Mary Dana Hinton speaking at her Hollins University inauguration

The Inauguration of Mary Dana Hinton

For the first, and likely last, time in Hollins history, a new president was inaugurated almost two years after they began their work. Even so, the official inauguration of President Mary Dana Hinton on April 22, 2022, was more than worth the wait. Surrounded by events intended to celebrate the magic of the entire Hollins community, it was an emotionally stirring celebration, honoring Hinton’s personal and professional past, and shining a light on the promising path ahead. Below are excerpts from Hinton’s inaugural address.

Ibegan fueling my imagination when I was young. The imaginings borne in poverty are big and bold. Indeed, as Wendell Berry said, “You have to be able to imagine lives that aren’t yours…” This is what you do when faced with equal parts poverty and ambition. Imagination is kindled in unsuspecting moments, quiet places, and deep rituals.

You see, my imagination was born in the dust mites of Saturday morning rug cleanings that Natasha Trethewey [M.A. ’91] spoke of. My imagination was born in my mother’s big, strong hands and brilliant mind. Hands which she often seemed embarrassed about, but hands that nurtured her children and many lives beyond. A brilliance unwanted and unrecognized by a world cast against her. Hands and a mind that far exceeded what the world imagined for her.

Mary Dana Hinton inauguration as president of Hollins UniversityMy imagination was also born in my father, who imagined me, someone he called pumpkin, attending a university. Though he was born only a few decades after enslavement ended, he imagined his daughters going to college and doing many incredible things. He prayed for that for us.

My imagination was born in the gracious home of the Cooper family. A family whose copper pots reflected my mother’s face but whose big hearts and radical kindness shifted the trajectory of my life by providing the resources and support to allow my imagination to breathe.

My imagination was born in a kitchen with Laurie Heatherington, my undergraduate advisor, who is with me today. Laurie encouraged me to just be me in a world that seemed to want me to be someone else. It was born in a rocking chair with Sr. Jean Messaros and the Sisters of Mercy. It was born in the conversatio of the Dominican Sisters. It was nurtured and stoked and encouraged and deeply loved by the Benedictine Sisters in Saint Joseph, MN. It swam in the fount of Sacred Heart Chapel.

You see, robust imagination is not just the territory of children; it is not the stuff of make-believe. Imagination is the innermost, profound work of thinking about life through an unexplored lens. Of looking at one’s circumstances and being able to conceive something different. Often something more.

Imagination is conscious work. Intimate work. Draining work. Vulnerable work. Work that can lead to beautiful things like today; my mother would have loved this day. Work that can lead to grievous disappointment when left unsupported and unrealized. All too often, imaginings are left unexplored, not due to any failure of the beholder, but due to a society set up to question, deny, and defer the imagination.

And yet. And yet, I stand before you today, not because I am smarter than others or better than others. I stand before you today because I had the great good fortune of being able to receive an education that unleashed my imagination. My will for that education was a result of imagining something different. I imagined freedom; I imagined opportunity; I imagined unconditional love. And it was a liberal arts education that unlocked those imaginings for me. To me, the examination and manifestation of imaginings is what education is all about. So let us imagine a community of learning.

Mary Dana Hinton inauguration as president of Hollins University Before you email me, let me tell you that I know that this is not how the liberal arts are generally defined. That some want to return to the trivium and quadrivium and say that that is the authentic liberal arts. That the liberal arts are for those who breathe the most rarefied of air. That to examine the big questions of life should be left to those for whom it is their legacy. I have heard too many people say “today’s students” —students of color, low-income students, first-generation students, questioning students, and, once upon a time, women—are better suited for professional training or vocational training.

I would argue that limiting learning and circumscribing how we think about education and who has access to it is a failure of imagination. That to shroud oneself in exclusion in the name of the liberal arts is to fundamentally misunderstand and misappropriate that very thing we claim to love.

The liberal arts are for those whose minds imagine freedom, who imagine something different, who imagine something more. A liberal arts education is a call to imagine for the sake of creating and transforming. Creating and transforming self, creating and transforming community, and creating and transforming the world around us.

Mary Dana Hinton inauguration as president of Hollins UniversityYou see, it is the wandering imagination that discerns cures for disease. It is the wondering imagination that asks how we can reimagine learning and truly democratize excellent education. It is the unwavering imagination that chooses to break down barriers and develop structures of access and success. It is the willful imagination that refuses to be yoked to the past and courageously sojourns forward toward a future it determines for itself. A future wherein all can, and will, have access to education.

So, when I ask this community—the Hollins community—to imagine with me, I am asking that we do the work of liberal arts education creatively, with multiple perspectives at play, always centering the human experience of all those we encounter. I am asking that you believe that the essence of the liberal arts—the freeing of minds—also demands the freeing and nurturing of imagination. Not only our students’ imaginations, but the imagination of each of us, unconstrained by title or by task.

In fact, this notion of imagination is, in many ways, baked into the very fabric of Hollins. Our motto, Levavi Oculos, is a reflection on the power of imagination. Levavi Oculos, which means “lift up thine eyes,” implies that there is something more to guide you. That the action of simply looking for that more will yield results. That it will free our imagination.

Mary Dana Hinton’s full speech transcript (PDF)

Remarks from Marjorie Hass, President of The Council of Independent Colleges (PDF)

More photos from President Hinton’s inauguration