The future is now with President Danielle R. Holley
Mount Holyoke College celebrated the inauguration of Danielle R. Holley as its twentieth president.
Most college presidential inaugurations are staid, formal affairs, full of pomp, circumstance and grandeur. The signs students held at a pep rally before Mount Holyoke College’s investiture of President Danielle R. Holley as its twentieth president were early indications that this inauguration ceremony, on Thursday, September 21, was going to be different — in the most exuberant way.
“THAT’S OUR HOLLEY-BACK GIRL,” one sign declared. Another blared, “HOLLER FOR HOLLEY.” Students who didn’t hold signs were shaking blue-and-white pom-poms and cheering loudly as faculty, delegates from other colleges and universities, Board of Trustees members and President Holley paraded around Mary Woolley Circle in full academic regalia before entering Chapin Auditorium for the formal investiture.
The inauguration of President Holley was a historical moment for the College. Holley, a noted legal scholar and educator, is the former dean of the Howard University School of Law. She is a lauded and sought-after expert on a wide range of civil rights and equity subjects and is a leading scholar of Supreme Court decisions regarding race-conscious college and university admissions. She is also the first woman of color, and the first Black woman, to be permanent president of Mount Holyoke.
Fittingly, the theme for Holley’s inauguration was “The future is now.”
“When and Where I Enter”
But to meet the future, one has to know the past. And the afternoon before the investiture, on Wednesday, September 20, Mount Holyoke held an alum panel, “When and Where I Enter: Reflections on Black Women’s Sojourns from Hortense Parker to Danielle R. Holley,” tracing the history of Black students, staff and faculty at the College from Hortense Parker, the first Black student at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, to President Danielle R. Holley and her presidency.
The occasion had a festive air, and Vice President for Equity and Inclusion Kijua Sanders-McMurtry joked, “I just need to keep saying ‘Danielle’ and I’ll get applause.”
Holley said that there was one thing that buoyed her spirits: “The sheer excitement that so many have expressed for my presidency.” She then took a moment to thank former Interim President Beverly Daniel Tatum for her support.
“Your endless generosity to me over the last few months has meant everything,” she said.
The event featured remarks from Paula Giddings, the author of “When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America” and the Elizabeth A. Woodson Professor Emerita of Africana Studies at Smith College.
“Let us speak of firsts,” Giddings said. “Of entering first, so that others may follow.” She noted that Hortense Parker was the first Black student to matriculate at any of the Seven Sisters colleges.
“Let us celebrate how all of these firsts have led us to enter a new portal,” she said.
Next, there was a panel of Black alums — Shirley Wilcher ’73, Carla Lambert ’88, Kelley Page Jibrell ’99 and Quanita Hailey FP’14 — moderated by Vice President Sanders-McMurtry.
The alums spoke of the struggles and triumphs that they shared across the eras at Mount Holyoke and also of how each generation had unique trials. All of them, however, feel deep connections with each other and with the current Black students at Mount Holyoke.
Hailey said, “This feels like a manifestation of the future for me!”
Back to the future
Inside Chapin Auditorium on Thursday, the future was being heralded by cheers of “HOL-LEY! HOL-LEY!” and thunderous applause. Some of the pep rally pom-poms had been brought in by audience members, who filled the main floor and both balconies.
Holley’s father, Dannye Holley, led the invocation. Dannye Holley is professor and dean emeritus at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University. When Danielle Holley was the dean of the Howard University School of Law, they were the only father-daughter duo law school deans in the country.
He exhorted the audience to remember that frailty is a shared human characteristic. “Humility is the ultimate human virtue,” he said. “Humility engages and empathizes and energizes and lifts us up.”
A musical greeting was then performed, composed in honor of President Holley for the occaison. “Eternity Enables the Endeavoring” is based on a poem by Emily Dickinson, the “Belle of Amherst” and alum from the class of 1849; the music was composed by Lecturer in Music and Director of Choral Activities Colin Britt, sung by soprano Sherezade Panthaki, lecturer in music and coordinator of voice instruction, and accompanied on piano by Mark Gionfriddo, director of jazz ensembles, coordinator of piano instruction and instructor of music.
Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren made prerecorded remarks. Sen. Markey welcomed President Holley to the “Brain State,” his alternative nickname for “the Bay State.”
Sen. Warren said, “I know that Danielle shares a deep commitment to teaching and to inspiring the next generation of advocates, of thinkers, of jurists, and I have no doubt that she will continue her great work as Mount Holyoke College’s next president.”
Student Maille Romulus ’24, president of the Student Government Association, also voiced her support for President Holley and affirmed the support of the entire community.
“President Holley, your term signals a new chapter in Mount Holyoke’s rich history,” she said. “Your leadership presents an opportunity for us all to strengthen our efforts toward inclusivity, equity and progress. However, I want you to know that we are all here to support you — please take care of yourself during your term here, because part of social justice is self-preservation.”
Karena Strella ’90, chair of the Board of Trustees, and College Archivist Deborah Richards then presented President Holley with an original key to the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, the Mount Holyoke College charter and the official Mount Holyoke College seal, engraved on a bronze medallion.
With these tokens, Holley was charged by the Board of Trustees with all the rights and responsibilities of the presidency of Mount Holyoke College.
