Last Friday at about 12:45 p.m., the bell in Taylor Tower pealed riotously as an e-mail invited the campus community to an afternoon reception for Bryn Mawr's next president. Despite the short notice, hundreds of community members packed into Thomas Great Hall to meet Jane Dammen McAuliffe, the Georgetown University dean and Islamic-studies scholar who had just been appointed president-elect of the College. McAuliffe, the Board of Trustees announced, will replace Nancy J. Vickers on July 1.
"I had been told that the Bryn Mawr community is both close-knit and welcoming, but I was still overwhelmed by the outpouring of warmth I received from all corners of the campus when my appointment was announced," McAuliffe told members of the Alumnae Association's executive board at a lunch on Saturday. "I'm delighted to be joining such a caring, engaged community."
A Facebook group titled "The Jane Dammen McAuliffe Fan Club" had attracted 133 members at last count. Students, who fondly refer to Vickers as "Nancy J.," have already christened McAuliffe "J-Mac."
Vickers had nothing but praise for her successor-to-be. "She brings a wonderful range of experience to the job, and I am very excited about what her presidency portends for the future of the College," she said. "I think she's going to be terrific."
"We're exhilarated by the positive responses from the community," said Professor of Social Work Cynthia Bisman, who served on the presidential search committee. "The outpouring of support for this appointment makes all our hard work worthwhile."
McAuliffe's background as an expert on Muslim-Christian relations inspired particular enthusiasm. In addition to producing a formidable record of scholarly publications on Islamic perceptions of Christianity and its sacred texts, she has served both the Vatican and the Anglican Church as an adviser on present-day relations between followers of the two religious traditions. She plans to continue that work after assuming the presidency, she says.
Sabra Bhat '10, the co-president of the Bryn Mawr-Haverford Muslim Students' Association, met McAuliffe on Friday afternoon.
"I'm so excited that our president is going to be a scholar of Islamic studies," she said. "I think that will really open doors for people to learn about a religion that has been badly misunderstood."
Trustee Cheryl Holland '80, who was a member of the search committee, cited McAuliffe's work on Islamic-Christian relations as a significant factor in McAuliffe's appeal.
"She has a history of bridging communities, of promoting understanding between cultures," Holland said. "She speaks very eloquently of Bryn Mawr's potential as a platform for advancing the cause of women's education globally, and she has the international, intercultural experience to develop that potential."
Search committee member Elizabeth McCormack, a professor of physics, was impressed by McAuliffe's commitment to the sciences.
"It is exciting that someone with her scholarly background in the humanities has such a solid command of issues in science and math education. She understands how important scientific literacy is to informed citizenship, and she believes that women's colleges have a leadership role in addressing the gender imbalance in science and technology fields."
Those who met her also noted the apparent ease with which McAuliffe establishes personal relationships.
"Everyone noticed how well she listens," said Diane Craw, who served as the Staff Association's representative on the search committee. "On a campus visit, she was introduced to several members of the staff from all three categories—administrative-professional, service-craft, and clerical-technical. She engaged all of them in conversations about what they do at the College and seemed to enjoy learning about their work."
Alumnae Association President Mary Berg Hollinshead '69 agreed that McAuliffe is "a superb listener. She struck us as enormously intelligent and effective, and she clearly focuses that intellect on the person who is speaking to her. She pays high-quality attention."
Hollinshead said that the members of the Alumnae Association's executive board appreciated the fact that McAuliffe and her husband, Dennis, stayed at the College another day after her appointment was announced in order to meet with the alumnae group.
Dennis McAuliffe is a distinguished scholar of medieval and Renaissance literature who will have a faculty appointment in Bryn Mawr's Italian department. The couple has four adult children.
"It's gratifying, for many alumnae, to see a woman with children reach this level of academic achievement," said Hollinshead, a classical archaeologist who is on the faculty of the University of Rhode Island.
Bryn Mawr's two male presidents—James E. Rhoads, who held the office from 1885 to 1894, and Harris Wofford, whose term ran from 1970 to 1978—were parents while they held office, but none of the women who have led the college has had children.
Talia Greenwald '09, the undergraduate representative on the committee, said that her role in the search, though intensely demanding, was an education in itself.
"I had never realized how many demands there are on a leader from different sectors of the community. One of the best things about Jane is the way she can adapt herself to the people she's dealing with. There's no one way to talk to, or listen to, everybody in the Bryn Mawr community. And she is very sensitive to the nuances of communication with individuals. You can see that in her sense of humor—she knows when to crack a joke and when she shouldn't."
Greenwald was also impressed by McAuliffe's determination.
"She has faced some serious obstacles in her life, but she has always found a way," Greenwald said. "She didn't go about her education in the most conventional way; she forges her own path, and she hasn't let her past determine where she goes. She came from a strong Roman Catholic background, for example, but she has become one of the world's foremost authorities on Islam."
Search committee chair Arlene Gibson '65 summed it up: "Looking at the list of attributes we articulated as desirable in a president in our call for nominations, I see that Jane McAuliffe fulfills all, especially the last, 'a flexible mind and thoughtful spirit.'"
Posted 2/14/2008 by Claudia Ginanni