A conversation with Sonya Stephens.

Monday, January 4, 2016 - 11:45am
Sonya Stephens, vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty.

Q: What are your top priorities for advancing the mission and work of Mount Holyoke College?

A: The immediate priorities have already been outlined. First among them is the creation of a bold, forward-looking plan, The Plan for Mount Holyoke 2021. Everything else that we do will be in support of that vision. This includes developing the campus infrastructure in ways that privilege the high-contact learning and intellectual exchange that is the hallmark of the Mount Holyoke experience. The proposed Community Center with Dining is critical to this vision. We are a community of learners, of thinkers, and of doers. We work together to solve complex problems and to address important questions. We are a community that is free to learn for learning’s sake and a community prepared to take up global challenges. We are a community of individuals committed to thinking together and working together. We have a unique opportunity in this moment to create an engaging forum that connects our people to our commitments, as well as architecturally connecting Mount Holyoke’s greens to our lakes—an opportunity to connect in this vision our engagement in community-building to a building that engages our community. Consistent with this vision is a sustained commitment to excellence. This includes recruiting the most talented students and rebuilding and supporting an exceptional faculty and curriculum that, together, form the heart of the enterprise. And it includes taking a close look at all that we do through the kind of institutional self-study and critical reflection required by the reaccreditation process, as well as by our own goals of self-improvement, effectiveness, and our own standards of excellence.

Q: What makes Mount Holyoke unique?

A: The exceptional commitment and creativity of the College’s faculty, staff, students, and alumnae, which both sustain and reinvent Mount Holyoke’s rich traditions and historic values. This is an extraordinary community of engaged and imaginative individuals who are represented and supported by a global network of equally extraordinary alumnae. It is also a place of distinction—both distinctive and excellent; a place of outstanding natural and architectural beauty; and a destination for bold thinkers and ambitious learners.

Q: How does Mount Holyoke prepare its students to face the future with confidence in a rapidly changing world?

A: The Mount Holyoke experience provides an opportunity to develop habits of mind, interests, and commitments that transform engagement with the world and with others, empowering students to think audaciously, express themselves with confidence, and lead courageously. The academic rigor of a Mount Holyoke liberal education develops subtle intellect and creative imagination, which, in concert with the experiential opportunities of the Lynk, enable students to develop, explore, and test their capacities in quite different contexts. The invitation Mount Holyoke extends is to confront challenge, to work independently and in collaboration with diverse peers and mentors, and to do so with a determinedly global perspective.  

Q: What is the greatest challenge facing higher education today?

A: I see a number of interrelated challenges. First and foremost is the sustainability of the model, no matter the sector, in this increasingly segmented landscape of higher education providers. How do we make affordable and accessible an education that delivers on the promise to create enhanced opportunities for success and to transform lives? How do we collaborate to reduce the cost structure while constantly adding new services in support of student development? At the same time, the assault on the liberal arts and the drive toward more expedient forms of education, alongside calls for greater accountability, are increasingly leading to reductive measures of assessing the return on investment that are corrosive to the values of higher education and ultimately to any vibrant democracy. And connected to both of these challenges is a third of related and yet greater importance, as the wave of protests on college campuses has amply demonstrated—the challenge of institutionalizing these values and commitments, and creating opportunities for intellectual and social exchange and engagement, in ways that are truly inclusive and in an environment that censures, indeed excludes, all forms of prejudice.

Q: Why do women’s colleges remain relevant in the twenty-first century?

A: The college years are an exceptionally important moment for personal development. They offer the opportunity to test one’s intellect and ideas about society, self and social presentation, and to discover new people, new ideas, and new interests. The opportunity to spend these years with like-minded women and students in the practice of reflection, the process of observing, and in the pursuit of knowledge and excellence, supported by a faculty committed to student success, and in an environment of shared aspirations, understanding, and support, as well as of significant intellectual and personal challenge, is not easily replicated. A women’s college and a liberal education invite students to find meaning and a voice, to see themselves and the world anew, to find strength in who they are and a resolve to be who they want to be. There is, simply put, no better place than a women’s college to explore questions of identity, and to discover the mind-broadening and skill-deepening power of a liberal education. You have to have experienced it to truly understand it. And an education for women is synonymous with opportunities, advocacy, and rights for all women, because what a Mount Holyoke education represents at its most powerful is self-determination, and we stand for that for every one of our students, and for every woman.

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