Mount Holyoke names Danielle Ren Holley as its new president

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 02-07-2023 8:46 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — Danielle Ren Holley, a legal educator and social justice scholar, will become the 20th president of Mount Holyoke College on July 1, becoming the first Black woman to serve as a permanent president in the college’s 186-year history.

In an interview at the Presidents House, Tuesday, where Holley had been meeting with students, faculty and staff, the new president said she was attracted to a place that respects the best values of higher education, with a focus on inclusion and equity, and where liberal arts is the foundation of an education that produces the next generation of professionals, from scientists and playwrights to lawyers and filmmakers.

Holley said she was also drawn by the college’s strategic vision that aims to connect students to their careers, a curriculum that gives students an experience and the ability to discover their passion for changing the world.

“It’s an ambitious vision that will allow Mount Holyoke to soar to higher heights than we have ever been,” Holley said.

Holley adds she is confident that Mount Holyoke is in a good place due to its “gender-diverse” mission of educating women as well as others who have been marginalized on the basis of their gender.

In a statement from the college announcing her selection, Holley expressed excitement at joining the vibrant and dynamic Mount Holyoke community.

“My personal and professional endeavors reflect my commitment to create educational opportunities for talented and deserving students, including those who may encounter doors that are closed or unwelcome,” Holley said. “Mount Holyoke shares this vision — here, I have found students who want to break down barriers and create lasting, equitable change for all, and faculty, staff and alums dedicated to helping these students strive for a brighter and bolder tomorrow.”

The college’s board of trustees unanimously elected Holley after what trustees described as a thorough and inclusive search process.

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She is the fourth Black woman to lead one of the original Seven Sisters Colleges, joining Sarah Willie-LeBreton, who will assume Smith College’s presidency this year, as well as former Smith president Ruth Simmons.

Holley, 48, succeeds interim president Beverly Daniel Tatum, who has been at the college’s helm this academic year. Tatum, who also was acting president in 2002, took over for Sonya Stephens, the last permanent president at Mount Holyoke, who departed last June.

Since 2014, Holley has served as dean and professor of law at the Howard University School of Law in Washington, where she raised the stature and visibility of that historically important law school as a leading educator of social and racial justice lawyers.

Holley observes there are similarities between the two historically important legacy schools, Mount Holyoke being the oldest of the seven women’s colleges, and Howard being the oldest of the historically Black colleges.

But she is also aware of the challenges facing all institutions of higher education, including keeping higher education affordable and being able to provide suitable financial aid for those who need it.

Holley comes to the college as it set a new record with over 5,000 applicants for undergraduate admission for next year. It also concluded its $41.5 million “Meet the Moment” scholarship initiative and established a Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation Campus Center in collaboration with the American Association of Colleges and Universities.

That the selectivity of who’s admitted is increasing shows that prospective students across the country appreciate the college’s values. “What we’re seeing with applications affirms the best vision of Mount Holyoke,” Holley said.

College officials offered praise for Holley’s credentials.

“In addition to her exceptional leadership and ability to cultivate shared purpose, President-elect Holley brings a strong vision for what Mount Holyoke is and, more importantly, what our college can become,” said Karena V. Strella, who chairs the board of trustees. “She has a strong track record of strategic growth and innovation, which will serve us well.”

“President-elect Holley is widely recognized for her broad intellectual interests and curiosity, as well as for her rigorous advancement of racial and social justice in the legal field and beyond,” Strella added.

Holley thanked the trustees and Presidential Search Committee for her appointment.

“My own liberal arts education helped me find my path forward, and what Mount Holyoke gives to its students will stay with them long after they graduate,” Holley said.

Wayne A.I. Frederick, president of Howard University, offered his congratulations.

“Dean Holley has led the law school to unprecedented heights, including moving the Howard University Law School rankings into the top 100 in the U.S. News & World Report, establishing the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center and driving applications to all-time highs, to highlight just a few,” Frederick said. “Her presence and impact will be truly missed on our beloved campus.”

Other achievements during Holley’s tenure were the introduction of a six-year bachelor of arts and law degree program, the launch of experiential learning and career preparation initiatives with World Bank, Microsoft and Amazon Studios, and a significant increase in fundraising.

Holley’s publications, presentations, and media appearances focus on civil rights and equity topics, including desegregation, racial discrimination and affirmative action, the history of the civil rights movement, diversifying K-12 pipelines to higher education, admission of undocumented immigrants to public colleges and universities, women in academic leadership and reproductive rights. She is considered a leading scholar of the impending Supreme Court decisions regarding race-conscious college and university admissions.

“President-elect Holley’s wide expertise and knowledge will undoubtedly be an asset to our college and our community,” said Mona Sutphen, a trustee who co-chaired the Presidential Search Committee. “As law and society have become increasingly intertwined, President-elect Holley has enthusiastically risen to meet the critical need for interdisciplinary legal scholarship.”

Yihan Zhang, one of the two student representatives on the Presidential Search Committee, added that Holley will be dedicated to strengthening inclusivity at Mount Holyoke.

As a close observer of the Supreme Court and its looming decision on race-conscious admissions policies, Holley said she is not optimistic that the justices will keep a 50-year precedent in place, though even if the practices at Harvard and the University of North Carolina end, that won’t change how Mount Holyoke approaches its admissions.

“For schools like Mount Holyoke, we’re in great shape because we’re mission driven,” Holley said. “Our admission program is one that is clearly constitutional.”

Though she hasn’t made her home in the Pioneer Valley previously, Holley said she is excited about living in western Massachusetts and calling South Hadley home.

“People will see me out and about,” Holley said, adding that she wants to show off the benefits Mount Holyoke brings to the town and the region.

Holley’s career has also included being professor for education law and associate dean for academic affairs at the University of South Carolina, serving on the faculty of Hofstra University School of Law and practicing law as an associate at Fulbright & Jaworski in Houston. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Yale University and a juris doctorate from Harvard Law School, and she was a law clerk to Judge Carl E. Stewart on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.]]>