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October 29, 2009 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Stephens College’s new president, Dianne Lynch, zooms into her office like a tornado of irrepressible energy and excitement. Her shoulder-length dark-blonde hair, black-framed glasses and signature red shoes pop against her black outfit.
When Lynch, 53, meets new people, she constantly asks questions — a trait she picked up during her time as a journalist. She wants to know all about those individuals — who they are, where they are from and where they want to be — even when the subject of the conversation is supposed to be her. She’s warm and approachable, yet firm and confident in her position as the new leader of Stephens. A conversation with Lynch feels like just that — an actual conversation.
WHEN: Friday, Oct. 30 9 a.m.
WHERE: Stephens Campus
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“Everybody has a story to tell,” Lynch says. “The world is full of things I don’t know, and I spend a lot of my time trying to fix that. Being a president means you have to understand the world around you in terms of your students, your market, your employees, your community, your alumni.”
Lynch is a busy woman. Not that she’s inaccessible — she blogs, she tweets, she has an iPhone, all in an effort to keep the campus community aware of events around Stephens. Lynch says she tries to interact with students by visiting classes, eating in the dining hall and doing what she calls MWA — Management by Walking Around.
But she also travels constantly to meet with alumni and attend conferences. For the day or two every week that Lynch is actually in Columbia, her day begins with dropping her 11-year-old daughter, Annie, off at school in the morning. Then she spends time responding to e-mails and phone calls, attending meetings and staying at work for a few extra hours after her staff goes home at 5 p.m. Lynch tries to spend time with her husband, a retired chemistry teacher and full-time writer, and Annie, who attends school at Columbia Independent School.
Her daughter’s interests dictate some of Lynch’s favorite spots in Columbia. Annie loves shopping, so trips downtown and to the mall are constant. To indulge Annie’s tastes for pie and French fries, the family goes to the historic 63 Diner. When Lynch is out of town, she keeps in touch with her daughter by texting and using Skype or G-chat to talk with her every night.
“Sometimes I think we actually talk to each other more when I am traveling because we aren’t just sitting next to each other on the couch, watching television or using our computers,” she says. “We’re actually face-to-face through the screen, and we’re talking.”
As an educator and a mother, Lynch knows what young women want, and she plans to use that perspective to attract students to Stephens.
Lynch’s energy, enthusiasm and communication skills are all reasons why members of the Stephens community say they are thrilled to have her as their new leader. Before coming to Columbia, Lynch was the dean of the Park School of Communications at Ithaca College in upstate New York. Her background in journalism, media and academia lend a different perspective than past Stephens presidents. Trustees and faculty are hopeful that with these skills Lynch will be able to attract new students and support to enrich programs and campus life at Stephens.
“She’s very plugged-in to the current generation,” says George Ann Harding, chair of Stephens’ board of trustees. “Someone who can identify with the current generation of college students while still being an astute adult is very attractive.”
Lynch considers herself a communicator. After her undergraduate studies at the University of Wisconsin, Lynch worked as a newspaper reporter and magazine editor. Once she went back to the University of Wisconsin and completed her master’s degree, she began teaching. Lynch has also been a columnist for ABCnews.com and The Christian Science Monitor. In 1999, she entered McGill University in Montreal and completed her doctorate degree, focusing on women and the media.
Several members on the board of trustees at Stephens hope that Lynch’s connections in the media and business world will expand Stephens’ national recognition and attract more students from every corner of the country. Today, the school hosts about 750 students, mostly from areas across the Midwest. Trustee Jill Griffith says she’s looking for Stephens to increase its student body to around 1,000 over the course of the next few years, reminiscent of her time at Stephens in the ’70s and her mother’s in the ’40s.
“Stephens College, when I was there, was a very national college with people from all over the country,” Griffith says. “It is certainly more concentrated now in the Midwest in terms of student population, and we as trustees have expressed an interest in seeing the school reach out to the entire country and try to attract a more diverse population.”
Based on her record as dean of Park School, some Park faculty members say Lynch will be able to do just that. “She had the advantage of a lot of networking established with the business community and the communications industry,” says Matt Mogekwu, chair of the journalism department at Park School. “It’s easy for her to reach out and invite and attract people who will help out in the school. She’ll sweep you off your feet.”
