Head Of The Class
President Dianne Lynch Guides Stephens College To A New Era
by JANESE SILVEY
Special to Inside Columbia’s CEO
Stephens College President Dianne Lynch doesn’t like to brag that the college has operated in the black since she arrived.
Budgets should be balanced, she’ll tell you.
But as most longtime Columbians know, that hasn’t always been the case for the second-oldest women’s college in the country. And longtime employees know that a balanced budget is a big deal.
“I think operating with a consistently balanced budget — really for the first time since I came to Stephens in 1991 — puts us on secure footing in many ways,” English professor Tina Parke-Sutherland says. “It’s the starting point for sustainable growth.”
Parke-Sutherland remembers all too well a time when the college was in serious trouble, living on borrowed dollars under a shroud of controversy.
It was just 15 years ago that a fire destroyed Gordon Manor, a historic mansion located in Stephens Park, then owned by the college. The November 1998 fire was ruled arson, a crime that was never solved.
The blaze ushered in a bleak era for the college. Although the mansion, listed in the National Register of Historic Places since 1983, was the oldest brick structure in Boone County, the college had lacked the funds to maintain it and it had long been in poor condition. Damaged beyond repair, the burned-out remnant of Gordon Manor was razed, and the property was sold to the city of Columbia for development as a park.
Along with the building, Stephens’ reputation was crumbling. A look through the archives of the student publication Stephens Life shows that over the next five years embattled administrators faced a faculty vote of no confidence, community backlash over the sale of college properties and protests from students who felt they had no say in their own education. Some longtime Stephens staffers remember talk that the college would have to close its doors.
Lynch’s predecessor, Wendy Libby, stopped the bleeding when she arrived on campus in 2003.
“One of the first steps to turning around any organization is to rebuild trust, and that’s what she did,” Lynch says. “She convinced stakeholders — both locally and nationally — that Stephens was rising from the ashes and would have a future.”
Lynch is building on Libby’s legacy as she puts her own stamp on Stephens’ future. Her first step was a return to the past. Since her appointment to the college presidency in 2009, Lynch has studied the tenure of former Stephens President James Madison Wood, who steered the college through significant growth from 1912 through the 1940s. Wood based his decisions on what was best for students, and that model shaped Stephens College.
Lynch adopted the student-centered philosophy and expanded it beyond Wood’s credo to base campus decisions on what’s best for the student body, Parke-Sutherland says. Lynch gets to know each student as an individual.
“Few people have the opportunity to say they know their college president — not just know their name, but actually know them personally,” senior Angel Mendez says. “Over the past three years, I have had the opportunity to get to know and love President Lynch. Dianne has this ability to make all of the huge issues and decisions in your life seem so simple with one change of thought. As I near college graduation, those issues and decisions come far too often, and Dianne has eased those fears of what lies ahead just through simple conversation and understanding.”
Offering unprecedented availability to students, Lynch hosts campuswide student forums to hear concerns and makes time when a student just wants to talk. She gives serious consideration to students’ ideas, often providing resources to help them implement those ideas. When a transfer student expressed interest in celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month last fall, Lynch helped her organize a Latin Night. When a freshman mentioned she’d like to meet more classmates, Lynch opened her home to a freshman class dinner. When the soccer team won its first game, she met the team early the next morning at Stephens Lake Park to deliver flowers to every player and the coaches. In September, when students took to Facebook to describe rising stress levels, Lynch had cookies and hot tea delivered to every residence hall.
“Her core principle is ‘students first’ and that is evidenced by her open-door policy and the time she takes to go to events and interact with students in ways rarely seen at a presidential level,” says Susan Bartel, dean of the School of Organizational Leadership and Strategic Communication. “She is truly committed to our students and they benefit from her support and trust, making for an amazing experience at Stephens.”
Lynch wants to make sure those experiences extend beyond campus boundaries. Several years ago, she started a fund called Magic Moments, soliciting donations to help students seize educational opportunities. That funding has helped pay for expenses such as plane tickets, allowing students to accept internships overseas or attend out-of-state conferences, and for equipment students need to complete projects.
As she enters her fifth year at the helm, Lynch’s imprint on Stephens covers more than balanced budgets and happy students. Soon after her arrival in 2009, she launched successful fundraising campaigns that have allowed the college to renovate classrooms and laboratories, and restore the President’s Home. Built in 1926, the historic property is open and occupied for the first time in more than a decade.
Early in her tenure, Lynch eliminated a layer of administration; faculty now report directly to deans. Her management style has given departments the autonomy to begin new programs that reflect job market trends. In 2013, Stephens launched a new Event and Convention Management program to prepare students for a career the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics lists as one of the hottest jobs leading into 2020. The degree is one of several three-year programs that allow students to finish college earlier, saving time and money.
“She has encouraged and supported innovation in teaching and learning, and challenged us all to think in new ways to deliver the highest-quality learning experience in the classroom,” Bartel says. “She is not reluctant to change things that are not working well and is willing to listen to different perspectives.”
On Lynch’s watch, the college has expanded its pet-friendly policies, now offering scholarships to students who foster animals through Second Chance, an area no-kill shelter. She also reinstated Vespers, a tradition from the 1920s that has been updated to allow today’s students to spend an hour of quiet time without their cellphones, gadgets and other distractions. Both actions garnered national attention.
The college has seen a boost in national rankings, as well. This year, Stephens was the only private college in mid-Missouri included in The Princeton Review’s Best 378 Colleges guide.
Lynch is continuing her predecessor’s goal to “right-size” the campus. Unlike the protests over previous campus building sales, though, the selling of Hillcrest Hall and the old auditorium/natatorium complex met with only minimal opposition in 2013. Lynch and the college’s trustees passed up offers from high-rise developers, opting instead to sell the buildings to a foundation that promised to maintain the integrity of the neighborhood.
The property’s new owner, Hagan Scholarship Foundation, tore down the buildings last summer to make way for construction of Hagan Scholarship Academy on the site. The academy will serve high-achieving high school juniors and seniors in a residential setting.
“Dianne has her vision for a better Stephens,” Bartel says. “Her decisions have led to a strong financial foundation, which opens opportunities for the future.”
It’s a future that, just 15 years ago, many weren’t sure was possible.
Janese Silvey is a story specialist/strategist in the marketing and communications department at Stephens College.
Head Of The Class