The Warmest of Welcomes for Whitman College’s Dr. Sarah Bolton
The Presidential Installation of Whitman’s 15th President
By Margie McDevitt Reece ’93
Photography by Kim Fetrow ’96 of Kim Fetrow Photography
Although Sarah Bolton has been Whitman College’s acting President since July of 2022, the Whitman community and guests—from near and far—came together to officially welcome the college’s 15th President.
On Friday, April 28, 2023, a beautiful spring day in Walla Walla, Bolton’s Presidential Installation was held in Cordiner Hall. In attendance, along with higher education dignitaries and guests of the President, were three former Whitman College presidents, Kathleen Murray (14th, 2015–2022), George Bridges, (13th, 2005–2015) and Robert Skotheim (10th, 1975–1988).
As part of the official Installation, the Chair of the Whitman College Board of Trustees Joe Davis ’80 and the Chair of the President’s Advisory Board Kirsten Gable ’01 presented Bolton with the Whitman College Charter and Presidential Medallion.
“Under your leadership, may Whitman College continue to inspire, inform, educate and transform its students so they will recognize and accept the challenges of our changing world as real opportunities to lead and to serve,” Davis said.
The Greeting Party
Bolton was welcomed by representatives of the Whitman alumni, faculty, staff, students and the Walla Walla community. The ceremony began with a special welcome from guests from the CTUIR, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Lindsey X. Watchman, CTUIR General Council Chairman and E. Thomas Morning Owl, CTUIR General Council Interpreter.
Watchman and Morning Owl both congratulated Bolton and expressed their hopes and plans for further partnership and progress between the two communities.
During the ceremony, various speakers returned to recurring themes regarding Bolton and her first months at Whitman: her enthusiasm for the liberal arts and her presence on campus.
Many marveled at Bolton’s daily connection to what’s happening at Whitman.
“Her enthusiasm is on display for all to see,” said Rebecca Hanrahan, Chair of the Faculty and Associate Professor of Philosophy. “She has been seemingly at every event hosted by Whitman, from watching along the sidelines at athletics events, attending plays, lecturers, and concerts, and dining with each and every academic department."
She joked as a side note, "Part of me thinks there must be two Sarah’s, for all she has done and accomplished in just her first year, but another part of me thinks that she has marshaled the dark arts that is physics to bend the laws of time and space to be everywhere all at once."
Fraser Moore ’23, representing the Whitman student body, shared similar awe at Bolton's deep engagement with campus life.
”What has struck me most about President Bolton has been her presence around campus," Moore said. "She pops up in adoring Instagram posts, in conversations about social and environmental justice, at music events and at many student club events. As student activities and interest rebounds on campus post-covid, President Bolton has shown genuine interest in getting to know people, organizations and student movements intimately."
Cassandre Beccai, Whitman's Director of Equity and Compliance/Title IX Coordinator, addressed President Bolton and the audience—speaking of Dr. Bolton's leadership style and commitment to equity and inclusion to forge "a way forward into a future of expansive scholarship and richer relationships."
"As we consider global events, it’s evident that there are challenges ahead," Beccai said. "To quote Dr. Bolton herself, ‘In such a moment we might reasonably ask whether the actions of one small college community really matter. I say they absolutely do.’’’
Walla Walla Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Wade Smith offered his congratulations as well—highlighting Whitman's and local schools’ long and valuable partnership, calling it, "The Walla Walla Way."
When it was time to introduce Bolton to the crowd, the honors were done by a close friend and former college President, Sean Decatur, who served more than nine years as the president of Kenyon College, before beginning his service as the President of the American Museum of Natural History just this month.
The two forged a trusted friendship during their years as presidents of small liberal arts colleges in Ohio—Decatur at Kenyon and Bolton at The College of Wooster—less than an hour's drive apart.
"Sarah’s leadership was a model for me, and she became an invaluable source of advice," Decatur said.
"She was, and still is, the only college president colleague whose number is programmed into the shortcuts on my phone. And when I’d ask her for her thoughts on a difficult issue I was facing, she’d always listen carefully, respond with empathy and give clear advice."
‘This Is a Moment of High Stakes’
Next, Bolton addressed the audience and shared her gratitude for the warm welcomes and kind words.
”It has been an honor and joy to step into the Presidency of Whitman College,” Bolton said.
“Whitman is an extraordinary place—a beacon for teaching and learning in the liberal arts which has combined an enduring legacy of excellence with a view to the future. I was drawn to Whitman because of this excellence, and because ours is a college that makes difference, both while students are on campus and over the course of their lives.”
She also spoke to the work that is already underway to forge the path for Whitman’s future and challenged the audience, asking what Whitman will do as a college to boldly build on its strengths and prepare students for a changing world.
“This is a moment of high stakes and it is a moment where our actions matter. We are called on to ask how our college can make the most impact for good—both for our students and for the world that sorely needs them,” Bolton said.
She ended by sharing the ways Whitman is poised to be a model for higher education in a changing world, pointing toward four factors: the learning that happens at Whitman matters now more than ever, excellence requires diversity, learning and action are deeply intertwined, and community matters.
”Whitman’s faculty and staff and our local community leaders have built important connections, and we can continue to broaden and deepen them, providing an education that is both globally engaged and locally grounded, rich in opportunities for collaboration, civic engagement, professional exploration and leadership.”
And it is Whitman's student body and future students who deserve this commitment to learning, to action and to a vibrant, welcoming campus, Bolton stressed.
Musical interludes during the ceremony were provided by music students of Dr. Tom Hicks, Visiting Assistant Professor of Music, Irene Tsai ’24 and Ella Yuen ’25 on piano and by the Whitman Chorale conducted by Joseph Kemper, Visiting Assistant Professor of Music.