'The Thinker'

Janet Steinmayer is putting a period to her term as president of Mitchell College in New London. After five years and significant improvements to the campus, curriculum and student life, she will leave in June, on fairly short notice, to become president of Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass.

Leaving aside the irony of yet another top professional departing southeastern Connecticut for Cambridge, darn it, her exit is a good time to reflect on what Mitchell College has done with and for itself.

The image I get is a re-rendering of the theme of Auguste Rodin's famous sculpture, "The Thinker." This Thinker is a woman, and she is not hunched over, pondering the ground. She is working a roomful of students (or faculty or trustees or staff or parents or local citizens) in one of the advisory councils she organized for those groups to think about Mitchell because she finds that "empowering communities to see their potential is the most exciting work you can do."

When she arrived on the New London campus five years ago, the potential she spotted was "tremendous" but could benefit from some healthy self-awareness.

Mitchell is known for educating students with learning differences. It has at some points in its history also been at least tacitly known as operating on a shoestring with a high percentage of part-time faculty. Students and faculty may have anticipated that a corporate executive and lawyer-turned-college president would bring a top-down style to her new role as an academic. Rather, the nontraditional president applied some of the newer corporate culture thinking to the nontraditional student body. 

"Corporations are learning that leadership is about getting people to follow you," she says — surely one of those sentences that invites "Duh!" but isn't actually obvious until it's said out loud. "To do that you have to make sure you're reflecting the collective vision of people seeing where you're going."

Hence the advisory councils and 30 in-depth group discussions that led to and vetted the draft of a campus master plan. The conversations suggested, for example, that the weathering red barn that was originally part of Michael's Dairy was a campus and city icon, and that the ice cream business at Michael's would make a good laboratory for the hospitality and business majors. They awakened the realization that the mouth of the Thames River was being treated as just a backdrop; conversation led to viewing the campus as a New England seaside place and reorienting it toward its priceless vista.

Once said and then done, those ideas, too, seem obvious. Not so until a lot of diverse individuals reflected on the place and found they could agree on what makes Mitchell Mitchell. Diversity itself is part of the answer: different learning styles, different ages and work backgrounds in a college that has always attracted commuters, including veterans and working professionals. When the Mashantucket Pequot tribe first received federal recognition and invited members to live on the reservation, many of the newcomers started their higher education there.

Steinmayer's legacy is a Mitchell College that knows who it is. Parents know what to expect, students know where they fit in, New London knows the college is a thriving neighbor. The next president should have little trouble explaining to donors what they get when they support Mitchell College. 

Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day editorial board. 


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