BY MERYL PHAIR ’21
Acting President Sonya Stephens has been appointed as the next president of Mount Holyoke College by the Board of Trustees, effective July 1, 2018. The decision was announced to the campus community by Chair of Trustees Barbara Baumann ’77 via email on the morning of April 23.
“Rarely has an acting president ‘acted’ more,” Baumann wrote. “Based on her many actions, and on Sonya’s deep affection for Mount Holyoke and her vision for its further successes, the Board of Trustees has voted to appoint Sonya Stephens as the 19th president of Mount Holyoke College.”
Stephens joined the College in 2013 as vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty, following a national search led by an all-faculty committee. She previously worked at Indiana University Bloomington, where she was chair of the department of French and Italian and vice provost for undergraduate education. She began her career as a faculty member at Royal Holloway, University of London.
Stephens was chosen for the role of acting president at Mount Holyoke for a three-year term that started on July 1, 2016. As the end of her second year as acting president drew to a close, the Board of Trustees began a systematic review and engaged the community in a feedback process to either appoint her president or launch a national search to fill the position.
Some students wish that a wider search had been conducted. “I am disappointed in the lack of faculty input in the decision and that a national super search was not pursued,” said Sonia Mohammadzadah ’18. “I feel that it limits exposure to diverse candidates and ideas, and is indicative of the Board’s intent to pick [Stephens] from the start.”
After holding open and closed meetings with students, faculty and staff, an online survey was distributed by the Board of Trustees with the aim of developing a criteria against which Stephens could be evaluated. This process identified five competencies deemed essential for the position: leadership, strategic planning and capabilities, financial stewardship, fundraising and community building. Stephens was also evaluated by former acting president of Mount Holyoke, Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum. Focus groups with student leaders were held in early March.
“Sonya has led a strong and effective team, creating a positive and rewarding work environment and adding to it with thoughtful hires,” said Baumann.
While some students have expressed support for the appointment, others have voiced concerns about Stephens’ suitability for the position, citing a particular incident that occurred at a retreat for Posse Scholars in February. During this retreat, Stephens invoked the title of a book which contained the N-word. Stephens has since apologized publicly for saying the N-word out loud; the apology was published in an op-ed piece for Mount Holyoke News on April 5.
“I deeply regret that, in this moment of genuine engagement, I turned to a book and to one with a slur in its title,” Stephens wrote.
Still, some students question her dedication to matters of diversity.“This [appointment] proves that the Board of Trustees doesn’t care about its students,” said Rosalyn Leban ’18. “Sonya Stephens does not represent us. The Board of Trustees does not represent us.”
Francesca Eremeeva ’20 is happy about the appointment. “I have had a very positive experience working with [Stephens] in SGA,” she said. “However, I fully acknowledge the issues students have raised regarding her leadership and her relationship to our community.”
Upon her appointment, Stephens addressed the College community in an email. “Each of you, in and across constituencies, brings purpose and power to our work, and, together, great luster to the reputation of Mount Holyoke College,” she wrote. “I shall always do all that I can to merit the confidence and support the Board and this community have shown me, to live up to your expectations of me and of Mount Holyoke, and to advance the reputation and reach of this remarkable College. I cannot wait to get started on the next chapter in the history of this exceptional institution.”
A celebration in honor of the newly- elected Stephens was held on April 23 in the Dining Commons, which included remarks from Baumann and Stephens herself.
Eremeeva said, “I think it will be essential for [Stephens] to maintain her commitment to the promises she has made in small groups on this campus, who have put their trust in her to improve the things she does not do well and to continue the things she does do well.”
Additional reporting by Eileen O’Grady ’18 and Allyson Huntoon ’19