When Pareena Lawrence rose to address Tuesday’s crowd at Hollins University, she said her journey to this moment felt at once improbable and yet like the natural culmination of a path she’s been walking since childhood.
“I truly feel this is a homecoming, even though it’s a half a world away from my original home,” she said.
Lawrence, a provost and chief academic officer at Illinois-based Augustana College, was announced Tuesday as the next president of Hollins University.
Born in India, she’ll be the first minority woman to lead the 175-year-old campus. She’ll be installed as Hollins’ 12th president in July, succeeding President Nancy Oliver Gray, who’s retiring.
“Pareena embodies all that is a Hollins woman: smart, articulate, warm, caring, and engaged, and aligned with our mission,” said Alexandra Trower, a Hollins trustee and member of the presidential search committee.
“She has the ability to execute with excellence while always looking ahead toward a great vision and strategy.”
The chairwoman of the search committee, Hollins alum and retired Yale University vice president Linda Lorimer, summed up the leadership’s feeling by quoting one person who was part of Lawrence’s final, three-hour interview for the job.
“Wow, wow, wow,” Lorimer quoted. “We can stop our work now. We’ve found our president.”
Lawrence, who was the first in her family to graduate from a four-year college, earned a doctorate in economics from Purdue University and published papers on a wide range of topics, including women as policymakers and service learning.
She joined Augustana College in 2011 as its first female dean. Her work at the small, nationally ranked, private liberal arts college included overseeing the development of the campus’ strategic plan and introducing innovations in student services and career development opportunities.
She previously taught at the University of Minnesota at Morris where she rose to chairwoman of the Division of Social Sciences and earned the UM system’s outstanding teacher award.
Lawrence won the job at Hollins after an extensive national search that began last spring and was led by a committee that included faculty, a student representative and current and former trustees.
The committee — seeking a candidate who could connect with Hollins’ long-held values and traditions but also nudge it into the future — was struck by Lawrence’s depth of experience on both the academic and administrative sides of higher education.
Lawrence was a leader who invited students into her home on holidays, dedicated herself to furthering diversity and inclusiveness, and thought critically about the challenges facing small, liberal arts colleges, officials said.
“We on the search committee saw how indefatigable she is,” Lorimer said. “ As one faculty leader at Augustana noted: She gets stuff done.”
Lawrence, 49, was introduced to the Hollins campus Tuesday during an event at the Jessie Ball duPont Chapel that included speeches, song and the presentation of Hollins memorabilia to tide her over until July.
When first approached about the job here, she said, she thought back to her own days attending an all-girls high school in India.
“Education provided me with the opportunity to dream and to change my circumstances and climb the ladder of opportunity,” she said, adding her high school, in particular, had a “transformational” effect on her.
“I grew in self-confidence, found my voice, developed in grit and determination.”
Joining Hollins, the first chartered women’s college in Virginia, felt like coming full circle, she said. Her school experience had enriched her because she “had great teachers, mentors and classmates who supported me and challenged me. Doesn’t that sound a lot like Hollins?”
In the coming months, Lawrence will prepare for the transition by studying up on Hollins’ operations, talking with campus members and visiting when her schedule at Augustana allows.
“I pledge to you that I will listen deeply and work tirelessly with the entire Hollins community to continue to provide you with an excellent education in a supportive and inclusive environment,” she said to Hollins students.
“I know I have a lot to learn and a lot of listening ahead of me. However, I cannot think of a more meaningful pursuit… . I am ready to roll up my sleeves and co-author together the next chapter of this extraordinary institution’s future.”