In 1978, Elizabeth Topham Kennan ’60 became the first alumna to serve as president of Mount Holyoke College during the twentieth century. She was the College’s sixteenth president and headed the institution until 1995. From 1985 to 1994, she also served as president of Five Colleges, Inc.
Kennan, a native of Philadelphia, majored in history at Mount Holyoke and graduated summa cum laude. A medieval scholar, she received a master’s degree from Oxford University in England in 1962 and a doctorate from the University of Washington in Seattle in 1966. Kennan then taught at Catholic University and directed the postdoctoral program in Patristic and Medieval Studies until her appointment as president of MHC.
The Kennan years saw the launch of new academic programs including the Frances Perkins Program, started in 1980 to serve undergraduates 24 years of age and older; new majors in environmental studies and computer science, instituted in 1992; and innovative programs in such areas as women’s studies. Other advances include the creation of 11 new academic chairs, the addition of Asian languages to the curriculum, and the development of interdepartmental approaches to a variety of disciplines.
A strong proponent of single-sex education, Kennan held steadfast to the College's mission of excellent liberal arts education for women during a period when many women’s colleges became coeducational. She regarded single-sex education as a proven method for ensuring that women reach their fullest potential and also distinguished herself as a passionate advocate for the education of all women. In 1987, Mount Holyoke hosted the Worldwide Education for Women Conference and subsequently brought nearly 400 educators, policymakers, and researchers to campus for the Studies in Success Conference, held in partnership with the Women’s College Coalition.
In 2000, Kennan coauthored the novel, Overnight Float: A Mystery, with Jill Ker Conway, former president of Smith College. Published under the nom de plume Clare Munnings, the novel was their first venture into the mystery genre. She currently serves as a trustee of the Putnam Mutual Funds, where she chairs the nominating committee. Kennan also is involved with Cambus-Kenneth Farm, a thoroughbred horse and cattle breeding farm in Kentucky.