Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts President Mary Grant is reflecting on her time at the college as she enters her final semester. Last week, Grant was announced as the next chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Asheville.
Mary Grant may have had more of a connection to MCLA and its surrounding community than any other college president before her.
“I will miss this place terribly, but it will always be a part of me and that’s very comforting,” Grant said. “That’s very comforting.”
Though she is the 11th person to hold the office, Grant was the first alumna, getting an undergraduate sociology degree from the then-North Adams State College.
“I had experiences to do things here that helped shaped me and eventually surprise, surprise bring me back as president,” Grant said. “I mean when I graduated from here I never would have imagined that I’d come back as president, but now I can sure say to students ‘Don’t rule it out!’”
Grant will finish out the fall semester at MCLA before assuming the chancellery position at UNC Asheville January 5th, replacing Anne Ponder, who is retiring after nine years at the helm. Grant didn’t apply for the job, but instead was nominated by fellow college leaders from around the country. She says she felt very moved when she read what they had written about her.
“Because you don’t look around, opportunities really have to find you,” said Grant.
Both schools are members of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges which Grant saw as important when considering the change.
“If you’re going to be leaving something that you love, where you go matters and so this just felt right,” Grant said. “The more I learned about it, met the people on that campus, I thought ‘I could see myself here.’ These are good people. They care about the same things that I do. They care about the same things that the people at MCLA care about which is the best public higher liberal arts education we can make available and student-centered.”
Since taking over at MCLA in 2002, Grant says she is most proud of the increased connections within the community and to Boston — seen as especially important after the college changed its name five years before. She says it means a lot when families see North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright on campus at accepted students’ day.
“His favorite line is ‘MCLA…my college right from the start, North Adams…your city right from the start,” Grant explained. “So Dick has worked off of our tag line and he means that. Before Dick, we had great support from Mayor John Barrett. We’ve had those deep connections. Several of the city councilors are MCLA alums. Teachers in the schools are MCLA alums.”
MCLA has a combined undergraduate and graduate enrollment of nearly 2,500 students with concentrations in the arts and social and physical sciences. More than 3,600 students attend UNC Asheville. Under Grant’s leadership, MCLA has opened a new science center, joined the Massachusetts State University System and secured the largest financial gift in school history. Tyler Fairbank chairs MCLA’s Board of Trustees.
“You look at the student body, you look at graduation rates, you look at application rates and you look at the performance of the student body…every metric that you measure success by we’ve seen dramatic improvement,” Fairbank said. “When you start adding them all together this is a very, very different institution. We have got tremendous, tremendous momentum right now.”
Fairbank says the board will soon meet to decide how it will go about selecting the next president through an exhaustive national search.
“We will be very inclusive in this process,” Fairbank said. “We really want to make sure that we listen to this community here that is around, surrounding and embracing MCLA and the stakeholder groups. Get a really good understanding of what it is that people who are within the system and people who are working in this community want and need.”
Kevin Kinser chairs the department of educational administration and policy studies at the University at Albany. He says as the figurehead, a college president or chancellor sets the agenda for campus life, academic achievement and fundraising within and outside a surrounding community.
“It also helps to have a rolodex that’s broader than just the local community,” Kinser said. “A rolodex that can bring in people who you can sell on a national level what the agenda is of the institution to broaden the potential base for funding and interest in the institution. To bring attention to the institution on a national and even international scale. All of this helps build enrollment particularly for a public institution where the value of an out-of-state student or international student is so much greater because the tuition levels are higher.”
Grant says she will cherish these last moments of her final semester at MCLA, like welcoming a new class of students. Fairbank says those who know Grant are taking the news of her departure with both smiles and tears. Steve Klass, Vice President of Campus Life at nearby Williams College, agrees.
“When I arrived here in 2006 I had an empty office except for one little envelope that was on my desk,” Klass recalled. “It was a handwritten welcome note from Mary. That was a wonderful introduction to the kind of person that she is.