Web extras for “Looking Backward: Taking Stock of ‘The Creighton Effect’”
• View a video retrospective of the Creighton years, produced by the Office of Communications.
• Read the full transcript of Nancy J. Vickers’ interview with Joanne Creighton, which was excerpted in the printed spring Quarterly.
• Read the Quarterly’s article on JVC’s first ten years in office (from the fall 2006 issue).
• Join the campus farewell event for President Creighton. Alumnae are welcome at the MHC campus community celebration on May 6 at 4 p.m. in Chapin Auditorium in Mary E. Woolley Hall.
• Share your memories of MHC during President Creighton’s tenure by using the comment section at the bottom of this page.
• Send a farewell message to Joanne Creighton here.
“Looking Backward: Taking Stock of the ‘Creighton Effect'”
On January 20, 2010, after fourteen and one-half years as Mount Holyoke’s president, Joanne V. Creighton was interviewed by Nancy J. Vickers ’67 (president emeritus of Bryn Mawr College) about her time at MHC. What follows is a slightly edited transcript of their conversation.
NJV: We’re going to talk about her wonderful tenure as president of Mount Holyoke. The questions I’m going to ask are interpretations of a large number of questions that were sent by alumnae as questions they’d like to ask Joanne as she reflects on her tenure at the college. I’m very grateful for the thoughtfulness of the folks who sent in questions. I’ve organized them into clusters to attempt to get at the broader issues.
NJV: I do want to say at the outset that as one looks back at your tenure as president that it’s quite exceptional in its thoughtfulness, its planfulness, and its deep commitment to consultation of the community. The accomplishments one could tick off at great length having to do with the development and enhancement of an extraordinary faculty, the renewal of the campus both through renovations and the adding of additional buildings, the development of an exceptionally talented, diverse student body, and of course the bringing of the college into financial alignment as long as the financial universe was aligned. (Financial alignment is something few of us can achieve at this point.) Certainly Mount Holyoke presented a challenge in terms of pulling it into healthy financial equilibrium, and you have very successfully done that.
NJV: As an alumna, I want to say that I am deeply grateful for what you have done for Mount Holyoke, and perhaps I’m still in a position where I’m still more keenly able to appreciate it than absolutely everyone else in the population [because of having been, until recently, president of Bryn Mawr].
NJV: As you look back on these fourteen years, if you were to single out any particular accomplishment, which gives you the most delight and pleasure?
JVC: I would say that I’m most pleased with the restoration of institutional self-confidence. That was not being experienced when I came in as president. There was a sense of concern, a sense of anxiety, about the college and I think that, through the Plan for 2003 and the early successes of it, and the engagement of the community in the overall sense of moving the college forward, that there was a sense that, yes, we can do it, that things are getting better, and the institution reconnected with itself. I feel like I’ve helped Mount Holyoke to be itself more quintessentially, and to reconnect with its roots and its mission. It’s very pleasing to see what a vital, robust place that it is. There’s a lot of health, a lot of intellectual and moral power, to the college.
NJV: When you said “reconnecting to itself,” Joanne, what’s the “itself”? What are the salient qualities or characteristics?
JVC: It all boils down to mission and that’s what has been so satisfying. It’s a very coherent institution. I don’t think people in the college realized what a strong sense of consensus there was underneath it all about the college and its fundamental values and its roots. It’s remarkably consistent with its historical mission. Many of the things that Mary Lyon said about the college continue to be true. So it’s just a matter of articulating that more overtly. I’m very proud of the fact that we’re very mission centered and that the mission can be stated in a single sentence. It’s fundamentally about linking academic excellence and purposeful engagement in the world. That’s the core of the college. And that we’re a community of women, that we’re a diverse community, and that we’re about the liberal arts—I think that those are important qualifiers of that mission. That core gives the college its intellectual and moral power.
NJV: In reconstituting the institution’s self-confidence, what were the principle engines in making that happen?
