Hollins University President Nancy Oliver Gray has seen a number of changes in her nearly two decades in higher education. From the increasing role of technology to what she calls “the professionalization of intercollegiate athletics” and increased regulations, the industry has seen its share of disruptions.
The one thing that has stood out to her the most, however, is the importance of single-gender education in building the self-efficacy of women looking to succeed in the broader society.
We recently caught up with Gray, who is set to retire at the end of this school year, to talk about the role of women’s education in the current environment and to reflect on her career in higher education.
Note: The following responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.
EDUCATION DIVE: What is the role of the women’s college in 21st century academia?
NANCY GRAY: I think that women’s colleges are perhaps more relevant than ever. As you look at the history of the women’s college … it has evolved from the place that we started, which was to provide the same educational opportunities as were afforded to young men, and it has progressed through the years [to ensure] women were well-prepared for not only meaningful lives, but significant professional lives.
In the 21st century, we find that even though some of the barriers to opportunity for education and employment for women have been removed, there are still subtle and invisible barriers that block women’s progress. The women’s college plays a significant role in helping those women who choose our institutions [to navigate those barriers].
The more confident our graduates are, the clearer they are about situations where they can thrive. The more confident they feel in advocating their positions, the less worried they are in what other people think, and the more confident they are in taking risks.
If you look at what’s going on with women around the world, there are still a lot of women who are being denied educational opportunities and professional opportunities. From that perspective, we are really playing a key role in giving opportunities for women that they might not have otherwise, and in this setting, they feel free to push the envelope on their own abilities and to receive the mentoring that would help them succeed. And they are not lost in a large, co-educational institution. Their voices are not lost because of dominant male voices in the classroom. Here, they are the ones who are speaking up, they are the ones who can dominate the classroom situation. And here, they are very much not just a name or a number, but they are really a person who is supported, who is challenged, who is developed.
You’ve served in a number of leadership capacities over your years in higher education. What have you learned along the way — what are the takeaways?
GRAY: The biggest surprise for me was living and observing the advantages of single-sex education. … When I first encountered single-sex education, I was unsure about how those women would be able to compete in a co-educational workplace. What I have discovered is that those women compete exceptionally well because they have such a strong foundation of self-knowledge and self-understanding.
In the course of my career, I’ve seen huge changes in higher education, and the topics range from … the professionalization of intercollegiate athletics, I’ve seen tremendous changes in financial aid that the privates, and now the publics, are making to make higher education accessible.
I think we’ve seen considerably more regulation in higher education, whether we are talking about Title IX or other issues where we are held increasingly accountable for what we do.
We have, and I think many colleges have had, to add a staff person in our HR office to ensure that we’re able to comply with Title IX regulations. We’ve had to be much more cognizant of whether our graduates are getting into graduate programs and getting jobs because of the reporting requirement.
Finally is technology. I can remember when we had those big computers that were so large that they take up the size of the room. And now to have wireless technology, to be able to connect in the way we do on social media, to have info available at our fingertips has really changed the way we work, the way we educate our students, the services we provide.
We are very lucky in America to have such rich diversity of American higher education. Whether it’s community college or the HBCU or the women’s or men’s college or the large Research I institution... That diversity is really important to ensure that we can meet the needs of all students with all kinds of learning styles.
What was your worst moment as a college president, and how did you rebound from that?
GRAY: One of the things that I was told in my first presidency was that being a college president was a little bit like being on a seesaw … and you have to be careful to not get too high with the highs and too low with the lows. Understand what happened, develop a plan to fix it, and put your whole energy into addressing it and moving on and not getting stuck in a bad moment. And that advice has served me very well.
The toughest moments have been in the years where our enrollment was not as high as we’d hoped, either because the incoming class was small or because we had not retained as many students.
The other tough moments that I remember have been the loss of faculty members or students. Nothing is worse than losing a student or faculty member or beloved staff member. It has been often communicating what we know and what we can and being as transparent about that as we can.
You’ve recently experienced some controversy over comments you made being taken outside of the way you originally intended them. What advice do you have for college leaders who may face similar situations?
GRAY: I think the college president has to understand the significance of his or her rhetoric and to be as thoughtful as possible, as accurate as possible, about what is said and the choice of words. And if something that we thought was well-worded is misinterpreted or maybe not interpreted as the speaker had hoped, then I think you have to work with people to listen to what they heard and really understand how your words were misinterpreted, and really work to clarify your intention and your meaning. And sometimes you may have to apologize. And then you move on. But it starts with listening and putting yourself in the shoes of the listener.
What’s next for you as you look ahead to retirement?
GRAY: I love higher education. I’ve had a wonderful career, and I want to continue to give back as much as I can. I’ll be available to, certainly those institutions where I have worked, but other colleges and universities where I can help them and make a difference, so I am going to go into consulting.