Presidential search continues with “role specification” process

 Photo by Casey Pan ’18  Vice-Chair of the Board of Trustees Karena Strella ’90 leads a community discussion on presidential criteria.

Photo by Casey Pan ’18

Vice-Chair of the Board of Trustees Karena Strella ’90 leads a community discussion on presidential criteria.

BY KATE TURNER ’21

This week a small committee, including several members of Mount Holyoke’s Board of Trustees, were present on campus to meet with students, faculty, staff and other community members to kick off the presidential selection process.

This step is known as “role specification,” and involves the creation of a document of guiding criteria against which community members expect their president to be evaluated. To that end, Vice-Chair of the Board Karena Strella ’90 led the role specification team in meetings and workshops Feb. 8-9, which included  scheduled appointments and drop-in sessions open to all community members. 

Although most of the meetings were closed, the drop-in sessions were conducted in the style of a workshop, where attendees were asked to categorize their expectations for their new president as “not necessary,” “necessary” or “essential.” These expectations were also divided into the categories of “capabilities” and “responsibilities.” 

Community members were given worksheets that outlined the job description of Mount Holyoke’s president, along with key responsibilities and capabilities which participants were asked  to rank. 

Strella then facilitated discussion on the rankings, and community members were encouraged to dispute or modify the language of the worksheet in order to make their ideas more clear to the group. 

Presidential responsibilities included “foster and support a vibrant, diverse, global, inclusive and thriving community on campus and with alumnae;” “ensure long term financial stability and manage the finances of the College;” “build and strengthen Mount Holyoke’s endowment;” “communicate Mount Holyoke’s vision and distinction;” “ensure accreditation and successfully oversee other reviews, evaluations and licensure as needed” and “work to continuously improve the College’s standing and leading reputation, excellence in teaching and scholarship and ensure aligned operational and financial oversight.”

Capabilities included “passion for and commitment to women’s education;” “experience managing a significant budget in a resource constrained environment;” “demonstrated ability as a public spokesperson;” “exceptional ability to build consensus and relationships with a wide range of internal and external stakeholders;” “distinguished broad track record with a combination of education, scholarship and academic administration” and “proven expertise in leading a diverse team.”

Community members were also asked to provide additional criteria of their own as it occurred to them, and the feedback expressed in the meeting mostly centered around a desire for transparency between students and administration, the need for an accessible president’s office and a commitment to keep students informed.

“Securing scholarship funding for enrolled students and ensuring honesty and transparency in the way the school markets and projects itself to prospective students is paramount to Mount Holyoke’s success, in my opinion, and this is where I feel like a good leader in the role of president matters the most,” said Mrinalini Pandey ’20, one of the students present at the workshop. 

Pandey feels that, right now, the college does not necessarily prioritize existing students over future initiatives and goals, and felt that her meeting with the trustees signalled that the future could be more of the same. “As students, we make informed choices at the time of admission based on what a college promises to offer,” she said. “So it is important to keep reminding ourselves what we stand for.” 

“I honestly thought that more people would have shown up, and that it would have been more of a conversation, particularly between the administration —the Trustees — and students,” said Ilana Goldin ’21, another student in attendance at the drop-in workshop. “I had hoped that it was going to be a type of open-forum discussion thing where students could go up and voice opinions, but it was more of a structured meeting.”

“It was honestly a bit intimidating,” Goldin added. “Especially because I was one of three students at the meeting, so I couldn’t hide between others’ comments.” 

“I wish there was more student participation,” Pandey agreed. “This is something that affects the student body in the long run, so we should be more involved in voicing our thoughts about what we want in our leader.”

In this particular open forum, Goldin and Pandey were joined by several community members, including an alumna and an employee of the College, both of whom wished to remain unquoted and anonymous. 

The trustees leading the role specification process declined to comment, although they did promise that the guiding document they develop will be made public once it is completed. The next step of the process will involve an evaluation of President Stephens herself by Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, former acting president of Mount Holyoke College, former president of Spelman College and  author of “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together In the Cafeteria?” 

It will be after President Stephens’ evaluation that the Board of Trustees will decide whether or not to open up the presidential search to a national level. 

“When developing the selection process, the Trustees were very conscious that we had a strong incumbent in our acting president,” said Barbara Baumann ’77, chair of the Board. “I don’t think we would have appointed President Stephens if we didn’t think that she could have potential for being a permanent president in the next few years.” 

The strength of the incumbent is the Board’s reason for not immediately opening the presidential search to a national level. “Our situation could prompt a weaker pool,” Baumann explained. “And this is a big, broad, expensive process. I think there’s something of a chilling effect on candidates when they see a strong incumbent being considered for the position, and I think many of them just decide not to apply at all.” 

The evaluation of President Stephens will take place in early March, and before the end of spring 2018 the Board has promised to report back to the College community about the candidacy of President Stephens for the permanent role. 

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