JVC: I’m not sure of all the dimensions. When I came in, it was very much a learning experience for me, which I turned into a planning exercise for the college, and asked questions about the fundamental nature of the college: what are its strengths? What are its weaknesses? What opportunities do you see? What challenges do you see? And so on. I feel very much that we articulated this in the plan. I think I’m good at seeing what’s there, in helping pulling out the main points. And in the process there was a growing realization that there was tremendous underlying consensus. There was a lot of loyalty and support for the college, so you could rely on that, and initially perhaps there was a skepticism in some quarters about “What is this planning process?” but it gradually built upon itself, people joined in the effort, and I kept playing ideas I was hearing back and refining them, and the collaborative nature of the process was huge. There were literally hundreds of voices coming into the process. I felt each one was important because it was articulating something about the institution or the way we had worded something was affecting people in a particular way. So we got close to articulating what was important about the institution.
And then I think defining achievable goals, and achieving them and recognizing that there was some fundamental drivers of the institution that were really important, and the most important perhaps was the admission picture. So the admission situation of the college initially had to be addressed, and I put a lot of energy into that. The financial challenges of the institution were very important and needed to be addressed. So we constructed an enrollment management approach to admission and saw gains being made in that area. And as we helped to get the budget under control and to generate money, there was a growing sense of “yes, we can; yes, the institution is a going concern and capable of success.”
NJV: Is there anything you wished to do that hasn’t gotten done, or anything you wish you hadn’t done? Anything you’d do differently if you had it to do over again? Anything that remains out there that you wish you had had time to achieve?
JVC: I honestly don’t think there are things we did that we should not have done. I’m very proud of what we did. We accomplished a great deal on the academic, financial, and building sides. Each of those were things I’d do again. If there were world enough and time, I would like to have addressed more robustly the issue of revenue enhancement. I think that, for the future, the college needs to address how to bring in additional revenue. Perhaps this needs to be done outside the core mission of the college. We essentially put all eggs in one basket; I feel our strength was in focus. We focused on the mission, but perhaps the college needs to look to other ways to generate revenues; perhaps the undergraduate mission is insufficient. Maybe there needs to be graduate, continuing, professional education options explored. Although I attempted to look at revenue generating programs to a modest degree, it needs to be done with considerably more time and money and energy and thought to see if Mount Holyoke can’t, like some of the sister institutions, find opportunities in constituencies other than eighteen to twenty-two-year olds.
NJV: What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the college right now, five years from now, ten years from now? Is the core challenge revenue enhancement?
JVC: Yes; the big challenge for the college is always money.
NJV: That is true of most colleges, it has to be said!
JVC: The reason in large part is the kind of education that Mount Holyoke offers, which is the finest I have ever seen; it’s very expensive, very labor intensive, and we have a very enriched environment which is expensive to maintain. Added to that, we have a comparatively needy population of students. Mount Holyoke from the beginning has been for students of modest means. That group, at least, has been a significant part of the population. That puts us at a disadvantage in revenue generation in relation to most of our peers. That compounds the issue of revenue for the liberal arts college. That compounded with the fact that the college is up against every trend in higher education—large, urban, public, coed, professional, nonresidential education—puts the college in a particularly challenging situation. Maintaining the model, the quality, in the face of the considerable financial pressure is the challenge for the future. It’s been the challenge of the past, it’s the challenge now, and it’s the challenge for the future.
NJV: Is the demographic challenge predominantly a women’s-college challenge, a liberal-arts college challenge, or a combination?
JVC: It’s a combination of the two and a few others. It’s certain the liberal-arts college is under siege, but so is the college in a non-urban area, the private college, and the women’s college. I’m proud of the fact that we’ve continued to attract a wonderful student body, and that the applicant pool has continued to grow. In fact, this year we have a record number of applicants. So that is great. But this comes out of great work on the part of the enrollment division. It’s not an easy sell, and we are plateauing to some degree in terms of demographics
NJV: … as are the other women’s liberal arts colleges
JVC: Being a women’s college is a particular challenge; only a very tiny percentage of high school girls will consider a women’s college, and many come in spite of the fact that we’re a women’s college. So it’s a wonderful mission but it’s very hard to sustain.
