As one trailblazing woman exits as president, another college gets its first in 192 years

Gayle Hutchinson, the first woman and openly gay leader at a California State University institution, is departing next summer; Mary Van Brunt is set to lead Spring Hill College.
Gayle Hutchinson

Gayle Hutchinson was the first-ever woman chosen to be president in 135 years at California State University at Chico in 2016, a position she will retire from next June. A little more than 2,400 miles away in Mobile, Ala., Mary Van Brunt signed on to become the first woman president in the 192-year history of Spring Hill College to begin 2023.

Each has enjoyed careers spanning multiple decades, with success at every stop they’ve had. They represent part of an elite group of leaders that have risen to the top in the past decade as women have become far more prominent and accepted in those roles. But there’s still a long way to go, and any woman lost is a blow to the whole of higher education.

The pending departure of Hutchinson, who has propelled Chico into one of the most dynamic, socially mobile and affordable institutions in the nation, is significant. Jolene Koester, the chancellor of the Cal State system, offered Hutchinson the highest praise, calling her “a principled leader, an innovator in academic programming and student support services, and a champion for the students and broader community she serves.”

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Hutchinson, also the first openly gay president in the system’s history, will spent the coming months helping in the presidential search while assisting on other strategic goals, including its next fundraising campaign. But once the academic year is done, she will say goodbye to Chico and higher education, where she has worked for the past 34 years.

“Serving as this University’s president has been the greatest honor of my life, and I plan to spend my remaining tenure here with the same enthusiasm and dedication that have characterized my presidency,” Hutchinson said. “My life remains forever changed by the work I have been able to do, the colleagues I’ve had the privilege to work with, and the countless students who have inspired and guided me in my many roles. I look forward to what else we can do together to support student success at the highest level.”

Mary Van Brunt

At nearly the opposite end of the country and at a far different institution—the private, Jesuit Spring Hill College—Van Brunt will take over as the institution’s 39th president in January and notably its first woman to lead.

“I am delighted to have been chosen to lead Spring Hill College,” said Van Brunt. “I look forward to carrying out the centuries-old Jesuit tradition of caring for the intellectual, spiritual, and social growth of our future servant leaders. The mission coupled with the liberal arts education resonates with me and aligns with my Catholic faith and personal values.”

Jack McKinney, who helped chair the national search, said they considered “more than three dozen candidates” before selecting her to replace Joe Lee, who is retiring after four years as both interim and permanent president and many years in higher education.

“He led us through the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, helped the college develop new and award-winning academic majors, and strengthened community partnerships with the military, local businesses, and schools,” McKinney said. And like Hutchinson at Chico, he helped turn Spring Hill into one of the best colleges for return on investment in America.

Now, it will be up to Van Brunt to carry on the tradition. She previously held leading academic positions at two institutions in Pennsylvania—at Gwynedd Mercy University, where she was provost and vice president of academic affairs; and at Cabrini University, where she was dean of its School of Business, Arts and Media.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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