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As Stephens College president, Dianne Lynch makes her students her 'life's work'

Lynch knows the name of every undergraduate student by the time they graduate and wants to help her students break down barriers

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Dianne Lynch

Lynch attends all the Stephens College events she can fit into her schedule, but still wishes she could go to even more, she says.

Dianne Lynch has an autobiography that hasn’t been published. “It was fascinating and gripping,” she says. It was also only 12 pages long. “On my seventh birthday, I cried because I hadn’t been published yet. I was a storyteller from the time I could talk.”

Lynch, no longer the journalist she started as but now the president of Stephens College, jokes that she first decided to study journalism by reviewing a list of majors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that didn’t require math. But she knew she was always going to be a writer, even before her early memoir.

Although she has been in education for years now, she considers herself a journalist first. Her long list of jobs backs that up, too: columnist at USA Today and ABC News, founding director of the Online News Association and even her first teaching job — an editing class at UW.

“I don’t think I ever introduce myself to anybody with any more than 30 seconds of conversation without somehow finding a way to tell them I used to be a journalist,” she says. “Journalism is in my soul.” Lynch says she’s insatiably curious. She wants to look at other people’s travel photos to learn about where they’ve been. And her open-door policy makes it easy for Stephens College students and faculty to bring her their vacation pictures.

She’d surely love to hear about her students’ trips to Hawaii or Europe, but her openness is mostly utilized to better the college. Lynch, who has been the school’s president for a decade, is all about making sure Stephens is doing the best by its students. She holds open forums, attends every campus event she can and knows the names of every undergraduate student by the time they graduate.

“She really listens, and she really likes to be a part of the problem-solving,” says Leslie Willey, Stephens College’s vice president for academic affairs.

Lynch is student-oriented and wants to help them break down barriers, a goal she started pursuing early on in her Stephens tenure. In her second year as president, she started Stephens’ Magic Moments, a program that funds learning experiences that happen outside of the classroom. Often, it allows students to take opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. One student, who Lynch says had never been out of Missouri, was presented an opportunity in New York City and was able to pursue it because of the program. That student has since moved to the Big Apple.

Lynch’s curiosity is what brought her back to Columbia, despite the fact that she visited once in 1993 and declared it a town too humid for people to actually live in. While serving as dean of Ithaca College’s Roy H. Park School of Communications, a position she held from 2004 to 2009, she saw a job opening at a small women’s college in Columbia, Missouri — Stephens College.

The further she looked into it, the more interested she was. She brought the idea to her friend, Ithaca’s business school dean, Susan Engelkemeyer. Dumbfounded, she asked Lynch what interested her about it because she had actually graduated from Stephens.

Lynch knew then it was the place for her. Her friend and colleague is a brilliant woman, she thought, and if she was an alumna, the job was at least worth checking out.

She visited Columbia for the second time in her life to interview for the position in 2009 and has since made it her home. It has become everything to her. “This is a life’s work,” she says. “This is a place where you’re contributing to something bigger than yourself.”

That idea is something Lynch has imbued into the culture of the college during her tenure. “Whenever we’re interviewing someone, it’s like, ‘This isn’t a job, this is a life’s work,’” Willey says.

The school still fascinates her to this day. “This institution has done things differently for 100 years and entirely based in the premise that women can do anything, which is, hello, true,” she says, before adding that not many institutions are grounded inthat idea.

Stephens is and will continue to be Lynch’s life work. Every day is packed with meetings and events that make the school a better place, and she has the examples to show for it. Just go ask her; she loves to talk. Maybe someday, she’ll put some more of those examples in her autobiography.

Speaking of which, it probably needs some updating.

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Occasional writer. Mostly culture editor. Office snark provider. If you like something I wrote, tell me: lagoreconnor@gmail.com. If you don't, you can tell me that, too.

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