by Beth JoJack ’98
Here’s a telling tidbit about Hollins University President Nancy Oliver Gray: she requested any articles written about her leaving the campus after twelve and a half years of distinguished leadership focus not on her but on how the university has evolved over the course of her tenure.
“Anything I’ve accomplished has been accomplished because we did it as a team,” she says. “I really believe there’s no ‘I’ in team.”
The list of achievements runs long, but two successes in particular will forever be associated with the school’s eleventh president. One: under Gray’s leadership, Hollins made significant gains in enrollment. The largest class of incoming new students in seventeen years started in August. Two: Gray will leave the university a picture of financial health. She led Hollins during the largest comprehensive fundraising campaign in school history and the largest ever undertaken by a women’s college in the South, the Campaign for Women Who Are Going Places. It successfully concluded in 2010 with over $161 million raised, far exceeding the goal of $125 million — despite the fact that it occurred during the Great Recession.
“Hollins has been extremely fortunate to have her in the presidency, particularly at this time in the institution’s history, some parts of which have been very challenging,” Tom Barron, who sits on the Hollins Board of Trustees, said of Gray. “She was the right leader at the right time.”
The Roanoke Times said as much last summer in an editorial that largely credited Gray with Hollins’ increases in enrollment and for eliminating the school’s debt while significantly growing the endowment.
If not for her leadership, the writer surmised, Hollins could have easily gone the way of other women’s colleges which began admitting men or closed for good. “Thanks to Gray,” the editorial read, “Hollins stands as strong as the famed campus ‘rock.’”
Walking the talk
On a recent Friday night, Gray opened the President’s House for a senior cocktail party to kick off the class of 2017’s fundraising campaign for the Hollins Fund.
Creative writing major Laura Metter ’17 eagerly chatted with Gray about attending the recent Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference in Washington, D.C.
“I’m going to have to keep my eye on you, you’re going to land somewhere good,” Gray said.
“It’ll be easy to keep an eye on me seeing how I stand out,” Metter said, pointing to her hair, dyed a brilliant blue.
“I’ll loan you this jacket if you want,” Gray joked in return, pointing to her stately jacket that happened to be the same hue.
Students like Metter talk easily with Gray, whom they long ago lovingly nicknamed P. Gray. Conversations don’t become stilted when she joins the group. No one straightens their posture. It’s a comfort grown from familiarity. “She’s pretty friendly with the student body,” Metter said.
“She’s so relatable,” agreed Ashani Davidson ’17.
Gray frequently eats in Moody and turns out for swim meets. “If you invite her to an event, if she has time, she’ll come,” said Tegan Harcourt ’17, president of the Student Government Association.
During her sophomore year, Harcourt remembers the moment she saw Gray join students holding a rally on campus in support of Black Lives Matter, the movement protesting violence and systemic racism.
“She cleared her whole schedule,” Harcourt said. “She was there all day talking to students. It was something about the outside world, not something specific to Hollins, but she still made sure she knew how people were feeling.”
Gray sees getting to know students — really knowing them, beyond pleasantries and small talk — as part of her job.
“What makes Hollins, Hollins is that we’re a small community with really intimate faculty/student relationships,” she said. “I’ve got to walk the talk. I try to go to as many events as I can. I try to go to lunch. If I don’t have time to sit down, I at least talk to people. I think it’s really important.”
She makes those same efforts with faculty, staff, alumnae, parents, and members of the Roanoke community. “I believe strongly you have to be in touch with all those constituencies in order to get an informed understanding of the institution as a whole,” Gray said.
When first arriving on campus in January of 2005, Gray took the time-consuming step of meeting with each member of the faculty one-on-one.
“They were able to speak frankly to me without worrying about what other people were going to think about what they said,” Gray recalled. “If I had a whole department, some voices would have been louder than others. Some would have thought they had to play a role or would have held back saying something because they thought it would be unpopular with their colleagues. One-on-one people could be very frank. When you put all those conversations together, I had a really strong sense of Hollins.”
Gray’s father was an engineer with Westinghouse Electric Corporation. As he climbed the corporate ladder, the family frequently had to move to different cities in Texas and California. Regularly facing new faces in new classrooms pushed Gray to be outgoing.
“I learned to make friends,” she said. “I learned to be flexible and adjust to new situations. More importantly, I learned there are great people everywhere.”
Hollins students, alumnae, and faculty without fail talk about Gray’s congeniality and earnestness when asked about the president.
“The most common refrain is ‘I am going to miss her.’ Not ‘her at the helm of Hollins’ or ‘all the talent she brought to fundraising’ but just ‘I am going to miss her.’ Wyndham Robertson ’58 wrote in an email. “And that is because she has become a great friend to so many alums.”
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia L. Hale ’75 called the opportunity to work closely with Gray “one of the great joys” of serving on Hollins’ Board of Trustees.