Current and past co-workers at Park say Lynch’s high energy is infectious. It’s one thing Lynch has in common with her predecessor, Wendy Libby, who left Stephens for Stetson University in Florida. Libby is credited by trustees and faculty alike with increasing Stephens’ enrollment and skillfully guiding the college out of financial ruin. Lynch sees her presidency as the next step for Stephens to move forward as a thriving women’s college. Like Libby, Lynch is constantly looking for opportunities to support and enrich Stephens, and is focused on guiding the school into the future, says Amy Gipson, Stephens’ Vice President for Marketing and Public Relations. Although Libby’s background was primarily in business and finance, Lynch brings different talents to the job.
“Right now the institution needs the skills that I have,” Lynch says. “That includes situating the institution academically, developing new and distinctive programs, understanding the markets, increasing our enrollment and confirming not only that we have a strong past, but that we have a strong future.”
The school’s roots are in “preparing students for the lives that await them,” and Lynch is working to do just that. Harding, a retired lawyer who divides her time between homes in Colorado and Texas, graduated from Stephens in ’58 when the school still focused on home economics and had a reputation as a finishing school. Although Stephens has certainly changed since then, Lynch is committed to keeping the college true to tradition.
At the college’s inception more than 175 years ago, most women’s lives centered around work in the home. Today, Lynch says preparing students means a strong grounding in the liberal arts while keeping them looking ahead to develop skills that are competitive in a constantly changing world. “Stephens students need to be confident that they solved the last problem, and they can solve the next problem,” Lynch says. “They need to be comfortable with change because change is the only constant.”
For Lynch, this preparedness includes strengthening the institution’s signature equine, fashion design and theater programs. Her goal is to build on Stephens’ current foundation with input from students, staff, faculty and the community.
Stephens English professor Tina Parke-Sutherland describes Stephens as “injured” before the leadership of Libby. With Lynch, Parke-Sutherland believes the traditions of Stephens will be solidified.
“Dianne can stand on that firm foundation and really work toward giving our programs that national attention they need and working for new ways to serve young women,” Parke-Sutherland says.
While at Ithaca, Lynch was known for encouraging faculty to explore new directions and creating what she called a culture of “yes.” Chair of the cinema department at Ithaca, Elisabeth Nonas, says Lynch encouraged faculty members to incorporate the changing world into their classes, and this translated into a new level of openness with the students — whom she always encourages to stop by her office — and whose accomplishments she posted on her blog.
“She made herself accessible to the faculty,” Nonas says. “She encouraged faculty to move in different directions, try new things, explore new areas of study that were relevant to one’s area of communications.”
Lynch has developed a similar blog at Stephens and wants the same open-door policy. “I can’t speak for everybody, but it had been a long time at Stephens since we had someone who was and thought of herself as a faculty person in that slot,” Parke-Sutherland says. “She really feels like one of us (faculty and students) already. It feels like the sun is starting to shine on Stephens again.”
Lynch started at Stephens on June 1. Her official inauguration celebration, which takes place Oct. 28-30, continues her seamless integration into the Stephens community. Jordan Lilienthal, one of two students on the search committee for the new Stephens president, said near the beginning of the semester that she was constantly impressed with how many students Lynch already knew by name.
Originally from Madison, Wis., Lynch says she is looking forward to living in the Midwest again after 25 years on the East Coast. She’s thrilled with how inviting the community has been toward her. Lynch has met dozens of city employees, university officials and Columbia residents who have all made her feel welcome.
When in Columbia, Lynch indulges her hobbies of traveling, photography, reading and hiking. She has found the local trails, parks and downtown to her liking. After only four months in town, she’s a member of the Rotary Club, the Women’s Symphony League and a board member of the United Way Foundation. And there’s one special thing about Columbia Lynch has quickly learned not only to tolerate but also to enjoy — the local media.
“There is more journalism here than anywhere else I’ve ever been,” Lynch says. “It’s wonderful and thriving. This city is remarkably invested in the success of journalism and the journalism students.”
Her willingness to embrace the plentiful local media is representative of her down-to-earth attitude as a whole. Lynch says she’s not about titles bringing respect — but rather from actions
that have warranted respect. She asks students to call her Dianne, not Dr. Lynch.
The Stephens community is already bursting with pride at having Lynch as its leader, and she couldn’t be more proud of the students.
“I believe in the future of this institution and its contribution,” Lynch says. “Our alumnae remember their time at Stephens as the most extraordinary time of their lives. The culture here says to women you can do anything you want, not only in your future, but you can do anything you want right now.”