By Dana Cadey and Sophie Hills
The Principia community was surprised by a Watercooler announcement posted this past Monday evening, October 28, in which Principia Chief Executive Marshall Ingwerson stated that Jolanda Westerhof resigned from her position as president of the college.
“I did not expect it,” said Ingwerson in an interview on Tuesday morning.
Ingwerson acknowledged, “That’s a very unsatisfying answer and it unfortunately does leave it open for people to come up with their own theories, which is not great…but that is kind of the position that I’m in because I can’t…speculate. As I said, I did not see this coming.”
In a letter addressed to Ingwerson on Monday in which she offered her resignation, Westerhof wished him all success going forward, Ingwerson said, but did not offer a reason for her resignation. Westerhof also sent the letter to a Principia attorney and Meridee Olson, chairman of the board of trustees.
Westerhof could not be reached for comments.
Dean of Academics Meggan Madden is currently acting president of the college, filling the leadership vacuum created by Westerhof’s resignation.
Dean Madden expressed that she was “deeply saddened” by the news, which she received when Westerhof invited her to Hutchinson House on Monday shortly before Ingwerson was notified. Madden also identified Westerhof as a key role model in her professional career at Principia.
“[Westerhof] has set in motion critical processes and steps towards developing a more inclusive, safe, and engaged community,” Madden said. “The cabinet and I are dedicated to continuing these activities.”
An open forum for the community was held in Cox Auditorium on Wednesday, October 30, in an effort to clarify what occurred and answer the community’s questions. Madden opened by acknowledging the sudden administrative change which “may be confusing and unsettling.” She previously served as acting president while Westerhof was on vacation.
“My goal is for the community to maintain focus on our work with and for our students, which includes our Strategic Planning process and Task Force 2,” said Madden, before sharing from Hymn 361.
Madden was followed by Ingwerson, who explained the immediate steps being taken before reading a statement of appreciation for Westerhof from the Board of Trustees. They thanked Westerhof for “her service and contributions to Principia, for her deep expressions of love and care for our students, and for her attention to diversity and inclusion.”
“There is much that I appreciate and admire about Dr. Westerhof. She has been deeply committed to inclusion, equity, and shared governance. She has been a champion of those values…and I believe she moved our culture forward on those values,” said Ingwerson.
Westerhof was a “strong champion” of decentralizing the structure of Principia, said Ingwerson, and Nursing, Security, Human Resources, and some other functions now report directly to campus heads.
Ingwerson ended the forum by opening it up to questions from the community.
Senior Austin Webster shared frustration at the lack of appreciation expressed for Westerhof in the Watercooler announcement, to which Ingwerson responded, “I appreciate that…and I do hope that I have begun to make up for that today.”
Junior Dean Colarossi asked Ingwerson if Westerhof’s resignation served as a “wakeup call” to himself and the board of trustees, to which Ingwerson replied, “It needs to be…What meaning do we extract from it?…There’s got to be a lot of self reflection in that, so yes, that is very much a task that we’ve got to do.”
The next step in the process, Ingwerson explained, is to choose an interim president who will serve for the rest of the academic year. A search committee will be formed to identify candidates to be considered for the position, which would presumably be filled next fall.
On Tuesday morning, Ingwerson was unable to confirm rumors of Westerhof already having left campus. “I got her letter late yesterday afternoon and at that point it said she had already turned in her corporate card and her laptop…she was done. So she’s definitely not in her office. I don’t know if she’s currently in Hutchinson House,” said Ingwerson.
Westerhof served as Principia College’s president for almost a year and a half. She was hired in the spring of 2018 and officially assumed her post that July, as successor to Jonathan Palmer.
While president, Westerhof’s working relationship with the board of trustees was “collegial and professional,” said Ingwerson, who believes that he was present for most, if not all, conversations involving her and the trustees.
Ingwerson specified that he was given the news by Westerhof on Monday afternoon and that she said her resignation was “effective immediately.”
“I hadn’t heard anything…Not a peep…I didn’t get a sense that anybody [in the administration] was expecting this,” said Registrar Alice Dervin.
Senior Sophia Hathaway, student body president, and senior Matthew McLeod-Warrick, student body vice president, learned of Westerhof’s resignation from the Watercooler announcement. They met with Madden on Tuesday morning at her request.
Hathaway mentioned that she had seen Westerhof at a meeting with the Principia ambassadors on Sunday night, one day before Westerhof handed in her letter of resignation to Ingwerson. According to Hathaway, nothing about Westerhof seemed out of the ordinary.
“The best thing to do is…not focus so much on the ‘why,’ but focus more on what’s next,” Hathaway advised. “We are at a crucial point for Principia in general, in terms of who we are as an institution. That still goes on regardless of what puzzle pieces get removed and added.”
Hathaway promised that student government will prioritize keeping the Principia community updated as this situation unfolds.
“Dr. Westerhof made a difference here, and I wish her every success going forward. I’m grateful that we have such a strong leadership team in place here at the college,” said Ingwerson.