COLUMBIA — Everywhere she went Tuesday, new Stephens College President Dianne Lynch had questions.
When Sara Linde, an equestrian teacher in her fourth year, told her that Stephens horses like peppermints, Lynch asked, “How did you find that out?”
When Lynch met a group of Stephens theater students, she wanted opinions on the local fare: What's the best ice cream? The best place to eat? Is there air conditioning when you perform? What’s your name?
Lynch had only been in town for a night before launching her term as president of the women's college. Her inauguration will be in October. She succeeds Wendy Libby, who heads to Stetson University in Florida. Lynch flew in on Monday and moved into Tower Hall, alongside students who are on campus for summer classes. She will live there for the next month until her family arrives.
On Lynch's first morning on the job, she went on a brisk walking and driving tour of campus to familiarize herself with the school she will oversee and the students and faculty with whom she will work. Lynch looked in on a yoga lesson, horse washing at the stables, swordplay instruction in the theater and tap dance practice — taking the opportunity during breaks for quick but intense introductions.
Lynch, who left the Park School of Communication at Ithaca College in upstate New York, said she was excited about her new position and was thrilled to see her new students in action.
“You can’t understand (Stephens) completely unless you’ve seen it in action," she said . "That means you have to be where the students are.”
Lynch, 53, grew up in Madison, Wis., where she earned undergraduate and master's degrees in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She received her doctorate from McGill University in Montreal. Between her undergraduate and graduate degrees, she was a newspaper reporter. After receiving her doctorate degree, she wrote columns for both ABC.com and christiansciencemonitor.com. During graduate school, she began teaching and fell in love with it.
“There’ve been two times in my life where I walked into a professional office and felt completely at home — the first in a newsroom, the second in a classroom,” she said.
As a master’s student, Lynch studied women in journalism and realized she could combine her interests in journalism, teaching and women’s studies.
“I’ve always wanted to work at a women’s college,” she said. “I really believe in the power and potential of women’s networking and ways of women engaging in the world.”
Lynch had turned down the post as dean of the Journalism School at the University of California-Berkeley, a graduate-only program. Later, when the Stephens position opened, something resonated.
“The opportunity to be president of Stephens is a better fit for me," she said. "It deepens my broader interest in the education of women in liberal arts.”
Lynch comes to Stephens in an era of relative health; under Libby's watch, the college rebounded from low enrollment and financial woes. In 2003, Stephens was $3.8 million in debt, and undergraduate residential enrollment was at a low of 439 students. As of fall 2008, enrollment was at 754 students and the debt had significantly decreased. Spokeswoman Amy Gipson said that by fall 2010, Stephens anticipates a balanced budget.
“Following in her footsteps is impossible. Wendy’s a uniquely successful president, there’s no filling her shoes," Lynch said. "She was exactly the right leader at the right time.” Still, Lynch hopes to continue improvements to the school and to carve out a legacy for herself.
Lynch wants Stephens to be recognized as one of the top women's colleges in the country. “The institution is poised to move to the next level,” she said.
She hopes to use her journalism background to increase Stephens’ national presence but is confident in her ability to manage the business aspects of her job as well. “My background in higher education involves managing and leading an organization that is as complex as Stephens is,” Lynch said. “I know how to manage a budget.”
Lynch said she is taking time to learn about and understand Stephens College and the community surrounding it before she enacts changes. “Change is always gradual. There isn’t a moment where I’ll pull the plug or flip the switch," she said. "Change is never about extremes. Over time there will be gradual, evolutionary change at Stephens.”
Stephens students and faculty seemed pleased with their first impressions of Lynch.
“I think her background in media is great. We could use her experience in advertising and media," said Jordan Slosar, a senior in equestrian business. "She seems like she’s going to do a really good job and take us further.”
Linda Pattie, an administrative assistant in the equestrian instruction and training program, said she trusts Lynch to lead Stephens through tough economic times. “I think she’s fabulous," Pattie said. "Really down to earth and accessible, just warm. She’s a real comforting presence.”
Lynch’s family has stayed behind in Trumansburg, near Ithaca. She will commute back home on weekends until her family joins her in Columbia. Her husband, Phillip Coleman, and daughter, Annie, 11, will move to Columbia later this month or in early July after Annie finishes school in Ithaca. Lynch said her family would have moved sooner, but Annie won the lead in a school production of "Peter Pan."
“I look at my own daughter and say, 'She’s a Stephens woman,'” said Lynch, noting Annie's interests in the Stephens specialties of equestrian studies and theater. “This is the perfect place for her. Horses and theater: What’s not to like?”
Annie will learn to ride on a horse named Chopper when she arrives in Columbia.
Lynch's husband, Coleman, who coordinated chemistry labs at Ithaca, retired last week to write poetry and be a full-time parent to Annie.
Lynch has two more children from another marriage and one step-child, all of whom are in their mid-to late-20s.
Throughout her tour of Stephens College, Lynch had a curiosity for what her students and faculty were doing. She noted her journalism background as the reason. “That’s being a journalist — it’s all about asking questions," she said. "I’m always willing to try. I’m all about adventures.”
But Lynch wasn’t taken aback when the questioning turned on her. When Becky Clervi, a Western equestrian teacher asked, “So, for your first lesson to ride, what shoe size do you wear?”
Lynch replied: “Six and a half.”