The Retirement of Keli Gail

Williams faculty, students and staff,

As promised in my Board summary email, I want to pay tribute to Keli Gail, Assistant to the President and Secretary of the College, who has announced her plan to retire this July. While this requires another long email in a week of such messages, her distinguished career of 30 years at Williams deserves the spotlight.

Let me start by acknowledging how much I will miss Keli as my close partner, counselor and accomplisher-in-chief. I first met her when I was a candidate for the presidency and she was coordinating the search process. I quickly came to appreciate the talents which have enabled her to make a major, positive impact since 1994.

Keli exercises much of her influence behind the scenes, in keeping with the nature of her job and personality. Her role, often titled “chief of staff” at other institutions, ranges from shaping college priorities to managing Board meeting logistics. At all levels it requires strategic vision, creative problem-solving, institutional knowledge, tact and resilience. Over the course of her work with five successive presidents and 32 total senior staff members she has helped the college chart strategic directions; make numerous senior hires; launch great programs and facilities; attract alumni gifts and support; and (in a less heralded way) avert or responsibly address risks.

Trustee and Board Chair Liz Robinson ’90 says, “The Board has benefited immensely from Keli’s institutional memory and continuity, and her unparalleled knowledge of the people and workings of this community. Her wisdom, steadiness, calm, discretion and dedication to the college’s interests have helped us sustain a constant pace of work and navigate the pandemic and various leadership transitions, among other complexities.” Given Keli’s remarkable memory for past Board deliberations, senior staff decisions and other details, many faculty and administrative leaders can attest to the value of a conversation with her before making major decisions. She relishes the chance to, in her words, “help solve problems that go outside the org chart,” which makes working with her very satisfying indeed.

Two faculty colleagues who can attest to this are Professor of History Karen Merrill, who partnered with Keli during a term as dean, and Barclay Jermain Professor of Natural Philosophy Tiku Majumder, who served as interim president before I arrived. Karen says “Keli is one of those people at the college whose work is rarely visible to the community but is absolutely essential. As dean, I saw her problem-solve day in and day out, whether things were running smoothly or not. No matter the issue, she brought her sharp, analytical mind and a big-picture vision of how to move forward. And she did so while recognizing the very human side of our institution.” Tiku agrees, “I watched Keli’s work from my faculty position for 25 years, and I thought I knew what a key role she played,” he recalls. “But only after I moved into Hopkins did I realize the extent of her importance. It was such a pleasure, as the ‘new guy’, to check in with her every morning: Her ‘we’ve got this’ confidence and attitude, combined with a remarkable ability to think through strategy and next steps, reassured me that we could do anything we set out to do.”

Last, but definitely not least, Keli has been an outstanding supervisor of the daily operations of the Office of the President. Her caring, strategic management of the Office staff—Diane Koperniak, Lauren Barenski and Cait Cone—has helped them gel as one of the best-coordinated, most effective teams I could ask for. Keli would want me to give each of them credit, and I do! I also know it takes a great manager to help a great team realize its potential. I appreciate everyone’s support for Diane, Lauren and Cait while we conduct a national search for Keli’s successor.

Like any job, the chief of staff’s role includes hard days and happy days, and often both kinds rolled into one. It seems to me that Keli is fundamentally motivated by the satisfactions of working as part of an intellectually varied and challenging community. “You help others do their jobs, and they help you,” she has said. She has certainly helped many of us do our jobs—and do them far better than we could have without her.

We will host an opportunity to say goodbye to Keli and wish her well later this year. I hope you will join me there to celebrate her many contributions. In the meantime, I will close by expressing my gratitude to Keli for 30 years of extraordinary service. We will seek a worthy successor. And thanks to her and her team, that person will have a great foundation to start from. But Keli Gail herself is one of a kind!