HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON'S alma mater is getting a new president. On Oct. 1, Diana Chapman Walsh will take over the leadership of Wellesley College in this suburb of Boston.
The 112-year-old women's college, which enrolls 2,300 students, is one of the few colleges able to report consistently good news in the last few years.
Ranked as the leading women's college in the United States, Wellesley is listed fourth among the top 25 American liberal-arts colleges in the U.S. News & World Report college guide.
Applications are up 15 percent after high-profile commencement speeches by Barbara Bush, Raisa Gorbachev, and Mrs. Clinton. In 1991, Wellesley raised $168 million in a capital campaign that broke all records for liberal-arts colleges in the US.
Ms. Walsh replaces Nannerl Keohane, who resigned to become the first female president of Duke University.
"Wellesley is well positioned for the future," says Walsh, whose soft-spoken voice contrasts with strong athletic looks.
The next stage for the school, as Walsh sees it, is "some serious dialogue and tough-minded thinking about the role that liberal-arts institutions like Wellesley can play in engaging important social issues of the day. In Wellesley's case, particularly issues that relate to women."
The school's Center for Research on Women has made a mark nationally by releasing several controversial reports focusing on sexual harassment in schools and the educational neglect of girls.
"There are some very strong foundations on which to build," Walsh says. "It's clear that people look to a place like Wellesley as a source of thought and insight ... about the role of women in society and the pressures that women are feeling."
Walsh received an English degree from Wellesley and a PhD in health policy from Boston University. She has spent the last three years as a professor and chair of the Department of Health and Social Behavior at Harvard University's School of Public Health. Before that, she was a professor at BU for more than a decade.
"I have always been involved in social policy of one kind or another," she says. "The potential of doing that here is what really drew me to the job."
Acknowledging her lack of administrative experience, Walsh says the college's trustees were looking for something else.
"I think they were looking for a leader more than a manager. As [management guru] Warren Bennis makes the distinction: `A manager does things right but a leader does the right things.' I've got lots in my background that suggests that people appreciate my leadership. The managing structure here is very strong already. ... So I think the feeling was that the management would be under control and what was really needed was somebody who could have a vision, be a spokesperson and a leader for the institution ."
Walsh speaks of the potential for Wellesley's graduates to be "transformational leaders" who "challenge assumptions about the way we're organizing and running the world."
It's not because women have "different genes and different hormones," Walsh says, "but because they've been in the position of the `other,' as Simone de Beauvoir says. They have this critical perspective on society because they've been on the outside to some extent."
There are 84 women's colleges in the US today - down from nearly 150 in 1972. Does Walsh envision a time when Wellesley College will be coeducational?
"Wellesley looked very carefully at that question in 1970," she says. "They made a conscious, very careful, and well-reasoned decision to stay single-sex. That has clearly been the right decision so far. Wellesley is the best at what it does, and that's an enviable position to be in."
It would take change in the rest of higher education to prompt a change at Wellesley, Walsh says.
"If women are taken very seriously across all aspects of life from sports to the classroom to governance of the community; if half of the tenured faculty are women and play very important roles in running the institution at the highest levels of management; if the rest of academia were to look like that - then I'd say maybe Wellesley's job is done. But we are so far from that point that I don't see a day in the foreseeable future when a [women-only] Wellesley College won't be needed."