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Fox Transitions From 20-Year Transformational Career

In two decades of leading Mary Baldwin University, Dr. Pamela R. Fox has overseen changes that propelled the institution into the future.

Dr. Pamela R. FoxDr. Pamela R. FoxPhoto Courtesy of Mary Baldwin UniversityAs Fox heads into her next chapter, she leaves Mary Baldwin as its longest-serving president in 100 years and its most transformational. Among her many achievements during her 20 years at the university are overseeing the transition from a women’s college to a co-ed university and launching a new college for healthcare professionals. For her many accomplishments, the Virginia General Assembly formally honored her in February.

Fox said there are many details that go into an orderly transition. Her last official day is June 30, but she anticipates she will be actively consulting for several months. “It’s [an] optimal time for new leadership,” said Fox.

Fox describes herself as an idea generator. When she arrived at Mary Baldwin, her vision included getting to know the community, elevating existing programs, and supporting the school’s diversity and inclusivity. She took her first year to formulate her vision.

“I called it ‘Composing Our Future’ from my musical background,” said Fox, who is a pianist and musicologist. “It was really to lift up, determine where investment was needed, begin to raise funds to do that. My vision was to elevate the excellence of the institution that I came to lead.”

That vision evolved over the years. Her job involved considering what was ahead and what was possible.

Music fuels her thought process in many ways. She said she knows she is going to compose a whole piece as well as conceive its parts and notes she has never generated a vision based upon a financial constraint. Mary Baldwin is not a wealthy institution, but Fox said she believes in the power of ideas and loves to raise money.

“It’s a matching of possibility — what’s bold, but believable or maybe what’s audacious and achievable,” Fox said. “When you peek around the corner like that, you have to peek as things change — as society and the economy change, as trends in higher education change. 

“I would say I’ve had at least three vision iterations over these past two decades — the one when I came, post-great recession when we began to envision a whole new endeavor by building a college of health science and then to really build the components of a small distinctive university,” she continues. “Each time we’ve generated a big enough idea that had feasibility and business sense behind it, the money has been forthcoming to fund it. That’s how we built the college of health sciences.”

Fox recalled the board thinking that was a great idea, but perhaps not doable due to a $30 million cost. Within two months, she had raised $15 million and the board approved the project.

There are strong regional partners. For example, the main hospital system in the area of Virginia where the university is located was a partner in the College of Health Sciences. The university also works within the economic development and business needs of the area, so the county also invested.

There are also some significant alumni donors supportive of various initiatives, including a single donor who has provided $50 million during Fox’s presidency. Not all loyal donors are able to contribute substantial amounts, but they have been consistently supportive of projects that serve Mary Baldwin well. Relationships with foundations have also been a huge support. Non-alumni have been invited to join the board of trustees, broadening the university’s sphere of influence.

Diversity and inclusivity are priorities for Fox. She said the institution is very proud of its social mobility ranking and its commitment to Pell recipients and first-generation college students. Faculty should be committed to teaching the diverse student body.

“I also like breadth and depth,” Fox said. “Even though we’re a teaching institution, the nature of passion that a faculty member has for his, her or their research is important because that ignites some spark in students.”

Among many achievements, the seminal events of Fox’s presidency were the transition from a college (founded in 1842) to a university and making the institution coeducational. Fox acknowledges going coed, which happened in 2017, was not an easy process.

“For us, it was a necessity that we be able to extend our mission to men,” Fox said. “The approach we took was to create an ongoing entity, the Mary Baldwin College for Women, which is a choice when students enter. They have women’s-only residences. They have leadership and co-curricular programming. There is a dean of the College for Women.”

That college even occupies a building at the heart of the campus. The central value of transmitting women’s heritage and issues in the curriculum and the way Mary Baldwin’s history is celebrated are maintained. Fox said the male students, who comprise about 36% of the student population, respect the values of the institution. While the vibe on campus has changed, including having a slate of men’s varsity sports, the sense of community on campus remains.

The Murphy Deming College of Health Sciences opened in 2014, adding 30 new degrees or programs as well as Mary Baldwin’s first doctoral degrees. Focus areas include nursing, business, health sciences, social work, autism studies, physical and occupational therapy and more. Fox describes it as “phenomenally successful” with graduation rates around 90% and licensure pass rates near 100%.

Without a doubt, the pandemic caused upheaval. The campus closed in March 2020, but in June 2020 the new doctoral cohorts in physical and occupational therapy were due to arrive. The school opened to welcome those cohorts. They learned in pods and had a different approach to their graduate education. Clinical rotations for the upper students were being cancelled because hospitals couldn’t accommodate them. Some of the didactic and professional curriculum were flipped. Despite the pandemic-related disruptions, the students graduated on time. Fox praises faculty, some of whom were frontline workers, for their dedication.

In 1975, Mary Baldwin was the first higher education institution in Virginia to offer distance education, which was then called the Adult Degree Program. It obviously evolved over the decades, especially during Fox’s presidency, becoming a fully online offering. Today, it is a significant portion of the university’s mission and revenue.

In reflection, Fox said she has greatly enjoyed being part of the Mary Baldwin community and the collaborative efforts that have gone into accomplishing the many exciting developments.

“Obviously, for a presidency to have longevity you have to be present and have your pulse on everybody in the community,” she said. “I’ve enjoyed the fundraising particularly. … My greatest joys have been seeing visions realized fully to fruition and succeeding.”

Her routine has involved getting out of the office every day and walking through the main campus buildings. Fox goes to the dining hall once or twice a week and she shows up at sporting events. She also spends time with student leadership. Fox and her husband, Dan Layman, have also tried to start some special traditions including a big Halloween festival and Layman happens to be a master pumpkin carver. There is a holiday open house for which Layman bakes gingerbread squirrel (school’s mascot) cookies.

Of course, Fox and Layman will be vacating the President’s house on campus, but they won’t be going far. About 10 years ago, they bought a small mountain farm about 30 minutes away to which they’ll relocate. For the future, she envisions working to assist other similar institutions in areas of innovation.

“I definitely want to be a resource to other presidents and other institutions,” Fox said. “I would also like to do leadership and mentoring. … I still am a practicing pianist, so one of the most important things is that I will be able to play a lot more.”    

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