Exclusive: Incoming President Rougeau Speaks with The Spire

Ethan Bachand ‘22

Chief News Editor

On Monday, March 1, Vincent D. Rougeau, the incoming president of the College of the Holy Cross, sat down for an interview with The Spire. Over the course of the call, which was conducted over Zoom, Mr. Rougeau answered a variety of questions about the College and his expectations upon starting his new role.

The conversation started with talking about what made Mr. Rougeau want to be the 33rd president in Holy Cross history. While Mr. Rougeau stated that he was not searching for the job, he was excited when the opportunity crossed his desk. “Well, I’ve been working in Jesuit and Catholic higher education my entire academic career. Holy Cross is an institution I’ve known about my entire life and have respected and admired,” he said. “…The more I learned about Holy Cross at this moment in time the more excited I got about the possibility of being president. It all happened very quickly, and here we are.”

Afterwards, Mr. Rougeau spoke extensively on how his time as Dean of Boston College Law School would help him as president of the College. When asked about what experiences helped prepare him for his new position, Mr. Rougeau said that “There are a lot of parallels between running a law school and running a liberal arts college. Law schools that are a part of universities … have a certain degree of independence as a professional school that operates in a distinct area of higher education…”

He continued his thought, saying, “But, more directly applicable to Holy Cross and liberal arts colleges, I have an admissions team, I have a fundraising team, I have a career services office. I have an alumni association. I run the faculty and I have a number of associate deans below me who deal with faculty issues, student issues, public relations. So a lot of the positions that report to the president at a college are very similar to those who report to a dean at a law school.”

A large portion of the interview was also dedicated to talking about student concerns. The first one discussed was tuition, which is currently a central concern to students. Despite the ongoing pandemic, the College recently released a letter that detailed a planned tuition increase for the 2021-2022 academic year. Mr. Rougeau said he could not comment on the details of the current policy as he would need more information.

However, he did commit to being as transparent as possible. In his words, “Once I’m here, once I’m at Holy Cross, I would hope that whenever we make decisions like that I would want to share with students what went into the decision, what we had to balance in an effort to make the determination one way or the other. Because I do think we should be as transparent as we possibly can be when we make decisions like this.”

On top of tuition, academic rigor has been a concern for students during the pandemic. Last semester, students went as far as to create a petition calling on the College to institute a pass/no pass option. Mr. Rougeau spoke in favor of adapting the College’s academics in order to help students during the pandemic, saying that “That’s something I want to look at a little more closely to see what are the current policies in place, what kinds of adjustments are students seeking, and what would be the consequences of those adjustments, and what impact does that have on faculty and their views of what’s going on and what they’re doing in their courses.”

Mr. Rougeau again cited his experience at Boston College Law School, stating, “However, what I can say is we’ve confronted this very issue in law schools, at BC law and other law schools, and I’ve talked to a lot of collogues around the country who run law schools about this point. We recognize that students may need adjustments to traditional academic policies given the circumstance with which we are all operating right now. I do think its important for us to be conscious of the fact that many students are working from home, in situations that are difficult, or don’t have access to the kinds of spaces or technologies or just support that they would have if they were on campus or operating on campus under normal circumstances.”

While he did indicate a desire to help students, Mr. Rougeau was clear that any changes made to academic policy would need to be reviewed. He said, “With that in mind, we do have to think about whether or not we should offer some flexibility to our traditional policies. Again, not knowing exactly what the proposals are per se, but I can say that I would be very open to hearing and exploring what we might do as a community to account for the different circumstances in which students are trying to do their work.”

Another issue discussed in the interview was incidents of bias at the College of the Holy Cross. Speaking on the topic, Mr. Rougeau stated that the issues are not isolated. Instead, he believes that the actions on campus have been emblematic of our society as a whole. “Holy Cross as an institution does not exist separate and apart from the culture in which we all live in the United States right now, and we all know that issues of hatred, bias have become very problematic across this country over the past several years. And there has been a massive increase in tensions around race and gender-based bias, other types of bias. It would be very odd for these things not to manifest at Holy Cross as well because we are all here in this culture today,” he said.

