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New Hotchkiss head a well-traveled community man

LAKEVILLE - For the worldly Malcolm H. McKenzie, returning to the Northwest Corner to live and work after having visited here before was not a particularly difficult decision.

McKenzie, a native of Cape Town, South Africa, who was appointed the 12th head of The Hotchkiss School last year, had visited Lakeville twice, most recently in February 2004 to speak about international education at the invitation of Robert H. "Skip Mattoon Jr., the outgoing headmaster.

"I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the place," McKenzie recalled in an interview in his comfortable office. "The snow had just fallen and it looked like a postcard."

So when Matoon announced his retirement in 2006 after 11 years at the helm, McKenzie threw his hat into the ring. He was awarded a five-year contract from Hotchkiss but only a three-year work visa from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Quick with a smile, McKenzie said he was not quite sure what to make of the disparity.

McKenzie, 54, has had a long career as an international educator and speaker. He has taught English at two leading South African universities and at the Maru-a-Pula School in Gaborone, Botswana, where he eventually became principal. In 1999, he came to the United States to serve a one-year fellowship at a Hotchkiss rival, Deerfield Academy in Deerfield, Mass. The next year he landed a job as principal of Atlantic College, a co-educational boarding school in Wales.

About his current job, McKenzie is fond of quoting Winston Churchill, who once said that the two posts where a man was the best master of his destiny were as head of a British independent school or as commander of a Royal Navy battleship.

Still, McKenzie said one of the questions that's long been on the minds of Hotchkiss's friends and employees is whether "it is a head-run or a faculty-run school." McKenzie said "someone has to make the tough decisions."

Before he left, Mattoon accepted a set of recommendations from the school's curriculum review committee, which enumerated a set of skills - "the foundations of learning" - each Hotchkiss graduate should have, along with the reinforcement of those skills across the curriculum.

The trustees have accepted the recommendations and they are being implemented this year. There are now core courses in the sciences for the first two years of a Hotchkiss education, for example, and beginning in September 2009, there will be a core course in the humanities with an interdisciplinary approach to English, history, philosophy, religion and the arts.

"We want our students to emerge with a common set of skills and knowledge," McKenzie explained.

And McKenzie, who has a long-standing interest in the environment and in global education, said the school is on the verge of creating two new administrative positions (likely at the assistant-head level): director of environmental stewardship and director of global initiatives.

"We will be making a big statement by doing this," he said.

In a speech he gave in September at the Maria Hotchkiss dinner in Manhattan, McKenzie offered an insight into his way of thinking when he quoted fictional detective Sherlock Holmes and his friend, Dr. John Watson.

The two are camping, sleeping out in a tent on a moor. In the middle of the night, Holmes wakes Watson and says, "Watson, look at all those brilliant stars. What could this possibly mean?" Watson replies, "It must mean Holmes, given their vast number, that there is intelligent life on at least one." "Fool, Watson," retorts Holmes, "It means that some thief has stolen our tent."

"The deduction made by Holmes is prosaic and practical," McKenzie told friends of the school after the dinner. "Watson, on the other hand, is creative and seeking unusual implications from an unexpected event. He is imagining new possibilities and knowledge, undeterred by the exigencies of the moment."

It is that sort of Watsonian imagination McKenzie hopes to bring to Hotchkiss.

"It would be irresponsible to do the same old things," he continued in our interview. "There are imperatives now that are important for us to undertake.''

McKenzie also wants to build financial aid capacity. Currently, 33 percent of the 578-student population receives financial aid from a total aid budget of $5.5 million. Increased aid will improve the diversity of Hotchkiss, where 32 percent of the student body is comprised of "students of color." The school's total endowment stands at $425 million, up from about $100 million since Mattoon arrived in 1995.

The school's physical plant appears to be in excellent shape, with two new dormitories completed last year and the refurbishment of the old gymnasium ongoing. In the last 10 years, new athletic and music centers have been added and the science building has been remodeled and expanded.

As for moving to Lakeville from Wales last summer, McKenzie said it was exhausting work that continues to this day.

"There are so many changes," he explained. "There are visas, passports, new insurance and just about everything you can imagine."

McKenzie's wife, Judith Crouch, is a ceramic sculptor whose work is in private collections and displayed in museums in South Africa and Botswana. The school has converted the basement of the McKenzies' home into her studio. They have two children: Cameron, 19, and Morag, 15 (who is now a Hotchkiss student).

McKenzie said he is committed to enhancing Hochkiss's relationship with the greater community. Shortly after he and his family arrived on campus, McKenzie learned that the towns of Sharon and Salisbury, which have rented land from Hotchkiss for use as a transfer station since 1975, were investigating a new location for the facility since the school had said the current lease was not renewable.

McKenzie and John Tuke, the chief financial officer at Hotchkiss, went to Salisbury Town Hall and offered to negotiate a new 50-year lease. A town committee charged with finding a solution to the problem has since decided to recommend against remaining at Hotchkiss, but McKenzie said he and the school were happy to make the offer anyway.

McKenzie also traveled to town to meet members of the Lakeville Hose Company and the Salisbury Volunteer Ambulance Service. He came away "deeply impressed" with their commitment.

"It is important for us to continue to be a part of the community," McKenzie said before excusing himself to go to an all-school assembly. "We will continue to explore additional ways to do that. Indeed, I am open to suggestions."



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