By Miro Bergam (V)
Last month, Headmaster Nat Conard went before the Pingry community at a morning meeting to speak about a situation in which one student addressed another student using a racial slur over social media. His other recent appearances include his speech last October regarding the white supremacy marches in Charlottesville, Virginia, his speech condemning the incident in which a student wrote “Make America White Again” on a library divider last spring, and his speech last winter about Pingry’s history of sexual assault making news.
Excluding these statements and his mandatory appearances at Convocation and Graduation, Mr. Conard has addressed the community very few times in recent memory. While his statements to the community in our times of turmoil are appreciated, I wonder if their infrequency, timing, and nature render them less effective and dilute the role of the headmaster in the Pingry community.
The fact that we see our headmaster almost exclusively in a context of unrest makes the role of our headmaster less of one willingly present in all moments, good and bad, and more of one that only appears in our community’s worst moments. This context and infrequency make his statements seem less genuine as well; it’s hard to give him credit for speaking out in these moments as his statements feel as if they are obligatory, even compulsory. It’s not that his speeches haven’t been well-written, thoughtful, and impactful. It’s just that it would be an offense to our community if our headmaster did not say something well-written, thoughtful, and impactful in any of these tumultuous situations. Therefore, it’s hard to offer praise for simply making this mandatory appearance.
If Mr. Conard were to speak to our community more—not just about the crises that he must address, but about a variety of topics—it would foster a deeper relationship between him and the community that could make his statements about these dark situations feel more genuine. But without that foil, we are left with statements that, intentionally or not, feel too much like damage control. If the headmaster is meant to be the face of the community, then the lack of time we spend actually seeing and hearing him keeps our current headmaster from fulfilling that role.
Contrast the current situation with stories we hear about former Headmaster John Hanly. Mr. Hanly has become somewhat of a legend in the Pingry community, remembered by faculty for addressing the community often about a range of different topics, often underpinned with the questions of ethics and morality. His speeches have left the legacy of the John Hanly Lecture Series, which remembers his love of addressing the community with such questions by bringing in speakers to discuss ethics and morality each year. While I am not calling for Mr. Conard to do exactly what Mr. Hanly did, I would point to Mr. Hanly as an example of how a headmaster can foster a relationship with the community. He picked a theme that he wanted to explore with the students and faculty and did so often. He didn’t only appear before the school when absolutely necessary.
With all of this said, my intention is in no way to discredit Mr. Conard. He works on many projects that we as students never directly see but are integral to our community, such as his tireless fundraising that allows financial aid programs at this school to run. My issue is with the role with which the headmaster has been left. The job of interacting directly with students has been split among a handful of administrators: an Upper School Director, a Form III/IV Dean of Student Life, a Form V/VI Dean of Student Life, an Academic Dean, an Assistant Headmaster, and more. This system leaves our headmaster often working behind the scenes. His role no longer resembles that of a dean, who works intimately with students; it is closer to that of the Board of Trustees, a collection of people who are essential to our school but are mostly invisible to the student body.
This is a shift in dynamic that I personally believe does not work. There is still a void left in the lives of Pingry students to be filled by a headmaster. In our politically and morally tempestuous world, both as a country and a school, we as students have no singular figure to look up to. More than we need the different voices of many deans and counsellors, we need the one voice of an overarching leader, the voice of a headmaster. Our school knows this—that’s why the headmaster, rather than any other administrator, is chosen to address the school in all of the incidents I mentioned earlier. But this no longer works as well as it once did because the last time we saw Mr. Conard speaking to us during any given crisis was the last crisis.
The solution to this issue is simply a matter of more face time between Mr. Conard, the students, and the faculty. This would not only make Mr. Conard’s statements in our community’s more shameful moments more effective, b it would return the role of Pingry’s headmaster to what it once was: a leader in good and bad times, someone with a strong relationship with the students, and the face of the Pingry community.