Mount Holyoke College president Sonya Stephens stepping down in August

  • Sonya Stephens, president of Mount Holyoke College, speaks to the Gazette in 2019. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Sonya Stephens, president of Mount Holyoke College, speaks to the Gazette in 2019. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Sonya Stephens, president of Mount Holyoke College. SUBMITTED PHOTO/JOANNA CHATTMAN

Staff Writer
Published: 3/2/2022 3:43:53 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — Yet another local college president is stepping down, the third such announcement in less than six months.

On Wednesday, Mount Holyoke College President Sonya Stephens announced that she will part ways with the school in August to take a job as the president of The American University of Paris. In a letter to the campus, Stephens, who has worked at Mount Holyoke since 2013, said the new job provides her a “unique opportunity to advance a contemporary expression of the liberal arts in France.”

“While I have held different roles over these nine years, I see our work together as a continuum — one focused resolutely on the future strength of the College, on enhancing the exceptional educational experience it offers and on the community that makes this possible, here on campus, across the nation and worldwide,” Stephens said in her letter.

An expert in 19th-century French literature, Stephens arrived at Mount Holyoke in 2013 and served as vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty before the college’s trustees appointed her acting president in 2016 to replace Lynn Pasquerella. That “acting” title was removed in 2018 when the board of trustees voted to officially make her the college’s 19th president.

Stephens’ announcement comes after Smith College President Kathleen McCartney announced Friday that she will be retiring in 2023 after a decade at the helm. Amherst College President Biddy Martin announced in September that she is stepping down this summer, though she will continue to teach at Amherst after a sabbatical. Martin has been at Amherst College since 2011.

According to Mount Holyoke College’s tax filings from 2019 — the most recent year available — the school paid Stephens $581,858 in compensation that year as well as $86,480 in “other compensation from the organization and related organizations.”

Stephens said Wednesday that she had not intended to leave Mount Holyoke. The opportunity in France — “my spiritual home, as it were” — was a perfect mix of her academic and administrative experience.

“It was a really hard decision for me. I love Mount Holyoke,” Stephens said. “I feel deeply connected to Mount Holyoke.”

Asked about the moments she’s most proud of during her tenure, Stephens said that under her leadership the college has invested in its campus, such as the building of a new dining commons and the college’s “Makerspace” innovation lab. She said that the college has strong financial positions and balanced budgets during her time in office, with the school’s endowment now around $1.1 billion.

“Since 2016, we’ve had two of our biggest fundraising years in the college’s history,” Stephens said.

There have, of course, been difficult times, too. Stephens said she hopes her successor will be able to enjoy “non-COVID times.”

“I do think that many of us have spent a long time focused carefully on the public and mental health challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Stephens said. “We’re all very concerned about the opportunity for everyone to resume the kind of life that will provide some respite from the pandemic.”

Stephens said that mental health services need more investments on the state and national level, and that colleges will have to continue investing in helping students in what is “an acute crisis.” Those thoughts echoed similar sentiments that McCartney shared last week after announcing her own pending retirement.

“It’s not just in colleges, it’s everywhere,” she said. “It’s not just our students, it’s everyone.”

Stephens said she will miss lots about the Connecticut River Valley, from the warm welcome her family received when they arrived to the “color palette” when driving in the hills.

“It’s our home,” she said. “The food is great, the people are great, the countryside is great. The weather is sometimes great.”

Stephens said that the Five College Consortium was also a “jewel” that the region benefits from immensely, and that she was fortunate to be part of it.

Karena Strella, who chairs Mount Holyoke’s board of trustees, said in a letter to campus that the board will share more information in the coming weeks about the recruitment of the school’s next president.

“Then we expect to launch a formal presidential search process beginning with the selection of a search committee, which will be aided by the support and expertise of an external search firm,” Strella said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.
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