NJV: Six months from now, if you were about to leave a note on the president’s office desk for your successor, what bits of advice would you give her as she takes on the presidency?
JVC: First I would say, “enjoy every minute,” because I think it’s an incredible job, a wonderful opportunity, a privilege that very few people get to have. Secondly, I would say, “consult, consult, consult” and “communicate, communicate, communicate.” That’s the most fundamental thing about how to be successful in this environment. Everyone in the community feels that he or she has a role and a voice that should be heard. And the good thing about that is that one gets such a very good result from listening to them all, but the hardest thing about it all is to communicate. You can never be totally successful in communicating with such a wide and varied community. It’s a challenge. With those two dimensions, there is great opportunity because fundamentally, Mount Holyoke is a coherent, loyal, responsive community.
NJV: Did you receive any advice when you arrived?
JVC: Yes, I received something similar advice from Liz Kennan, which was essentially “seize the job.” At the time I talked with her, I was the finalist but I had not accepted the position and I was really uncertain as to whether I should. And she said, “seize it and run with it. Have no doubts about it.”
NJV: That sounds like sound advice. It’s the only thing you can really do, once you have it, is seize it and run with it.
NJV: The most frequently asked question by alumnae was to ask you how you think the women attending Mount Holyoke have changed over the course of your tenure as president.
JVC: They have been terrific from the beginning. I was impressed by the students when I first arrived, and I continue to be very impressed by them today. I’ve talked about this issue with my colleagues, and we all agree that they are smarter, more academically prepared, and without a question more diverse. We have become impressively diverse. We have something like 20 percent international students and around 25 percent American minority students and so the diversity of our student body is evident in any grouping of students you might come upon, and I think that is so enriching. From the beginning I’ve been impressed with how articulate they are, how engaged and idealistic they are; there’s a kind of energy about them. By data measures as well as by one’s impressions, they’re getting better over time.
NJV: How do you think you’ve come to know students best, and in what contexts?
JVC: … lots of different contexts. Where they are most impressive is when they’re standing forth and delivering. One of the most memorable parts, when I’ve been particularly proud of Mount Holyoke, is in the senior symposium, where they are so articulately presenting their research. I have enjoyed the classes I’ve taught or cotaught and have gotten a sense of their deep engagement with the material. I’ve enjoyed seeing them at sporting events, various contexts like that.
NJV: And have there been any difficult ones? I vividly remember sitting in my office while a sit-in took place outside my office and thinking, “you’ve worked so hard to make this happen, go and enjoy it. They’ve got the independence of spirit that they’re here to give me a hard time.”
JVC: Unquestionably the most challenging experience was the student takeovers that came very early in my presidency, the spring of 1997. I’d been on the job a little over a year, and they came very near the end of the planning process for 2003, so those things became very entangled. I’d thought that we’d gone through a very inclusive, consultative process, which we did, in which we tried to engage students as well as the rest of the community in developing the plan for 2003, but there was a group of students who, more or less at the eleventh hour, felt that they wanted to stop that process because they were worried about some of the items in the plan for 2003. They formed a coalition and presented demands and so on. It was a period of only about 2 weeks, but it seemed much longer. It was very difficult because the students were not completely rational in some instances, very emotionally involved in some of these matters, so one felt great responsibility for their welfare but at the same time it was very difficult to deal with their intractability. Trying to make the right decisions in the heat of the moment was very hard, and we’d move from one crisis to the next, one building takeover to the next. It was a testing ground of my authority, my presidency, and of the planning process itself. And I was relatively new and untested at that point. But a lot of good came out of it nonetheless. One aspect was that a lot of the community rallied around me and around the plan, including hundreds of students who were not in synch with the protesters, and who sent me literally hundreds of e-mail messages, invited me over for food, sent flowers, and so on. And others in the community helped them try to sort out the issues.
