President’s Pen: Summer 2019
A little over three years ago, higher education experts Cathy Trower and Peter Eckel wrote an article that appeared in Inside Higher Ed, outlining how challenging it is today to be a member of the board of trustees of a college or university. Trustees serve as a critical link between a college and the different constituencies that are served by and support it. Trower and Eckel write of the “duty of care” (competence and diligence), the “duty of loyalty” (undivided allegiance) and the “duty of obedience” (staying true to mission) that board members must exercise, and of the legal and ethical requirements they must abide by.
So, the choice of a chair of the board is especially important. The chair is the president’s partner in the work, providing both support and feedback, shaping the agenda and facilitating meetings. To effectively lead our board — and to be such a partner to me — the chair must be intimately acquainted with both Mount Holyoke and the landscape in which it operates, understanding the big picture, the culture of the College, and many, many details. These operational details, while often important, cannot be allowed to obscure the long-term vision for the College. This means that communication, understanding and trust between the president and the chair are crucial for the success of the board, the community and, so, the institution.
In a 2014 interview in Trusteeship Magazine, a former president and current trustee quotes a board chair who said of his exchanges with a president that “communications about particular developments help me understand the plotline, not just see the episodes.” At Mount Holyoke, the board chair spends a lot of time advocating for the institution’s priorities — including fundraising for them — and is a key spokesperson on the plotline and on a wide range of other issues and episodes. That’s a lot to expect of a volunteer, even in a community like ours, where a large, effective and generous network of volunteers supports all that we do.
So, in this moment of transition and loss, it is especially important to acknowledge the extraordinary work of all board members, and our board chairs in particular. I feel fortunate indeed to have been in conversation with so many past chairs, Eleanor (Ellie) Graham Claus ’55, Barbara Rossotti ’61, Jameson Baxter ’65, Leslie Anne Miller ’73 and Mary Graham Davis ’65. And it has been so enriching, these past four years, to work closely with Barbara M. Baumann ’77, to benefit from her more than three decades of experience volunteering for Mount Holyoke, as well as the professional expertise she brings to that work. Barb has been deeply engaged, razor-sharp and extraordinarily ambitious for and generous to the College during her term as chair. I will always appreciate her passionate interest, her unwavering loyalty and the many hours we have spent thinking and talking together.
That Mindy McWilliams Lewis ’75, who had been Barb’s close partner in this work, was to succeed her was a source of great confidence and hope. Mindy was a beloved board member and vice chair, whose expectations and high standards were always couched in deep affection for the College and warmth for her interlocutor. Mount Holyoke was a second family for Mindy, and we all benefited from the many ways in which she generously and energetically gave of herself. With her sudden and untimely death last month, we have lost a trusted and loyal leader, alumna and friend. In our future work, we shall honor her memory and her passionate commitment to Mount Holyoke in ways that pay tribute to her life and to her hopes for our future.
Karena brings board and leadership experience to the role, as well as great vision and energy and an incisive intelligence, and I am looking forward to building upon the work we have done together. Sonya Stephens
We are the stronger in doing this, and extremely fortunate, for the leadership of Karena Strella ’90, who in July was named chair and previously served with Barb, and alongside Mindy, as vice chair. Always questioning and strategic, Karena brings board and leadership experience to the role, as well as great vision and energy and an incisive intelligence. I am looking forward to building upon the work we have done together as we move into this new partnership.
Such endings and transitions are always tinged with loss and nostalgia, simultaneously a celebration of all that has been truly powerful, effective and engaging about d the mutual understanding of individuals working with common purpose for an “uncommon” institution. But it is both comforting and, of course, exciting to know that future opportunities for such work and discovery await us, with many new episodes, much desired continuity and, no doubt, some challenging turns in the College’s plotline, which began in 1837.
—By President Sonya Stephens
This article appeared in the summer 2019 issue of the Alumnae Quarterly.
July 29, 2019