Presidential Showdown Week At Guilford: College Finalists Coming

“Predictions are hard,” said the sage yogi Berra, “especially about the future.”

I agree with that rule, and follow it, mostly.

Yet sometimes there are exceptions — predictions that are easy.

Like this one:

The next president of Guilford College will be a person of color.

That prediction is easy, though, because both finalists for the job fit the description.

Not that they are twins or much alike.

As to which one will be tapped, I won’t predict: let the buzz and speculation run rampant. And it can start with these thumbnails:

Sarah Willie-LeBreton (currently Provost and Dean of the Faculty at Swarthmore College); and

Kyle Farmbry (currently Professor of Public Administration and recent Dean of the Graduate School, Rutgers University-Newark).

Between them, the Board has a momentous choice to make. In that choice, they’ll also make their most important stab at facing the Overriding Issue, meeting their Number One Objective, Rolling the Make-or-Break-Dice, and Answering The Biggest Question of Them All.

Not to put too fine a point on it; and more about all that in a few. First, some dish on the candidates.

Information is scarce, but we’ve gathered a few pieces: both have Quaker connections: Farmbry reportedly graduated from Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia; LeBreton is a member of Providence Meeting in Media PA.

In their academic careers, both have devoted much time and scholarship to matters of DEI (Diversity, Equity & Inclusion); Farmbry has taken these concerns to South Africa and business development (his CV is here); LeBreton has been Professor of Black Studies and Provost at Swarthmore College (her CV is here).

If Guilford was hiring a Vice President for DEI, this would be a very close call. In these days when Black Lives Matter and accounting for slavery and oppression in college histories are bubbling-over front-burner campus issues, both come well-prepared.

For that matter, if Guilford were hiring a distinguished scholar to lead  (its long overdue) Quaker religious revival, LeBreton would have an edge. For instance, in a recent piece for Quakers In Education,  she took the rather daring step for a Quaker from a liberal yearly meeting, teaching at a secularized ex-Quaker college, of speaking in strongly affirmative terms about, of all things, Jesus and his teachings. Here’s a snippet:

As a person who takes Christian religious teachings seriously, I appreciate that sometimes it takes more courage, conviction and energy to love those we are raised to hate, to find abundance in lives that are parochial and hard, and to give generously when we have been raised to accumulate and keep for ourselves.

Jesus’s message continues to help people discover that we can find abundance in poverty, freedom in imprisonment, and life in death. I know that I’ll have some folks who are in profound disagreement with me, but I don’t interpret those things as capitulation to or excuses for injustice; I don’t interpret them as magic; and I don’t believe they even depend on belief in God.

Jesus’s message proclaimed that not even poverty can interrupt our joy; not even enslavement or imprisonment can curtail our imaginations or our ability to love, and not even the threat of death—our own or that of our beloveds—can undermine our ability to protest, protect, create, and love. . . .

But hold on, I say to myself here; curb thy enthusiasm, blogger: Guilford is NOT choosing a new preacher or Quaker apostle. Nor is it picking a head of DEI. Dear as the former might be to me; and the latter a top topic of current campus churn, neither will get Guilford’s Board, as mentioned earlier, to facing the Overriding Issue, meeting their Number One Objective, Rolling the Make-or-Break-Dice, and Answering The Biggest Question of Them All.

All right, what is that hottest burning concern? To speak plainly, it comes down to one simple question. Look at the candidates again, take a deep breath, and ponder:


Which one can raise $100 million dollars, and save Guilford College’s bacon?

That’s all, folks. And as most everyone who scans this post will know, Guilford has been teetering on the brink this year and last, at very serious risk of closure.

Undergraduate crusades for issues like BLM may be important, but they come and go. (Yes, students, they really do.) And sentimentalists like me may shed our tears for the Good Old Days (long before my time) when Guilford students dressed plain and said “thee” and “thou” and maybe even helped out with the [real] Underground Railroad (though likely fewer than we now brag about). But our blubbering does not pay the bills.

Similarly, college presidents, with their paper-strewn desks, also come and they also go.

But there’s something that stays on those paper-strewn desks in their well-appointed offices:

The bills, and the budget.

All Guilford presidents, like their counterparts in other colleges, public or private, sectarian or secular, worry above all about raising the latter, so they can pay the former.

If they can’t do that, out they go. And these days, their college may go with them. (Here’s a list of nineteen private U. S. colleges that have closed in the last few years.)

And whichever candidate wins this week’s presidential sweepstakes, the key test of their tenure, beyond all the frippery and folderol, will be matching up those two: the budget and the bills.

Some progress has been made, but let us not kid ourselves, it will still be a tall order. No matter how devoted to Quakerism this pair might be; and regardless of how dedicated they are to DEI, that $100 million will hang over the designee like that sword did over Damocles.

Yes, to the woke, one has to say, the intersectionality of bankruptcy fragility trumps white fragility every time. And to the Friends, the fiery fervor of insolvency will silence the most pious elders on the facing bench.

In this connection, an examination of the aspirants’ lengthy CVs and other clips showed much solid scholarship, and administrative experience. But it did not present me with signs of experience and success in major fundraising. Frankly, in that area the two are a double mystery.

Pardon the hyperbole, but this is serious. The bottom-line measure of the Board’s selection, the Overriding Issue, the Number One Objective, the Make-or-Break-Dice Roll, does come down to the Board putting on their battered Yogi Berra ballcaps and predicting which one can raise that hundred million bucks to save this college. That will be their answer to The Biggest Question of Them All.

Those near the school can hone their own guesses by  taking a closer look at LeBreton and Farmbry. Both will be on campus this week. Each will also be featured in an hour-long ZOOM fishbowl, LeBreton on Tuesday, Farmbry on Thursday. (For more details, and to register for the ZOOM session –slots are limited– contact Ty Buckner, a campus Veep: 336-316-2248 or ).

If I were on that call, and could ask one question it would be this: “Friend, how will you raise $100 million for the college?”

I wish each of them (and the college) well, and am relieved I’m not on the Guilford College Board.

Also, if I come across the phone number for Mackenzie Scott (neé Bezos), I promise I’ll personally deliver it to the one who gets the nod.

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