Meeting the moment
Holley met the historic moment of her investiture with an extraordinary speech.
“I stand here today overcome by the overwhelming feeling of gratitude,” she began. “Gratitude for taking on this profound responsibility, for being so warmly welcomed to the Mount Holyoke community and for the presence of each and every one of you here today and watching on the livestream.”
She cited two alums of note that she identified with most strongly: Frances Perkins, class of 1902, and Barbara Smith ’69.
Perkins was the first woman in America to hold a presidential cabinet seat and was the architect of Social Security and the New Deal. “Her skills as a policy maker and her ability to create lasting and positive change impacted the way I viewed my own potential to make change through my career,” Holley said.
Smith is the founder of the Combahee River Collective, important architects of Black feminist thinking. They held a convening in 1977 that is considered one of the first centered on Black feminist thoughts. “It led to the Combahee River Collective Statement, which became a foundation for concepts such as intersectionality, shaping so much of how I think about and conceptualize racial and gender identity today,” Holley said.
Holley cited another Mount Holyoke community member that influenced her — Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to be elected to the United States Congress. Chisholm taught at Mount Holyoke from 1983 to 1987 and authored the famous maxim, “If they won’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”
“Mount Holyoke is a place that is student-centered. We strive to be a place where all students can show up and be themselves. Mount Holyoke is a place where students want to have an impact. At Mount Holyoke students feel a moral imperative to make the world better. Students want to be on the front lines and have a seat at the table,” Holley said.
“For me, from the beginning of the search process I felt a deep connection to the mission of Mount Holyoke College,” she continued. “A gender diverse women’s college that produces culturally competent leaders who take on the toughest problems facing women, girls, nonbinary and trans communities around the world. As a proudly gender diverse women’s college, we continue to defy gender stereotyping and champion the full equality and voices of people who have been marginalized on the basis of their gender identity.”
She told the rapt audience why she chose “the future is now” as the theme for her inauguration.
“The world is rapidly changing and challenges to women, nonbinary and trans people are gathering steam,” she warned. “I envision the future of Mount Holyoke as one in which we as a community continue to take on the most difficult challenges inside our classrooms and beyond. We will encourage fostering difficult conversations through our intergroup dialogues and take on the challenges of climate change with interdisciplinary work and focus.”
President Holley thanked the one person who wasn’t able to be at this historic inauguration — her late mother, Dr. Joyce Holley. Her voice cracking, she said that the yellow flowers throughout Chapin Auditorium were there because they were her mother’s favorites. “She taught me a myriad of things, love and devotion to family, a love for music — everything from Sam Cooke to the Beatles to Prince — and she would’ve loved this day and my journey to Mount Holyoke,” she said.
She then faced the College community. “Mount Holyoke forever shall be,” she said, to a chorus of thrilled screams and applause.
To celebrate, the Mount Holyoke Glee Club, led by Kiera Myrthil ’24 and under the direction of Colin Britt, sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often referred to as “the Black national anthem,” and a chorus of alums came together virtually to sing the Mount Holyoke “Alma Mater.”
“Left foot, two stomps!”
After the investiture came the feast — or, rather, two feasts.
The first was a community-wide barbecue held under a tent on Skinner Green, recently reopened after being dug up for the College’s geothermal energy project.
Alums, guests, faculty, staff and students chowed down on brisket, cornbread, lemonade and macaroni and cheese, foods chosen as a nod to President Holley’s Texas heritage. As the picnic got underway, Chapin was transforming from a relatively sedate auditorium into a glittering locale for a gala dinner.
Thursday night’s dinner in Chapin for President Holley and honored guests was a chance for her friends and family to fondly reminisce.
Her brother Kenan called her “the glue of the family,” and brother Quentin said that the inauguration was like an episode of “This Is Your Life” — “and what a testament to the life you’re living,” he said.
A congratulatory video for President Holley was aired, which featured photos and video clips from her childhood as well as praise from far and wide. Childhood friends and former colleagues showered Holley with their love, their admiration and their appreciation. “Congratulations on your next chapter, Madame President,” said one friend from Holley’s Howard University School of Law days.
While some people may have expected to linger in Chapin Auditorium, the dance floor was calling. The tent on Skinner Green had also been transformed — turned into a dance club, full of partygoers and ringed by food trucks for students. The ’90s dance party was on, and students — along with other guests — were ready to get down.
The call for a ’90s-centered playlist came from President Holley, as she is Mount Holyoke College’s first Gen X president. But students, who initially were somewhat doubtful about the danceability of such oldies, were quickly won over by “Wobble” and “Cha-Cha Slide.”
“CLAP, CLAP, CLAP YOUR HANDS,” rang out from the speakers. “LEFT FOOT, TWO STOMPS!”
But an even better moment was coming than the “Cha-Cha Slide” as DJ Chmba (Ellen Chilemba ’17) invited President Holley to come onstage. Amidst raucous and enthusiastic cheering from those on the dance floor, Holley joined in the dancing and celebration. Surrounded by a campus that had welcomed her so warmly, she enjoyed the capstone of her inauguration with the people who had embraced her and accepted her to her new home — Mount Holyoke community of the past and present who celebrated all of her accomplishments and looked forward to building a future together. A future that is being built now.