Acting president Sonya Stephens: a year in review

  Photo by Amber Zheng ’20    Acting President Sonya Stephens reflects on her first year as president and steps for the next academic year.

Photo by Amber Zheng ’20

Acting President Sonya Stephens reflects on her first year as president and steps for the next academic year.

BY ANNA SHORTRIDGE ’19

It has been close to a year since Sonya Stephens was appointed the acting president of Mount Holyoke. On July 1, 2016, Stephens was unanimously appointed acting president for a period of three years by the board of trustees. 

Prior to holding the position of acting president of the College, Stephens joined MHC in 2013 as Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty. In this position she held responsibility for faculty research, faculty governance and academic budgeting and infrastructure. Additionally, she oversaw a cumulative operating budget of over $50 million while working closely with divisions on campus such as the Miller Worley Center for the Environment, the Weissman Center for Leadership and the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum. As Dean of Faculty, Stephens oversaw the implementation of new degree requirements and the revamping of the CDC. She was also active in the creation of new academic programs such as the MHC data science initiative, the new Nexus minor in data science and the women in data science partnership. Stephens also was a strong proponent in the development of The Lynk. 

Before her time at MHC, Stephens spent seven years at Indiana University, Bloomington as the chair of the department of French and Italian and another five years as the University’s first vice provost for undergraduate education. 

While acting president of Mount Holyoke, Stephens has continued to make progress with the community center, sought out a new strategic plan for 2021 and held the BOOM conference — to list a few of her actions. 

“Over the course of this past year, I’ve heard president Stephens discuss the new community center a great deal,” said Zoe Zelkowitz ’19. “She’s very enthusiastic about the project as a way to enhance the Mount Holyoke community. I’m personally really excited about SuperBlanch and her passion for creating connections between different students really resonates with me.”

Acting president Stephens said that the tone she hoped to project as MHC’s president was one centered on community. “Each individual president brings their own tone and for me, the tone I wanted to set was really about community building,” said Stephens. She went on to say that the community center is symbol of the tone of community building, as the community center strives to create a sense of belonging and membership in the Mount Holyoke community. 

“When you think about coming to the College, finding your way into the heart of the institution and feeling that sense of belonging — it’s important for everybody,” she said. “It’s important for the staff who work here, it’s important for the faculty, who make their careers here, it’s important for the students who spend probably four of the most important years of their lives here.”

She then went on to discuss the ideas behind BOOM. Stephens explained that in the strategic plan for the class of 2021, there had been lots of discussion on diversity, equity and inclusion, especially in the Presidential Commission on Diversity. “I wanted us to do something that would 

move us forward in a really concrete way” said Stephens.

“We want to move forward to change the way things are and particularly change the things that are impediments to that sense of equity and inclusion. And so I wanted to hear from students of color, I wanted to hear from our international students, I wanted to hear from gender non-conforming students about what the impediments were to their feeling that this was a place where they felt that full membership and inclusion as deeply valued members and contributors to the community that we’re creating.”

When asked what she enjoyed most about her first year as acting president of Mount Holyoke, Stephens expressed her gratitude to have been the Dean of Faculty for three years, which provided her the opportunity to get to know the faculty. As acting president however, she said that she has enjoyed the opportunity the position of president has given her to interact with a wider spectrum of staff, as well as with students and alumni. 

“I think that when you’re interacting with students and alumni all the time it makes the mission so much clearer in your own mind of who you’re serving,” said Stephens. “Contact with the alumni is always just so enlightening — they do embody the mission of the college in so many ways: they’re successful in so many different ways and you see that reflected in our current student body.” 

“I’ve enjoyed the conversations with students who have ideas about what we can change, the conversations with faculty around which way curriculum can go and then the conversations with staff who just want to be connected to everything that’s going on so that they can do their part. It’s really wonderful, it really is — it’s privilege” said Stephens. 

However, acting president Stephens said that it was not the easiest year to be president. 

 “I think most of the challenges I expected, I kind of know Mount Holyoke. But, it’s the things you don’t know about,” she said. 

“I think that most presidents would say that this was not the easiest year to be a president,” said Stephens.  “Even those who are really seasoned presidents didn’t expect to be engaged in national and public debate around policies that impact our mission.” 

Stephens also said that it was difficult to explain why she could speak out on some things and not on others.

“When there are policy decisions that impact Mount Holyoke’s daily operations and our student body, then I need to take a position. But I should not take a political position for the sake of taking a political position. I can do that when I’m a citizen but I cannot do it as president of Mount Holyoke because any personal position I take, I take whether I like it or not on behalf of the College.”

“And so whenever I wrote anything or signed onto anything,” Stephens said, “there were those alumni who were fully in support of it and wanted more of that, and then there were others who felt that it was going too far — that there was an anti-Trump discourse in play, which it absolutely wasn’t. It was a resistance to policy changes that would impact MHC. And so I think finding that balance was tough for me and as someone who’s new in the role, I think that everybody was challenged by it.” 

Acting president Stephens also discussed the challenge of when the president should speak for the entire institution. She noted that the institution does not have a single voice and that it does not all think in the same way. 

 “My decision was always that it should be whenever proposed policy changes would have a negative impact on our students, on the education we provide and when it violates principles we hold dear. So I think, for example, the whole notion of science and the evidence based argument — those are things that are at the very core of a liberal arts education. We have to speak about those things otherwise we’re not fulfilling our mission. And that’s not a political thing, though it can be construed as such.” 

She also cited the Seven Sisters’ open letter to Steven Bannon in which the presidents of the Seven Sisters affirmed their respect and pride for their graduates after Bannon used foul language against the said graduates. 

“The Seven Sisters letter was a letter written around the way in which our alumni have been described in a much earlier conversation by Steven Bannon, but had been invoked by various groups but it had become current again,” explained Stephens. “And I think the concern was that the reputation of our institution and the reputation of our graduates not in any way be sullied by an off the cuff remark and feeling that we needed to stand up for the range of women we represent and the range of students we represent.” 

Although the acting president’s plans are still being solidified, Stephens noted that in the early fall, the Mount Holyoke Sustainability Taskforce will bring forward a set of recommendations around sustainability and the environment. Additionally, the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Steering Committee will follow up on BOOM with recommendations from the feedback they’ve received and will hopefully bring forward recommendations. 

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