Mr. Rougeau also thinks that Holy Cross can take steps to address these issues, saying, “I don’t think Holy Cross specifically has any responsibility for those instances per se, but I do think we have a responsibility as an institution to create a climate on the campus that discourages that kind of activity and builds the sense of community and engagement across all groups, that makes everyone feel that they can thrive as members of the college community and that we are all being supportive of one another, and that we are living out the values that we embrace at Holy Cross. That requires real engagement and conversation with one another, a real commitment to one another in the context of our lives together at the College, and it requires our recognizing that our nation right now is going through a very difficult time.”

Graphic design by Hui Li ’21

In the interview, Mr. Rougeau also answered questions about the possibility of COVID-19 restrictions past this semester. When asked what his plans or processes would be when evaluating COVID-19 guidelines in the fall, he said, “I think we have an obligation to pay close attention to what the public health authorities are telling us and to work within those guidelines to make the campus safe. So, if there is an indication that restrictions can be loosened we will certainly want to do that. And if there’s an indication that increases in the presence of the virus or infection rates or new strains of the virus, we will have to deal with that as well, and that may mean that some things that we hoped to do we won’t be able to do. My first priority as president is to make sure that every member of the Holy Cross community is safe and that we are using responsible means to ensure that safety.”

He continued his response, saying, “That may mean from time to time that we are not doing the things we love or that we are not as comfortable as we’d like to be, but I’d be much, much more upset, worried, and disappointed in myself if I were too relaxed and that led to people becoming ill with COVID, people perhaps dying, or people spreading it to their family and loved ones elsewhere. We have to really take this view that we are all in this together, and that our shared sacrifice at this time will lead to better opportunities for us in the months and years ahead.”

On a personal level, Mr. Rougeau talked about what being the first Black president at the College of the Holy Cross means to him, saying, “I’m very proud to be the first Black president of Holy Cross. I’m proud that Holy Cross, in this particular moment, has seen fit to select me … It’s important, because this is a society that has a long history of racism and racial exclusion, and it’s important to recognize those moments when people who have come from communities that have been marginalized are able to achieve roles within the society that had been traditionally denied them or their forbearers. Part of that work means that, I hope, that I have been that first person that in the future it will not be as notable when people from other communities of color or women or others reach these positions.”

Despite the overwhelming support for the College hiring Rougeau, some students on campus had campaigned for Holy Cross to appoint another Jesuit priest as president. Mr. Rougeau recognized this concern, stating, “I want those students to know that I think the Jesuit identity of Holy Cross is essential and I will be doing everything I can to support the 500 year of Jesuit education and to move it forward. There will of course be Jesuits involved in the work of the College at the administrative level that will be very important to part of my work at the college.”

At the same time, Mr. Rougeau tried to temper expectations. In his interview, he said, “I also think it’s important for students to recognize that it is not necessarily going to be the case going forward that there will be Jesuits being in position to lead all the Jesuit institutions in the country and in the world. The Jesuits recognize that and they’ve been training lay people for decades to be in a position to take leadership roles in their institutions…I would want to engage students on a conversation about that, about how the future looks when we have a declining numbers of priests and other people in religious orders, and when the laity needs to step up and become much more responsible and engaged in leadership across institutions of various types within the church and outside of the church.”

Even though he will assume the president’s position in only a few months, Mr. Rougeau made it clear that his first intention is to learn as much about the College of the Holy Cross before implementing any changes. He stated, “…what I plan to do when I arrive is to begin my learning about the community and to listen more than anything else before I announce any major changes. I think it’s really important for a new leader to spend time listening to people in the community about … what’s going well, what might need to change. I’m sure there are a lot of different views on that. I have some high-level thoughts, but I want to test those thoughts against the reality and I’m not really in a position yet to understand the reality fully until I get on to campus and get to know everything.”

At the end of the interview, Mr. Rougeau was asked if there was any message he would like to share with the Holy Cross community before his arrival.  He said, “I just want to let everyone know how honored and proud I am to be taking on this role, how excited I am to be coming to Holy Cross as its president. My family, my wife Dr. Robin Kornegay-Rouguea, my partner, we are really excited about joining you and learning from you and bringing what we haven’t known and experienced about our lives, and our professional work, to the college. It’s just a sense of great excitement, great honor and privilege to be coming, so I’m looking forward to July.”

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