By Lizzie Hobbs and Maddie Neiman
In spring of 2008, Janet Morgan Riggs was serving as the provost of Gettysburg College when she was approached by the chair of the Board of Trustees and asked to serve as the interim college president after the abrupt departure of her predecessor, President Katherine Will.
“I was not really enthusiastic about that, frankly,” said President Riggs, referring to the idea of serving as interim president. “I didn’t think I was prepared for it…but he talked me into it.”
She began as interim president on June 1, 2008, finding herself supremely interested in the work she was doing just a few months into her new position: “It just kind of grabbed my attention in a way I didn’t expect.”
During her time as interim president, she had several people from the college community suggest that she submit her name for consideration for the nationwide presidential search. After some time considering the idea, realizing she had nothing to lose, and knowing how much she had enjoyed the work previously, she threw her hat into the ring and applied.
The process was confidential, and Riggs recalled attending several off-campus meetings. Finally, she was brought to campus as a finalist, interviewed, and appointed to the presidency of Gettysburg College.
“I never aspired to be a college president,” Riggs explained. “This was not something I always thought I wanted to do. Well, I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was younger. Once I was in a faculty position, I just figured that was going to be my career because I loved doing that. This was all kind of surprising to me — but wonderful.”
Her time as interim president helped her transition into the presidency tremendously, Riggs said, though she recalled being worried about the breadth of her perspective when taking the job, given that her entire career up until that point had been only at Gettysburg.
“I knew the campus community already, so I spent a lot of time in my first year going out and talking to other college presidents — trying to get a sense of how things were done at other institutions, what their challenges were, just trying to get a broader perspective,” President Riggs revealed. Chuckling, she remembered that, “I had a lot of meals with different college presidents.”
The economic crash that occurred in the fall of 2008 took place during Riggs’ interim presidency, which she said greatly impacted her mindset when stepping into her official term as President. The financial challenges faced by the college, she admitted, have been a focus of her entire presidency: “Trying to sustain a really strong student experience, even in the face of some really significant financial challenges.”
When asked what she was focused on when she began her presidency, Riggs explained that she had two focuses for the beginning of her time as president: resources and reputation.
“I wanted to be sure that our reputation matched the quality of what we actually do here,” she said. “I always have felt that the quality of what we do here, the education we offer, is stronger than the reputation we have…I wanted to be sure that we had a strong enough resource base to support a really outstanding experience for our students.”
As college president, Riggs found that the most rewarding part of her time in office has been “seeing the students come here as first year students and find their passions and their directions and their strengths.”
Witnessing students go on to graduate and grow personally and professionally is part of the reason she began her career as an educator to begin with, and that mindset has only continued during her presidency.
Of course, like any individual leaving office, Riggs reflected on what her presidency had accomplished at the college and stated, “There’s still so much improvement to be done.”
Though, she says, the college has improved in terms of diversity and inclusion during her time as president, she sees room for growth in that realm, “an area where we made progress, but I wish we could do even more.”
She admitted to having a list of “minor” projects she wishes she had been able to complete like renovation of Plank Gym into a global center and constructing a new building for the Sunderman Conservatory.
“Don’t even get me started,” she chuckled, “there’s a lot of those little things.”
In terms of the future of the college, President Riggs pointed out a few programs which she has loved to see grow and flourish during her time at Gettysburg, though claims no credit for their success.
“The Eisenhower Institute,” she named as one of these programs. “I am very pleased with the way that program has developed…that program is doing really well.”
“Another program which I can take no credit for, but that I am just so fond of, is our conservatory program,” continued Riggs. “It has been fabulous to watch that develop into what it is today. I really look forward to seeing that program continue to blossom.”
As for the students themselves, Riggs recalled having seen a great transformation in the population of Gettysburg students, in particular this current generation. President Riggs has seen Gettysburg students become more passionate about what is happening in the world and “more willing to grapple with big problems.” She described Gettysburg students as “quite inspiring,” concluding that she “has such faith in all [Gettysburg students].”
When asked about her own plans after retirement, President Riggs explained that she plans to look to her husband for pointers: “He is a great model of retirement!”
Her love for education has not ceased, and she sees herself getting involved in education-based volunteer work in the future, though she admitted to also looking forward to some time without a schedule in her first six months of retirement.
“I wouldn’t have done this job anywhere else,” Riggs concluded. Her love of Gettysburg is what brought her into the presidency, rather than her desire for the position bringing her to Gettysburg.
Riggs reflected that her presidency comprised of her “doing the best for Gettysburg” and working to help support and “facilitate other people’s great work.”
Read the entire four-part series on President Riggs’ tenure at Gettysburg: part one (time as a student), part two (time as a professor), part three (time as an administrator), and part four (time as president).