Danielle Ren Holley is breaking ground. The Howard University law professor and dean has been named Mount Holyoke College’s first permanent Black female president in the institution’s 186-year history. She will step into her role on July 1, 2023.
“I’m just really excited to lead such a dynamic and important institution like Mount Holyoke,” said Holley in an interview with Diverse. “I think its values, what it represents, is the best of higher education.”
Mount Holyoke is a gender-inclusive women’s college in Massachusetts, one of the historic Seven Sisters, a group of highly selective women’s liberal arts institutions in the Northeast. Mount Holyoke is currently under the leadership of interim president Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, president emerita of Spelman College, a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) like Howard.
Holley spent nine years at Howard, a time she called “transformative.” Under her leadership, the law school increased its national profile, created new programming and pulled in more funding and resources.
“This is a full-circle moment for me, because Dean Holley was my very first hire as president of Howard in 2014,” said Dr. Wayne A. I. Frederick who has announced plans to step down as president by next June. “Dean Holley has led the law school to unprecedented heights, establishing the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center and driving applications to all-time highs. Her presence and impact will be truly missed on our beloved campus.”
Holley said Howard and Mount Holyoke share similar connections, as both were established to serve and uplift populations marginalized by white patriarchal society.
“In so many educational institutions, unfortunately, students, faculty, staff and alumni feel their identity—racial, gender, sexual orientation, religion—are things that hold them back in their institution,” said Holley. “What I see at Mount Holyoke I also experienced at Howard. Every part of who you are, those are things that should be celebrated, those are core parts of our identities, those help us make critical change in the world and enhance educational environments.”
Holley added that mission-driven institutions have never been more important than now, “in such an era of censorship, book burning, and a denial of history.”
“Mount Holyoke was founded to challenge the idea that women did not need a liberal arts education,” said Holley. “What Mount Holyoke continued to demonstrate in almost 200 years is that having highly educated women and people marginalized by the basis of gender in their communities is one of the most critical things we can do in higher education.”
Mount Holyoke’s board unanimously elected Holley after a thorough search led by trustee, Mount Holyoke alumna, and former White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy in the Obama administration, Mona Sutphen.
“As law and society have become increasingly intertwined, President-elect Holley has enthusiastically risen to meet the critical need for interdisciplinary legal scholarship,” Sutphen said in a statement. “She will provide a unique, necessary, and advantageous lens through which to focus on the liberal arts.”
The search committee included two student representatives. One, Yihan Zhang, said it was an “enormous honor” to help elect Holley to the position, adding that Holley will “be dedicated to strengthening inclusivity at our cherished College."
By becoming the leader of Mount Holyoke, Holley said she will be continuing the legacy of diversity that already exists in the community. Almost a quarter of Mount Holyoke students are international, and another quarter identify as domestic students of color. Financial aid packages for first-year students average $47,930, and Holley said there are a large number of Pell Grant recipients in attendance.
As president, Holley said she looks forward to finding new ways to bridge students from their liberal arts studies into careers, graduate schools, and professional programs, “demonstrating why a liberal arts education is a critical foundation for anything [students] want to do.”
“At my core, I’m a teacher and a scholar. My work as an academic leader is an extension of the love of being in the classroom,” said Holley. “At Mount Holyoke, we inspire people and make people feel like the best of who they are. I can’t wait to represent Mount Holyoke in the U.S. and around the world, talking about the core values at Mount Holyoke that should be found in every institution of higher education around the country.”
Liann Herder can be reached at email@example.com.