with long histories and with newer ones that are developing their sense of identity and building resources. As both a university officer and a consultant, I've worked with lots of different boards at many different institutions and I've learned something from every one of them. I've learned lessons that I think will help Franklin & Marshall and I've also been proud to see the degree to which this college leads. That's not comparing; that's learning. All those experiences have affected my service as a trustee and they certainly will inform my new leadership role.
What are the significant risks and opportunities you see for F&M and other colleges and universities in the near future?
In many ways, the primary risk and opportunity for all of us is the same—we need to be able to clearly and effectively advocate the value of education and its relevance to our society, our world. That's first and foremost—the value of education itself. Then we need to be able to articulate to the public the value of higher education. Finally, we need to be able to make the convincing case specifically for the value of liberal arts education. Education in general, then higher education, then liberal arts education. Why is education worthy of investment? That is a big challenge, but I also see it as an enormous opportunity, especially here at F&M. We have a chance to be a leader in the national discourse about the value of the liberal arts, about access and inclusion, about celebrating difference and diversity.Another place where we have tremendous opportunity is in demonstrating the value of civil discourse. There’s an important role for colleges and universities to play. I think we could be role models, but it's going to take significant thought and hard work.
If successful fundraising takes institutions to the next level, what does that level look like for F&M?
For me, the next level is raising awareness about the College's national leadership and about F&M's excellence. That excellence is demonstrated in many ways, but one aspect of it is the amazing faculty that we have here and the role they play in creating and sharing knowledge. I told a group of alumni in New York City recently that Franklin & Marshall is recruiting and supporting a new generation of challenging, mentoring, iconic teachers. Future generations of alumni will remember these professors in the same way that my generation so often references our faculty and the influence they had on our lives. That's important not only to today's students, but also to the many others who will benefit from the knowledge those faculty members discover and convey. In that area and in many others, I believe that the next level for Franklin & Marshall is the next level of national recognition and leadership.
It’s a beautiful day outside and you have no events or deadlines on your calendar. What will you do?
My partner and I will jump in our kayaks and hit the water! I love being in the woods, but I especially love being on the water. I’m not competitive about it at all; it’s a slow paddle for me. But it gets me out into the natural world; it’s quiet and peaceful. It’s a place where I can contemplate. It’s renewing.