One of my colleagues said to me, “this is your true inauguration.” It was a real trial by fire that I came through, but it was very hard. But it moved the institution along and established my legitimacy and the legitimacy of the plan at the end. But I understand well why the students were upset; in many cases it was miscommunication. In some instances it was deliberate misrepresentation and outright distortion on the part of the some of the leaders of the movement. So one of the things you learn as president is that you must take responsibility for things you do, but that you also get blamed for many things you do not do or say. I was new, they felt I was challenging the fundamental nature of the institution, the most important issue being need-blind admission, which we felt needed to be changed as part of the planning process, and we tried through repeated forums and budget forums to convey that a growth of 12.5 percent a year in financial aid was not sustainable. But they felt that we were abandoning our commitment to the common people, that we were not supporting students on financial aid, that we’d be seeking only students with money, even though we had tried to reassure them of our commitment to students. And there were issues having to do with cultural spaces; part of groups within the community felt they were excluded from the wider community.
NJV: There’s a perennial return to the notion that need sensitivity means less commitment to diversity than need blindness, when in fact we know that the most committed financial aid institutions have a tendency to be the need-sensitive ones. So in the course of [the takeovers], what do you feel you learned about yourself?
JVC: I learned perseverance, the need for calm and reason in the face of swirling emotion; the need to be in charge. This very room [the living room of her home] was command central during the takeovers. On the first evening of the takeovers, I had gone to bed thinking I needed sleep, but the students had been chanting outside the door. So there was this persistent noise and light and so on outside the window at maybe one in the morning. It was Public Safety trying to wake me up because the students had taken over the building, which I didn’t know, and there was a need to figure out what to do. So we had to have at that moment a caucus of involved parties. To get conflicting advice swirling and to sort through the various points of view in a reasonable way, and then to meet hour after hour with students who were really not willing to give an inch or move off of very rigid positions was very hard. But I learned to try to maintain a rational approach to allow for the best points of view to be articulated. I tend to be calmer than some others in crises. I don’t want to rush to judgment or act precipitously, but give myself time to sort things out. I learned now to control a situation that was out of control.
NJV: That’s part of every president’s experience. It is sobering, the combination of hearing others’ point of view, truly hearing it, and also maintaining both calm and control in terms of moving through it—not against it, but through it.
JVC: You must be able to keep at it through tremendous exhaustion. It becomes all consuming and seems like a siege. But the responsibility is yours and you have to sort it out.
NJV: Ok, now we’re going to go from heavy to light—I have a group of quick questions. What, when you became president, surprised you most about Mount Holyoke?
JVC: I was especially bowled over by the moral power of the institution. I’d always been at institutions in the past that were more intellectually focused. And what’s powerful about Mount Holyoke is its combination of intellectual and moral. Just hearing from students the repeated articulation of really idealistic thinking about themselves and what they want for the future, this idea of purposeful engagement in the world or doing something bigger than yourself is really deeply imbedded in Mount Holyoke culture. So that was surprising and the most inspirational thing about the college.
NJV: As you look back on fourteen years, is there a single moment you remember with the greatest fondness, joy, or delight?
JVC: I don’t think so, not one moment that stands out about all the others. One thing that’s given me the most pleasure is the sense of camaraderie and team-ness that comes working with senior staff and others. So that our joy comes out of the collaborative and successfully collegial nature of the enterprise. That’s just pure pleasure, working with a group of people who are so smart and in synch who each individually bring so much to the table at the same time as there’s a commitment to the larger good. That’s what I feel I’ve gained out of the institution, a sense of being part of what Mary Lyon called “this great intellectual and moral machine,” part of something larger than the self. I feel that in particular with my closest colleagues, but I feel it with the rest of the college as well.
NJV: On my way here, I drove across the campus and was taken aback by how renewed it is after these fourteen years. If you were to pick any of these wonderful renovation or building projects that have so transformed the campus, is there one that’s your favorite?
JVC: [laughing] I love them all. I think of each of them as my children, each more wonderful than the next. I do truly love them all. In terms of successful buildings, the science center may have had the greatest impact in terms of creating a center out of what was a group of buildings. That sense of the science enterprise being a single enterprise is manifest in the building in a wonderful way. In terms of a building that’s started from scratch and beautifully communes with the architecture on one hand and the landscape on the other—the new residence hall. That building is a very successful building in terms of impact, though the science center has even greater impact.
