LEXINGTON — Washington and Lee University has named a new president, the provost of Williams College in Massachusetts.

Will Dudley was appointed Friday to be 27th president of W&L, which was founded in 1749 and is the ninth oldest institution of higher education in the country. He will begin his term in January 2017.

“It is really humbling to think about leading an institution that is older than the United States of America,” Dudley said in an interview following an announcement at the school’s Elrod Commons.

Shortly after a vote by the school’s board of trustees, rector Donald Childress said Dudley was chosen for “his intellect, his skills as a communicator, his many achievements both in the classrooms and administration at Williams, and his passion for the power of the liberal arts.”

A native of Virginia, Dudley, 48, has spent much of his adult life at Williams, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in math and philosophy in 1989. After receiving his master’s and doctorate from Northwestern University, he spent three years in the private sector before returning to Williams in 1998 to teach philosophy.

He has been the school’s provost since 2011.

Williams and W&L are similar, Dudley said, in that “they’re really excellent, but that doesn’t mean they can’t get better.”

In selecting its next president, “the charge was not to go out and look for a turn-around artist,” said W&L trustee Craig Owens, who chaired a search committee formed last May after current president Kenneth Ruscio announced his plans to step down.

“There was a strong sense that it’s not broken, in fact far from it,” Owens said of the financial footing and academic record of the private liberal arts school in Lexington, which has an enrollment of about 2,000.

W&L, a school that traces its heritage to President George Washington and was led by Gen. Robert E. Lee following the Civil War, has sometimes struggled to reconcile its rich history with current-day issues of race and diversity. Displays of the Confederate flag at Lee Chapel, where Lee is interred, have generated controversy.

Like the 26 presidents before him, Dudley is a white male.

“At the very front end of the process, we were conscious of that,” Owens said in response to a question about how a desire for diversity influenced the school’s search.

Women and minorities made the short list, he said, “but at the end of the day, we chose somebody that was going to be the best candidate for W&L.”

Dudley said he was approached last year by a search firm about leading W&L. While happy at Williams, he said, the job appealed to him immediately.

“The list of schools that has this kind of tradition, and this level of quality and the resources to sustain that, is a very, very short list,” he said.

Like W&L, Williams College is a small, liberal arts school that was once was a men’s college. It went co-educational in 1970.

Last May, Ruscio announced his plans to step down at the end of this June and rejoin the faculty at W&L following a one-year sabbatical leave. He later agreed to stay on through the end of the year to give Dudley more time to finish his work at Williams.

Ruscio, a 1976 graduate of W&L and a former professor, served as president for a decade. He said he decided to retire after accomplishing a number of goals, including the completion last year of a $500 million fundraising campaign.

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Laurence Hammack covers environmental issues, including the Mountain Valley Pipeline, and business and enterprise stories. He has been a reporter for The Roanoke Times for more than three decades.

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