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Former U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson picked as next Siena president


Reprinted with permission from the Times Union

LOUDONVILLE — Former Congressman Chris Gibson will be the 12th president of Siena College, returning to his alma mater as the first non-friar to lead the school.

The Loudonville college announced Mr. Gibson’s appointment on February 14 in the Sarazen Student Union. “I believe at this time in our country’s history, we need Siena graduates now more than ever,” Mr. Gibson told the assembled campus community.

The announcement follows a months-long search to replace Siena’s former president, Brother Edward Coughlin, who died unexpectedly in July at age 71. Brother Coughlin, a beloved figure known on campus as “Brother Ed,” suffered a massive stroke during scheduled surgery to repair a congenital heart defect.

Former U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson talks to the press as Siena College announces him as its 12th president at Siena College on Friday, February 14, in Loudonville. Lori Van Buren/Times Union

Mr. Gibson’s five-year term will begin in July, the school said in an announcement that was rich with praise for the 55-year-old former elected official.

“I am deeply grateful to the board for the high privilege of serving as Siena’s next president, and I am sincerely humbled to have been appointed as the college’s first permanent lay leader,” Mr. Gibson said in a statement. “Siena played an instrumental role in shaping my values and ideals, and I am forever indebted to the faculty and staff, including the many friars who have been so influential in my life.”

Siena was founded by Franciscan friars from St. Bonaventure College in 1937. Traditionally, the college’s Board of Trustees has chosen Franciscan brothers to lead the school.

Mr. Gibson, who was selected from a pool of 79 candidates, graduated from the private Catholic college in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in history; he holds two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. in government from Cornell University.

Rev. Kevin Mullen, a former Siena president from 2007 to 2014 and member of the presidential search committee, said in a video sent to students and faculty just before the formal announcement that the college has been prepared to have a non-friar lead the school, saying this search focused on picking a candidate with strong spiritual convictions and an appreciation for the Franciscan education.

“We did not seek out a transition to lay leadership. We instead sought out the best man or woman for the job at this particular time in Siena’s history,” Rev. Mullen said.

Siena Board of Trustees Chairman John Murray said that few in the ministry applied for the role, noting that Siena is working on “developing more academic tracks for friars.” The shift at the Loudonville school reflects a nationwide trend among Jesuit colleges and universities. Siena’s sister school, St. Bonaventure University, named its first lay leader in 1994.

Mr. Gibson said in his statement that the connection he developed to the Franciscan tradition as an undergraduate “inspired my personal calling to servant leadership. The Franciscan tradition sets Siena apart, and it will inform every decision as I work with the Siena community to advance the legacy of my predecessors and promote the mission of Siena College.”

The retired Army colonel — who served four combat tours in Iraq and was part of the NATO peacekeeping mission in Kosovo — represented the 19th Congressional District for three terms but opted not to seek re-election in 2016.

Instead, he took a professor’s position at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. Siena announced in October that he would serve as a distinguished visiting professor in public service leadership at the school beginning in the 2020-21 school year.

The Kinderhook Republican is the author of two books, including 2017’s “Rally Point: Five Tasks to Unite the Country and Revitalize the American Dream.” He and his wife Mary have three grown children.

Mr. Gibson considered a run for governor in 2018 but decided against it, saying the statewide run would force him to spend two years on a gubernatorial campaign and take time away from his family — a choice that “was not a price I was willing to pay,” he said.

“I think most people would tell you (my political future) was looking quite bright,” he told the Times Union at the time. “But at the end of the day, we’re on this earth for such a short period of time, and you have to…put priorities first things first.”

At a press gaggle after the event, Mr. Gibson ruled out a return to politics saying he’d rather be “in the front lines and serving in the classroom.”

He acknowledged the challenges in higher education: demographic changes, concerns about the rising cost in college, and a growing partisan divide, but he believes that Siena College graduates will be part of the solution.

“I’m not pollyannaish here, I’ve studied history in great detail… what’s different now is the way we treat each other,” he said. “What I want to say to America is, you’re going to see an undertow. This tide is going to go out, and when it does, our graduates are in a position to make a difference, and it’s really because of the ethos here.”

The appointment drew praise from educational leaders and elected officials in the region, including Rep. Paul Tonko who recalled working with Mr. Gibson in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“While we didn’t always agree I could recognize the integrity with which Chris carried himself and he does embody the values of the Franciscans,” Rep. Tonko said. “I think he understands that higher education, and education in general, is a great equalizer, and it’s a great academic ladder. Siena is well served with solid leadership.”

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