Trustees begin search for permanent president

 Photo courtesy of Mount Holyoke College  Sonya Stephens, a candidate for the position of president, has served as Acting President for a year and a half.

Photo courtesy of Mount Holyoke College

Sonya Stephens, a candidate for the position of president, has served as Acting President for a year and a half.

BY  KATE TURNER ’21

In an email to students this week, Barbara Baumann ’77, chair of the College’s Board of Trustees, announced the beginning of a process to select a permanent president for Mount Holyoke College.

“In January 2016, I announced the decision by the Board of Trustees to appoint Sonya Stephens as acting president for a term of three years,” Baumann’s email read. “Now that we are approaching the end of the second year of the acting president’s term, it is time for the Board to take the next steps to appoint a permanent president of Mount Holyoke College.” 

Baumann went on to describe the selection process. First, a small committee led by Karena Strella ’90, co-chair of the Board, will develop a document outlining the criteria they have identified as necessary for a permanent president. This step of the process, called “role specification,” will take place over the next few weeks, and will allow for community input from Feb. 8-9 in the form of on-campus meetings and an online questionnaire.

“I’m really eager to hear what comes out of these on-campus visits and the survey,” said Baumann. “We’ve worked hard to make sure that this is a really inclusive process.”

The next phase will involve an assessment of Acting President Sonya Stephens against the criteria identified in the role specification document. The selection process is somewhat unusual because President Stephens — a candidate for the position of permanent president — is currently serving as an incumbent, so an extra step of assessment is required.

This assessment will be undertaken independently by Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, former faculty member and former acting president of Mount Holyoke College, former president of Spelman College and Smith College trustee. Tatum, like Strella, will be conducting her assessment based on meetings with community members and College constituents, and several online questionnaires. Her findings will be kept anonymous and will be presented to the Board. 

According to the Mount Holyoke website, Tatum will not present a specific recommendation to the Board. “The report will be a single element, albeit an important one, in the Board’s decision making process,” the website explains.

“The Board will report back to the community on the candidacy of the acting president and whether or not it will move to a national search,” according to Baumann’s email. Presumably, this means that if President Stephens is determined to be the right candidate, she will be awarded the position of permanent president before the search expands. 

“It seems to me that the process to select the president will not be open to a national pool of applications, which makes it seem that the Board will only be making President Stephens the permanent president,” said Maggie Micklo ’21 when asked about the selection process. “I would much rather there be an open application process.”

Micklo believes it is important that the permanent president share the values of the students and is more accessible than past presidents. “I know the President’s job is to ensure our school is financially healthy, but I really would appreciate more transparency among the general administration and specifically within the role of the president,” she said. 

“I think there are several important qualities to look for in a president, definitely willingness to communicate being one of them” said Liz Brown ’20. Brown, as chair of Senate, works closely with administration, and has worked with President Stephens and her staff on many issues.

“Definitely a background in higher education, and preferably a background at a women’s college, because I think there are unique challenges we face and unique needs we have,” Brown said, when asked about her list of preferred qualities. “A commitment to communicating with students and a willingness to work with student government. And dedication to working with and uplifting all of our seven sister schools.”

“What’s most important,” said Brown, “is that the College is giving students a voice in this process, and we need to take advantage of that. There are open meetings with the Trustees this week, and at some point soon, President Stephens will be holding a town hall with an open reception afterward at one of our Senate meetings. The College really wants to hear from us, so if you have concerns, now is the time to voice them.”

President Stephens, when asked for her thoughts on this process which will be heavily focus on her performance, said that it has been “a privilege and a joy” to serve as acting president of Mount Holyoke for the past year and a half, and that she is honored to be considered for the presidency.  “In the meantime, there’s lots of work to be done,” said Stephens, “and my focus, and that of my colleagues, will continue to be on advancing the College.”

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