“She is a delightful person, greeting everyone she comes in contact with in a loving and caring way,” Hale explained. “When she talks with you, you always have her undivided attention, and she listens to you with her head and her heart.”
When headhunters initially contacted Gray about the Hollins presidency, she wasn’t interested.
She’d been president at the all-female Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, for five and a half years, and she was happy. “Sometimes I didn’t return their calls,” Gray admitted.
Luckily, Linda Koch Lorimer ’74 led the search committee for a new president and liked a challenge. “It became clear to us that Nancy Gray was extraordinary,” she said.
Lorimer called Gray directly with a request that she serve as a consultant for the search.
“In about ten minutes that consultancy turned into an interview,” Gray said. “I was so impressed with Linda. I was so impressed with the other people I met on the search committee. It just felt like where I was supposed to be.”
All these years later, Lorimer remains enthusiastic about her choice.
As retired vice president for Global and Strategic Initiatives at Yale University and former chair of the board of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, Lorimer has met a continuous stream of campus leaders over the course of her career. She ranks Gray as one of the top two she’s known. “I think it’s a combination of being remarkably smart and having acute interpersonal talents that make her able to pull from individuals their best selves.” Lorimer said.
In addition to bolstering Hollins’ enrollment and finances, Gray has collaborated with faculty to create a number of academic programs. The university now offers majors in environmental studies and environmental science; a certificate program in leadership studies; an extensive seminar program for first-year students; Master of Fine Arts degrees in playwriting and children’s book writing and illustrating; and the Honors Seminar Program.
Gray also carefully oversaw the renovation and care of historic buildings and gardens on the Hollins campus. “I’ve learned a lot about steam pipes,” Gray joked. “There’s a real responsibility with a campus as old as this one to preserve the historic integrity of the campus, to maintain its beauty, and to make it functional in the 21st century.”
Gray gave careful consideration to how and when to step down from her post. She saw the end of the 2016-17 school year as a natural time to conclude. Hollins’ strategic plan goes through 2018. A quiet fundraising campaign ends in June. It’s the 175th anniversary.
“It seemed like the right time to pass the baton to a new leader at Hollins,” Gray said.
While Gray is leaving, she isn’t going far. With husband David Maxson, Gray has purchased a home in South Roanoke. “We really have fallen in love with this area,” she said.
Retiring doesn’t mean Gray will be sitting at her kitchen table doing crosswords. “I’m going to look for ways to give back to higher education and to Roanoke. I’m specifically looking at some consulting opportunities.”
Even with months to adjust to the idea of leaving Hollins, the goodbyes are emotional. The night of the senior legacy cocktail party, Gray took to the center of the room.
“I’m in the same boat you’re in, excited and scared, a little anxious and a little hopeful,” she told the class of 2017, who’ve invited her to be an honorary member since she’s “graduating” with them. “Sad about missing people. Looking forward to doing things I don’t have time to do now.”
Though she remained as poised as ever, Gray’s voice cracked slightly when she told the women they’ll all need to reach out to one another while navigating the next stage of their lives.
“Ultimately, we’re all Hollins women,” she said. “We’re going to be just fine.”
Beth JoJack is a Roanoke writer who contributes frequently to Hollins magazine.
Nancy Gray’s husband also worked hard for Hollins during the couple’s twelve and a half years on campus.
“Hollins is especially grateful to David Maxson for his wide-ranging contributions to Hollins over the years,” said Kerry Edmonds, vice president for finance and administration.
In addition to helping President Gray host events, Maxson, an avid photographer, captured many beautiful images of the campus, university events, and Tinker Creek that were used in marketing materials and even on a campus holiday card. Maxson made his biggest mark, however, as a master gardener.
“He has shared his expertise as master gardener working countless hours to expertly maintain the grounds at the president’s house and design and develop beautiful flowering gardens that will enhance the overall landscape for years to come,” Edmonds said.
Not every day of Gray’s Hollins career has been smooth sailing. For her first Tinker Day, Gray and her husband wore wet suits. Tinker Day was held in the spring that year because it had been rained out the previous October.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” Gray recalled. “They said wear a costume, they said wear something crazy. ‘OK,” we decided, “we’ll wear wetsuits.”
Gray envisioned the Tinker Day hike as more of a stroll up a grassy knoll. “These people have been doing this for years,” she told herself. “It can’t be that hard.”
The weather that day was particularly hot, much too warm for neoprene. “We thought we were going to faint,” she said.
By the next fall, Gray had her Tinker Day game down, though. Her costume is a collection of items given to her over the years by alumnae and students. The Dr. Seuss hat she wore during her first reunion was given to her by the class of 1945. After the class of 2006 read in the archives that the president used to always wear a sweater on Tinker Day, they found Gray a green and gold cardigan which they adorned with a felt H.
Tegan Harcourt ’17 rated Gray’s final Tinker Day performance last fall with an A+. “Her feather boa was one of the highlights of my year,” she said.
Musings on Hollins University President Nancy Oliver Gray