President’s corner: Why Mary Dana Hinton leads with her heart in today’s unrest

Mary Dana Hinton believes she’s earned the right to be an optimist. Growing up in a poor family in rural North Carolina, she never counted herself out. Forward to today, she has secured a new contract at Hollins University that extends her role as president until 2030 and was elected chair of the board of directors for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

As one of the few Black female college presidents in the United States, she credits higher education’s key role in getting her to her current post. But as campus protests catch like wildfire across the United States, drawing criticism from lawmakers and the public, the healing properties of higher education are being put to the test.

“It’s at this moment when you’re called to lead,” Hinton says. “It’s hard and exhausting but it’s also an energizing moment. We can change the trajectory of our students’ lives, our institutions’ lives and this nation’s future.”

More from UB: Colleges find a DEI makeover is a useful sidestep—for now

Using her influence for good

Higher education helped guide Hinton out of poverty, with the career it prepared her for to the wisdom she learned studying at Williams College, the University of Kansas and Fordham University. She aims to use her position as head of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities to deepen leaders’ commitment to helping students who are struggling to stay in school.

Of the six major presidential higher education associations, NAICU is the only organization in the U.S. solely focused on representing private, nonprofit institutions. It focuses on expanding students’ access by tackling financial aid-related issues, tax policy and government regulation. “NAICU has an incredibly valuable role to play when it comes to doubling the Pell Grant,” Hinton says. “Last year, it was one issue that had bipartisan support, so I think it’s a building block for us. It’s dollars that give students a choice about where they go to school.”

Hinton says she will double down on the association’s commitment to helping students recover from this year’s turbulent FAFSA year rollout. She also intends to study the earliest impacts of the quickly approaching demographic cliff.

The greatest challenge the association is tackling is the existential threat higher education is facing. While campus protests across the nation threaten to factionalize students, faculty and administration, Hinton finds solace in the fact that every president she has met has a deep love for students and is dedicated to higher education’s Democratic mission. It’s these two core principles that promote unity in times of political strife.

Hear President Hinton’s mantra for the particularly challenging times as a higher education leader:

How the pandemic prepared Hinton for today’s turbulence

Hinton is aware of how closely she wears her heart on her sleeve. It’s a byproduct of her humble beginnings and has become a necessary facet of her leadership philosophy.

She credits the isolation and confusion of the pandemic to the creation of the Imagination Campaign, a scholarship program enabling low-income women from within 40 miles of Hollins to attend tuition-free for four years.

“The pandemic signaled to our campus community that we were going to deal with each other as human beings first and as colleagues and employees second,” Hinton says.

“So—I would hope—if you were to go to campus and ask anyone what drives Hollins, or what drives my leadership, I would hope they would talk about love,” she adds. “I hope they talk about care, gratitude and vulnerability. Those were the things I took away from that very dark moment.”

A reflection on DEI

Hinton views the great unrest spreading across campuses through a sympathetic lens: It’s a struggle of marginalized students—including Jewish and Muslim young people—fighting to be heard and earn recognition for their causes. It’s during this time when the value of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) should be championed the most, Hinton says.

I find it interesting that we’re demanding greater inclusion when, at the same time, you hear people bristling against the notions of DEI,” Hinton says. “At its heart, DEI is to make sure that every student feels seen, heard and valued on campus.”

DEI is all about compassionate leadership and is not a zero-sum game in which one student is given preference over the other. “If it were,” Hinton concludes. “I would have been out of the game a long time ago.”

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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