Op-Ed: In tumultuous times, women are leading the way

President Hutson shares why now is great time to be a college president.

Posted on March 26, 2024

Originally published on March 25, 2024, in the Richmond Times-Dispatch

by Mary Pope M. Hutson ’83, President of Sweet Briar College

In the wake of the highly publicized resignations of two Ivy League university leaders, the national press posed this resounding question: “Who would want to be a college president in this day and age?”

It’s not just the fraught politics, which felled the likes of Harvard’s Claudine Gay and Penn’s Liz Magill. It’s the increasingly difficult economics of higher education, especially at a time when the pool of college-age students is shrinking, and respect for the value of a college education is diminishing.

Mary Pope Hutson Mary Pope M. Hutson ’83Well, I sought the job. Three months ago, I was chosen as the 14th president of Sweet Briar College, a liberal arts college for women founded in 1901 in the heart of Virginia, and my alma mater. I assure you that I am neither crazy nor a masochist—though I’m always game to rise to a challenge.

So why did I accept this presidency? For a number of compelling reasons.

The importance of education was instilled into me from childhood. My father served as a head of school of a number of secondary schools, and he always told me the greatest gift a person can receive—and pass on to others—is a good education.

The American system of higher education is a great achievement and the envy of the world. It’s the engine for social mobility and increased earnings over a lifetime. A liberal arts education, in particular, turns a student into a lifelong learner with the skills to change and adapt—invaluable in our rapidly changing, globalized world.

I can attest to that. My international relations degree from Sweet Briar led me to leading disaster relief in the U.S. territories, to a U.S. State Department posting in Nairobi, Kenya during political change, to a Congressional lobbying effort that secured permanent tax incentives for land conservation, and finally back to Sweet Briar College—one of many alumnae who returned to secure its future. I spent eight years leading development and alumnae relations efforts before being named president. This college has given so much to me, and I’m honored to give back.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, a search firm consultant described the president’s role as “professional fundraiser and public relations executive combined with the mayor of a city.” I’ve mastered the first two. In my new role as “mayor,” I continue to emphasize the importance of the education for women and the unique dimensions and advantages of women’s leadership.

Our nation recently celebrated the 19th Amendment’s ratification, and certainly women have made gains since 1920. They currently comprise more than one quarter of all members of Congress, serve as governors of 12 states, and lead more than 10 percent of Fortune 500 companies. Yet these milestones also demonstrate women have a long way to go to achieve equity in leadership. That’s a serious issue. Women make up half the world’s population, and we could use more of this brand of leadership.

Perhaps because we were shut out of the corridors of power for so long, women developed less hierarchical ways of getting things done. Research and experience tell us that women often bring a more collaborative, less confrontational approach to resolving issues. I see that at Sweet Briar. For instance, while the Israel-Hamas conflict roiled many campuses, our students sat down last December for a moderated discussion, breaking into small groups to talk about the many dimensions of the conflict.

Historically, women’s colleges have educated women in learning spaces free from misogyny, empowering them find their life paths. Their graduates have gone on to leadership positions in various fields. At Sweet Briar, we’ve taken this one step further by intentionally cultivating students’ leadership skills. Six years ago, we revamped our curriculum to emphasize the role that women play in society, replacing the typical general education requirements with a Women’s Leadership Core comprised of 10 interdisciplinary courses that focus on developing the next generation of ethical leaders.

These are the sort of things that inspire me as a college president. I’m not saying the job is without difficulties. Many colleges have closed in recent years, and Sweet Briar faced its own crisis in 2015, only to be saved by the intervention of our own incredibly strong alumnae network. We have been rebuilding the college’s finances and its enrollment in the years since. We’re about to launch a capital campaign to prepare our historic campus for another 123 years of educating women.

We’ve positioned this college for success in the 21st century and beyond. My goal is to ensure that Sweet Briar College will continue to educate succeeding generations of women, inspiring them to find their voices and preparing them for leadership roles in all sectors of society. That seems like a pretty good reason to be a college president these days.