Editor's Note: This is the second in an ongoing series of "Eduvation Spotlights," interviews spotlighting administrators with innovative approaches across higher ed and K-12 — hence the portmanteau. Stay tuned as we roll out several more in the coming months, and feel free to reach out with suggestions.
Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Roanoke, VA, Hollins University is one of the nation's oldest institutions — and the first women's college to be chartered in the state. Now in her 12th year leading the soon-to-be 175-year-old Hollins, President Nancy Gray, who previously led South Carolina's Converse College, wasn't initially sold on the premise of women-only institutions.
"I wasn’t quite sure that the women were going to be competitive in the world of work, but I was interested in leading the institution and thought I would give the presidency a try," Gray told Education Dive. "I was surprised when I got to Converse, though. Very quickly I realized the very best preparation for today’s world of work is a women’s college. The students at women’s colleges grow in self-confidence, find their voices, have high expectations, and an attitude of 'nothing’s gonna stop me.'”
And very little has stopped Gray (referred to as "P. Gray" by students) from driving success at Hollins. Under her leadership, the institution's endowment has risen $72 million to $171 million, and it has paid off its debts. Comparably, Sweet Briar College and Mary Baldwin College — Virginia's other women's colleges — have endowments of $68 million and $37 million, respectively. And Sweet Briar nearly closed for good last year.
Her current strategic plan, "Connecting Liberal Arts Education and Experience to Achieve Results," aims to boost the value proposition of the school's liberal arts credentials, which have produced Pulitzer Prize-winning authors and poet laureates. She's also committed to leadership development, with an internship program that calls on alumnae to take on sponsorship and mentoring roles, and raising the school's profile among its peers.
In a recent phone call, Education Dive caught up with Gray to discuss her strategy for maintaining strong engagement with alumnae and donors, the importance of building social capital and fostering campus traditions, and the value proposition for women's colleges in 2016.
EDUCATION DIVE: Regarding fundraising, I saw that your "Campaign for Women Who Are Going Places" was the largest comprehensive fundraising campaign in school history and also the largest ever undertaken by a women’s college in the South, and it ultimately exceeded its goal. What’s Hollins’ secret to maintaining that sort of donor engagement with alumnae?
NANCY GRAY: We first of all gave everybody a little bit of a break after that as we regrouped. Since then, we have done what I call project-focused fundraising. That has included fundraising for the internship program and fundraising for the historic renovation of our buildings on campus. It has also included our annual fund, which constitutes about 10% of our operating budget. Right now, we are very focused, again, on raising money for the endowment. So we are quietly working with a confidential goal right now and having conversations with lead donors, securing gifts for our endowment that include gifts for unrestricted endowment, student financial aid, scholarships, and faculty development, among other priorities.
You mentioned the internships and mentoring opportunities that are provided to students, and several people I've talked to have brought up the idea that social capital is arguably as important as the credential they're earning. In your opinion, how important is it that institutions make sure they provide those opportunities to students?
GRAY: I think we have to be careful in prescribing any one approach for all of higher education or all categories of institutions. One of the great things about higher education in America is its diversity, and the role of an R1 institution is quite different from the role or a small liberal arts college, and the role of a women’s college is quite different from that of an HBCU or a co-ed public institution. I do think this is an important strategy, though, that should be considered given the socioeconomic factors in our country right now and the concerns about the job market. We have found it to work especially well.
I'm going to give you an example just to illustrate how it works for us and why we think it's important. A student by the name of Emili McPhail was selected to do one of our signature internships in New York this January. Her internship was sponsored by Alex Trower, our alum, who is executive vice president at the Estée Lauder Companies. In addition to Emili being selected, another student named Cecili Weber was also selected to be the other intern at Estée Lauder with her this year.
Next week, even though classes have started, we are flying Emili to Dallas, TX, to be present at an event she planned while she was doing the internship, and she will have the opportunity not only to see the work of her January internship in action — we will be putting her in touch with alumnae in the Dallas area for still another networking opportunity. Then next summer, she is in conversation with Estée Lauder about the possibility of returning for a summer internship.
Cecili, on the other hand, is off to Paris this term to study abroad, where she will be interning in the Paris office of the Estée Lauder Companies. More than 40% of our students have an international learning experience.
That's how we are building this kind of social capital in a very intentional way. It works for us because we’re small and we can curate these opportunities one-by-one for our students. It works for us because we have this “J-term.” It works for us because of our alumnae engagement, the paid opportunities housing-wise in January, and this commitment to this worldwide network that is inclusive of students. Not every school is positioned to do that, but we are. It's a distinctive strength at Hollins, and we're leveraging it.
How important are campus traditions like Tinker Day to fostering that connection to the institution beyond graduation?
