They are two powerhouse women who had full and renowned careers before they became college presidents. And now, both of them have stepped away from the world of academia in just the last year, leaving behind legacies of trailblazing.
Their retirement of Hazel R. O’Leary from Fisk University and the departure of Julianne Malveaux from Bennett College represents an end of an era for two larger-than-life figures in the world of women college presidents.
O’Leary made a name for herself as the United States Secretary of Energy from 1993 until 1997 in the administration of President Bill Clinton. She was the first and only woman and the only African-American to hold that position. She went on to serve as president of Fisk University, the historically Black college in Nashville, TN, in 2004.
Similarly, Malveaux developed a national reputation as an economist, author and political commentator before becoming the 15th president of Bennett College, the historically Black college in North Carolina. She is also president and chief executive of Last Word Productions, which is a multimedia production company.
“Each of these presidents did a great deal toward developing a new kind of messaging about historically Black colleges and universities,” said John S. Wilson Jr., the recently named president of Morehouse College in Atlanta, in an interview with BET.com.
Wilson, who, previously as executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, said each of the women developed distinctive legacies during their presidencies.
“Hazel O’Leary got Fisk graduates to understand that stronger alumni support was crucial to the institution,” Wilson said. “And Julianne Malveaux, through her background with media, got Bennett College to get the kind of attention that historically Black colleges and universities need to move forward.”
In leaving Bennett, Malveaux indicated that she will devote much of her energies toward her company. "While I remain committed to historically Black colleges and universities and the compelling cause of access in higher education, I will actualize that commitment, now, in other arenas,” she said upon leaving Bennett. “I will miss Bennett College and will remain one of its most passionate advocates.”
O’Leary, the 14th president of Fisk, developed a strong reputation as a manager of a school that has seen severe financial troubles. A president, she played a major role in helping the university to regain its footing in its ability to compete for top students and for financial support. She has also received high marks in attracting highly regarded faculty.
“Our work with the board, students, faculty, staff, and alumni to transform and grow Fisk has been rewarding,” said O’Leary, who is now 75 years old.
She said that there were some regrets to her record as president of the school, most prominently the inability to increase new student enrollment during the nation’s economic downturn.
“In spite of that challenge, the public record indicates that Fisk has achieved top tier performance among liberal arts institutions in academics, student retention and engagement,” she said. “While much remains to be done, I am confident that Fisk, the institution I love and have led these past eight years, is in better shape than when I arrived, and it will continue to enjoy a long and distinguished legacy.”
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(Hazel O'Leary (l) and Julianne Malveaux. Photos from left: Courtesy of WikiCommons, Jason Merritt/Getty Images)