NJV: Do you have a favorite spot on this campus?
JVC: No, I don’t.
NJV: I have several favorite spots—I love Upper Lake, the walk around it, which I used to do regularly when I was a student. I love what is now the Center for the Environment, that tiny office off the side of the greenhouse. It used to be the Dante Center.
JVC: I think of the campus as a walk, and I love all the walks, so that every day, my husband Tom and my dog Maisie and I walk, and we have lots of different routes, and I adore the campus and the circumnavigation around it. So we have a Lower Lake route, and Upper Lake route, an equestrian center route, a Longs Farm route, the back byways, the golf course … I love observing the architecture, but I also like the woods. If I had to choose one spot, it would be this house [the president’s residence]. This house is now 101 years old. It was built for Mary Woolley, so it’s always been a president’s house. It’s both integrated into the campus and apart from it, so when I’m here, I feel both part of things and that my privacy is respected. I often say to visitors that it’s three houses in one: when I look to the front, it’s a campus house; when I look to the back, it’s a country house; when I look to the side, it’s a city house.
NJV: So many presidents’ houses can feel like institutional fortresses; this looks like a house.
JVC: It’s very livable, at the same time it’s elegant, but on a human scale.
NJV: Here’s a really politically fraught question: if you could study any subject at Mount Holyoke, what would it be and why?
JVC: I would love to take art history, a subject that I found fascinating as an undergraduate. I would also like to take chemistry because I hated it as an undergraduate, but with instruction from first-class professors, I think I could learn to love chemistry.
NJV: Did you add any new traditions during your tenure?
JVC: The one I invented was Millennium Day. Mountain Day is of course a very pleasurable tradition, though not such a pleasurable tradition for the president, who has to predict the weather, so I’m glad I won’t have to do that any more. Most years I succeeded, but one year I failed; the weather was pretty poor. And I felt tremendously guilty about it and had e-mails of disappointment from students, one of which said, “You have ruined my senior year.” So that year—it was 2000—I decided to have a Millennium Day, a spring Mountain Day. And I committed my successor in the next millennium [to continue the tradition].
NJV: How do you think you are different after these 14 years?
JVC: Definitely older. I’ve had an excellent Mount Holyoke education. I have profited the same way other students have profited. The most common thing I hear from alumnae that they got out of their Mount Holyoke education is confidence. I think I developed more confidence and competence in the job, and I have connected to the female side of myself more. The academic world is very much gendered male and Mount Holyoke is gendered female in many ways. There is a kind of communal spirit that is in the culture and that I have enjoyed being part of. I think it’s very enriching. I feel connected to a sense of community and to a place and to an idea larger than myself. And all of that you don’t necessarily get out of an aridly intellectual environment, which is most of higher education.
NJV: So what’s next for you?
JVC: Next year I’m going on sabbatical, during which I will ponder my future. I might return to the college; I hold tenure in the English Department and love teaching. I might do something entirely different instead, such as academic consulting. I want to give myself time and space to sort this out. During my sabbatical, I’m going to look at making better known the work of Women’s Education Worldwide (WEW). I’ve been particularly impressed with the institutions that are newly emerging in many inhospitable places in the world, and I think their stories should be better known.
NJV: It’s an extraordinary accomplishment. I’ve enjoyed the WEW conferences I’ve managed to attend. It’s an extremely interesting organization with a special purpose.
JVC: We’ve developed a wonderful colleagueship across the institutions and I felt there was tremendous positive energy in Sydney and a wish for it to continue.
NJV: Any final thoughts? Anything you’d like to say to the alumnae to foster their understanding of Mount Holyoke?
JVC: I’d say the college is as strong and robust as it’s ever been. It has extraordinary intellectual and moral energy. Secondly, I’d say it cannot exist without you, quite literally can’t exist without the support of alums. It’s a necessity, not a luxury.
NJV: Thank you, Joanne, and most of all, thanks for an extraordinary fourteen and one-half years.
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April 2, 2010