GRAY: Indeed, our traditions help build a strong sense of community. My favorite is Tinker Day, when we cancel classes, have donuts, put on the craziest costumes you've ever seen, and literally hike a mountain that you cannot believe how hard it is to hike.
With our alumnae during the month of October, they have Tinker Day parties in the big cities all across the country. The day of Tinker Day, we send out an email — and put it on Facebook and Instagram and everywhere else — to all of our alumnae. It is amazing the stories we hear of alumnae who took their kids out of school because it was Tinker Day, and they went on a family hike. (Or) of alumnae working in Paris who decided to get together for lunch because it was Tinker Day, and they interrupted their other plans to do it. The Tinker Day celebration is a celebration not just on our campus, but it's a network celebration among all our alumnae.
Last week, I was in Florida. Another of our traditions is we have a group of people who are called ADA on campus. It's an above-board thing, it's all OK. This is a board of especially spirited people with good humor, who dress in purple on Tuesday and do things to lift up everybody's spirits. The head of ADA is called the "queen." At dinner, among some alumnae in Wellington, FL, a woman from the 1970s met a woman from the 1960s, and they'd both been ADA queens. They've made plans to go have lunch simply because they were ADA queens and they loved ADA so much.
Our traditions very much color our alumnae engagement, our alumnae programming, and their interactions with each other. And the sharing of those traditions builds a really common inter-generational tie which further strengthens their engagement with each other and this network that is there, that we're building and leveraging.
Do you think it's easier for a smaller institution to create that level of engagement around traditions in some cases?
GRAY: I do. I think we have a very high level of participation in our traditions, and it's easier on a small campus. It's harder to hide here. You can't hide in this small community, or get lost, so the participation is higher and we can reach out to people and encourage them to participate. It really involves everyone.
For anyone who might see the concept of a women's-only college as, perhaps, antiquated, what is the value proposition for one in 2016?
GRAY: I think the results speak for themselves. If you look at the data that's been done on the success of both liberal arts college graduates and women's college graduates, we have very high records of students expressing confidence in themselves, confidence in their ability to communicate well, they work well with diverse groups, and they report higher levels of confidence in those abilities than do their peers who graduated from other institutions. I would refer you, for example, to the Hardwick-Day study done by the Women's College Coalition, the Hardwick-Day study done for the Annapolis Group, and other statistics, like women who go on to pursue careers in the sciences have incredibly high acceptance rates in graduate and professional schools if they are women's college graduates. Something like half of all women's college graduates nationally go on to receive graduate and professional degrees. So our track record's really strong.
If you talk to women's college graduates, they will all pretty much tell you that they took over at a women's college. They held all the leadership positions, they dominated the classroom experience, they dominated the stage, whether they were backstage or on-stage or even the literature that was chosen. They dominated the science lab. They not only wrote the lab report, they did the experiment and they fixed the equipment when it broke. The women here do it all, without any distraction. And in doing it all, they have more opportunities to grow, find themselves, and be their best selves.
In today's world, we still in this country are dealing with women's issues. We still have not achieved equality. I haven't even touched the problem of sexual harassment and the way in which undergraduate women are treated on some campuses. Within the last few weeks, I have had three young graduates, in graduate or professional school, return to campus, one talking about how surprised she was to see so few women in leadership positions in law school, another talking about subtle sexual discrimination in her graduate program, and a third talking about her surprise that women didn't speak up equally in the classroom.
We're not there yet. Our role in women's colleges is just as relevant as it's ever been, and maybe more-so. And our track record speaks for itself.
What are some of the biggest challenges your institution faces?
GRAY: I think that we, like others, have to do a better job of telling our story and helping students today understand the opportunities that await them at a women's college, at a small college, at a liberal arts college. And we need to do a better job of helping them understand the extent to which we are prepared, through merit and need-based aid, to provide financial assistance so that a private education can be affordable and accessible to them. With so much written nationally right now about student debt, with many students not understanding the extent to which the private institutions are providing financial aid and thinking public institutions are their only option, we've gotta get the word out because it is not being well-understood.
For a women's college, we have to work even harder. Because many students have grown up in co-educational high schools, the concept of women's education — or men's, for that matter — is not something they've thought about. So we've gotta introduce it to them at younger and younger ages so it is a more familiar and attractive idea. We've started reaching out much, much earlier. We've started having summer weekends with alumnae and their friends so they can bring their daughters to Hollins. We're calling them "Legacy Weekends." We've reinvented our summer camp and conference program for high school programs and are reaching out to middle school students, trying to get them to come to Hollins in the summer for a week or two to have an all-girls summer experience in creative writing, in musical theater, in dance, or at the barn with our equestrian program.
In doing that, they begin to see how empowering this environment is, and we have a really good track record of enrolling the students who participate in the summer programs. So we've gotta work extra hard at attracting women, telling the story, and that includes getting them to our campus earlier.
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