By Taylor Viles -Print Sports Editor
Students know de Witt Hall for the different social events it holds, such as the recent Halloween concert. Students remember the large group history and ethics classes held between its walls and department events like SoCA Day and School of Business Day. But as students walk through the entrance under the plaque that reads “de Witt,” few wonder who de Witt is and what gives him significance to Lasell.
Thomas E.J. de Witt was the eleventh president of then-Lasell College, serving the community from 1988 until 2007.
According to de Witt, when he accepted the position at Lasell, the school had less than 400 students and was in bad shape. “In 1988, the college was probably two years away from bankruptcy. It was tiny,” he said. “The campus looked very tired.”
Former Vice President for Enrollment Management, and longtime colleague of de Witt, Kate O’Connor said de Witt gave the college a new attitude about finances. “Tom helped us understand it was about everybody [not just] about the individual.” She explained how de Witt showed his board the best thing to do with leftover budgeting money at the end of the year is save it, eventually turning it into more money.
At the time de Witt came to Lasell, the school was still a two-year women’s college. The first two major changes de Witt made for the Lasell community was to make the school a four year institution, and then a few years later, he made the school co-ed.
According to O’Connor, without de Witt’s leadership knowledge of the industry, Lasell might not be here today. “He brought the community together, which is a hard thing to do when you’re a new president. But he helped all of us understand that we were in it together.”
But the improvements he made to help the college from its “near-bankrupt” state are not what de Witt is most proud of. In the early 1990s, Lasell’s board was working to find a purpose for a large piece of land that the college owned located at the back of the campus. Friends of the school suggested selling the land which would financially stabilize the college, but O’Connor recalled de Witt wanting to do more to help the community than provide land to several multi-million dollar homes.
Instead, de Witt and his colleagues embarked on a project that, although risky, could set Lasell apart from other colleges for the foreseeable future: Lasell Village. “When we decided to build Lasell Village, people thought we were crazy. But Tom had a vision for the future,” said O’Connor.
“[Lasell Village] is the only [continuing care retirement community (CCRC)] in the country, probably in the world, with a learning mandate,” said the former President. “We have to do 450 hours minimum of learning a year… We’re now in a generation with far more educated elders who are not ready to just hang up their shoes and sit back and watch television. They are intellectually curious.”
De Witt said he loved the process of creating Lasell Village because of the continuous excitement and the constant contention that prompted the college to gain recognition. “We made the front lead editorial in the Boston Globe once,” he said. De Witt said there was pressure from the neighbors to not build Lasell Village which intrigued the local media. “That kind of constant pressure and people coming out and wanting to write about it put our college on the map.”
The retirement community was eventually finished after grueling legal and financial processes, according to de Witt. Those intellectual elders began to move in.
When de Witt decided to retire from his presidency in 2007, he wanted to make sure he left the college in capable hands, so de Witt hired Michael Alexander. A decision, the former president said he has become very happy with. “I feel really good about having somebody follow me who didn’t mess it up and in fact make it so much better than it was then,” said de Witt.
Before de Witt left the college, he spent an additional 50 hours working one-on-one with Alexander to give him advice and teach him all he needed to know about the school he was about to become in charge of. This educational transition of power is something that Alexander will offer to his successor.
De Witt had an active retirement, moving around to help other colleges stay afloat during a time when small institutions seem to be folding. It was not until this past August when he decided to settle down and move into Lasell Village; the retirement community that he built for life-long learners two decades ago.
Although he is now only a short walk away, de Witt says under President Alexander’s leadership, the Lasell community is in good hands. “He is an outstanding president,” said de Witt. “He has a different temperament. He’s really good at strategic planning… You’re not going to get a lot of small colleges that have 30 years of consistently good leadership.”