The Board of Trustees announced today that Williams College Dean of the Faculty and John B. McCoy and John T. McCoy Professor of Psychology Safa Zaki will become Bowdoin’s 16th president, making her the first woman to hold the position in the College’s history. Zaki will assume the presidency on July 1, succeeding President Clayton Rose, who announced in April that he will step down after an eight-year tenure at the College.
After nine months of the Presidential Search Committee’s tireless work, the Board of Trustees unanimously selected Zaki in a vote held last night.
“The Search Committee and then the Board have found exactly the right person for Bowdoin College, and she is going to be an extraordinary leader for the College for the next decade,” Rose said. “She brings a really wonderful combination of personal traits—of character, warmth, kindness, empathy, an ability to listen, with incredible scholarly and teaching accomplishments and a lifelong commitment to the liberal arts. She also has a remarkable lived experience as someone who was born and raised in another country, has lived in several countries and then has been in the United States for several decades now. All of that will bring a set of insights, wisdom and sensibility to the College that will serve us incredibly well.”
Born in Cairo, Egypt, Zaki grew up in a number of countries including Tanzania, Syria, Jordan and Trinidad and Tobago before earning her bachelor’s degree from American University of Cairo and her master’s and doctorate in psychology from Arizona State University. After receiving her doctorate, Zaki began serving as a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University.
Zaki worked at Williams for 18 years as a professor before being promoted to dean of the faculty in 2020. During her tenure, she served on a number of administrative committees; she chaired the interdisciplinary program in cognitive science, the Committee on Priorities and Resources and the Faculty Steering Committee, and she was a member of the Committee on Appointments and Promotions. Zaki also served on the presidential search committee that named Maud Mandel president of Williams in 2018.
Zaki never set out to become a college president, but her work in administration showed her the potential for good leadership to make change.
“We have a wonderful president at Williams, and I’ve seen the impact that she’s had. In my work as dean, I’ve seen the importance of getting the right policies, of supporting people, of protecting core academic initiatives, but also of making sure that everyone—as a whole person—is protected and taken care of,” Zaki said. “So all of those things made me think, ‘I really want to make a difference in this world,’ and hey, this is one good way.”
Being a good leader, for Zaki, means embracing opportunities to listen and learn. As she enters her transition to the presidency, she intends to seek guidance from staff, faculty, administrators, students and the rest of the Bowdoin community.
“I think that to be a good leader, you have to know who it is you’re leading. You have to have a good sense of the place. You have to have a good sense of the people. And oftentimes that requires starting by just listening and getting to know the place,” Zaki said. “I want to arrive at Bowdoin and spend my first few months listening to and getting to know the people. I think that’s key because if you don’t know who you’re leading, you don’t have a sense of direction, and I think there are a lot of good ideas that come from the community. Being a good leader is not doing everything yourself. It’s surrounding yourself with great people, finding their strengths and lifting them up when you can.”
Zaki’s research, which uses computational approaches to model cognitive processes that focus on how people divide the world into categories, has been published in numerous journals including “Psychonomic Bulletin and Review,” “Psychological Science” and the “Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition.” Her success as an academic and her unique interdisciplinary approach stood out during the presidential search process.
“She fits perfectly with the ethos of the College,” Bertrand García-Moreno ’81 P’17, Presidential Search Committee co-chair and College trustee, said. “She’s a very successful academic, and she’s always worked at an interface between disciplines. So she comes with a view of the liberal arts that is very well formed and very modern—it’s very contemporary.”
An advocate for faculty and staff in her position as dean, Zaki is responsible for overseeing the curriculum at Williams and for the recruitment, appointment and promotion of faculty. She oversees academic departments and programs, including their budgets and personnel, graduate programs, athletics, the grants office, the Rice Center for Teaching, the Center for Global Languages, Literatures & Cultures, the Oakley Center for the Humanities and Social Sciences, the Center for Environmental Studies, the Williams-Exeter Programme at Oxford University and the Williams-Mystic Program.
Rose stressed that Zaki’s familiarity with the challenges institutions like Bowdoin face is a promising aspect of her credentials.
“She’s the dean of faculty at a peer institution—one of the great liberal arts colleges in our country—and has been a key member of that community for a long time,” Rose said. “So she knows well all of the issues out there that relate to access; that relate to how we think about the importance of the humanities; how we think about the curricular challenges and opportunities that we face; the cost issues that we face; work around diversity, equity and equality.”
Zaki explained that she will focus on making the College more accessible to prospective students. Noting Rose’s progress in that area, she hopes to continue his work and prioritize students’ ability to come to Bowdoin and embrace it fully once they are here.
Beaming despite an overwhelming day, Zaki revealed that she is most excited to spend time with students. After three years as a dean, she is ready to reconnect.
“I knew that Bowdoin was a prestigious liberal arts college that had amazing faculty and amazing resources. That was clear from the start,” Zaki said. “What I didn’t know was the sense of community of this place. I didn’t know just how warm everybody is.… There is something distinctive about Bowdoin’s community. The devotion to the common good—that framing of the mission—is brilliant. I fell in love with that idea. I fell in love with the idea of not just educating students in the liberal arts but educating students in the liberal arts with a purpose.”
During a period when colleges and universities across the nation are readjusting to life after Covid-19, Zaki will inherit a college in the throes of remembering and reconsidering its values and identity.
“Restitching the community and helping the community get fully past the Covid pandemic is what every college and university president is doing right now,” García-Moreno said. “[Rose] has done a remarkable job and left the College in a position of strength, and [Zaki] is the perfect person to continue that work.”
Applause echoed throughout Smith Union today when Chair of the Board of Trustees Scott B. Perper ’78 introduced the historic president-elect. Not only will Zaki be the first woman to hold the presidency in the College’s 228 years, but she will also be one of only three presidents born outside of the United States.
“The lenses through which I see the world and process the world and engage with others is as my predecessors also did, and we’re bound by who we are,” Rose said. “Zaki busts that mold in a way that will be fantastic for the College.”
Beyond her academic and administrative achievements, Search Committee Co-chair Sydney Asbury ’03 spoke to Zaki’s quality of character—a trait that Asbury identified as crucial to her promise as a leader.
“[Zaki] is just extraordinary. She’s incredibly thoughtful, and a remarkably good listener. She’s genuine and all that she says and all that she does, and that just came out, time and time again, in our interview process,” Asbury said. “She’s just wonderful.”
When Rose learned of Zaki’s appointment, he was thrilled. He explained that she checks all the boxes that he had hoped his successor would when he approached the Board of Trustees last spring with his plan to step down. He believes that the Search Committee and the board have thoughtfully chosen the right person to pave the way for the College’s future.
“I hope that she enjoys the kind of support from the community, faculty, students, staff, alumni, parents, the town that I’ve enjoyed. It’s been the single greatest part of being in this job,” Rose said. “I hope that she has the opportunity to work with all of the members of the community in ways that push the College forward, to be bold and to think about what a great liberal arts college should be in all of its aspects 10, 20, 30 years from now. The goal was to find exactly the right person, and they found exactly the right person. [Zaki] is going to be an extraordinary leader.”