By Lois Elfman, Women in Higher Education
Dr. Tracy Y. Espy, president of Mitchell College CT, understands what it means to forge new territory. Since beginning her presidency on July 1, 2020, she is the first African American woman to lead Mitchell, a small liberal arts college founded in 1938.
“The liberal arts teach you how to be in relationship with people, how to critically think, how to ask questions and how to critically analyze,” says Espy, who prior to becoming Mitchell’s eighth president was the provost and vice president of academic affairs at Pfeiffer University NC.
“I like the fact that liberal arts are a forever educational focus because we’re preparing students for all kinds of things for the rest of their lives,” she adds. “All of the great liberal arts push us to critically think, to write well, to speak well, to reason well, to be…learning both inside and outside of the classroom.”
Having attended a small liberal arts institution as an undergraduate and seeing its value in her life helps Espy understand how today’s students will similarly benefit. It prepared her to envision what she wanted to study as a graduate student, and it helps current students adapt to whatever careers they want to pursue.
Espy received a master’s degree in family studies and her doctorate in child/family-marriage and family therapy. While doing her residency in behavioral medicine for a health care system, she realized she didn’t want to work full-time in a therapy setting. Her interests went toward teaching, research, and eventually administration.
Her research has focused on systemic theory, ethnic identity and self-esteem, servant leadership, service learning, and student engagement. This has provided her with excellent preparation for her presidency.
“I understand systems and systems thinking, so it really helps me understand that what happens in one part of a system affects all other parts,” she notes. “I understand human behavior.”
“It’s helped me be very level-headed and not take things personally because in most cases it’s not personal; it’s just human behavior,” she continues. “When you look at it from a family systems perspective, you really understand that in a lot of ways organizations and institutions are like families. They all have challenges, no matter how well-endowed they are.”
“You learn how to build a community like you would be building a great family system and create healthy systems in the organization to be successful.”
Becoming a College President
Espy didn’t envision a presidency when she entered the academy but as her 23 years of experience in higher education—15 of them as a senior administrator—unfolded, her goals evolved. What crystalized those goals was the Council of Independent Colleges’ (CIC) presidential vocation and institutional mission program.
“[I had the] opportunity to explore the potential of what I would see as a calling, more so than a job,” says Espy. Leadership development programs helped her reflect and contemplate her mission and how she wanted that to align with an institution’s mission.
The presidential program included readings, group discussions, and even a couples’ mentor for Espy and her spouse, Marvin Espy. She was able to see her strengths as well as areas she needed to strengthen.
“In a COVID-19 world, there’s a lot you cannot do, but I’ve tried to keep [Mitchell] connected to what’s happening in the community,” Espy says. “Continually building internship opportunities for our students. Now, we’re looking virtually.”
“There are some virtual things that are happening where we’ve been able to participate virtually in experiences within our New London (CT) community,” she adds. “We’re doing it in a way that’s safe and that’s keeping our community partners connected, and also allowing us to meet new people that may want to partner with our students in internships and things like that.”
Leading in Challenging Times
By the time Espy arrived on campus, Mitchell already had a task force to deal with issues related to the coronavirus pandemic. That task force examined all the different aspects of safely bringing students back to campus, which happened in the fall semester.
“We believe that an in-person experience would be very important [for our students],” says Espy. “Navigating it is obviously keeping my eyes to what’s happening on campus, but also looking at what’s happening in our local, regional community and what’s happening beyond that. This involves being informed, communicating, and trying to be encouraging and supportive of our faculty, students, and staff.”
In the fall semester, a significant amount of the student body returned to campus. All were initially required to isolate for a period with their meals delivered to them in the residence halls.
Situated in a picturesque location, the college purchased Adirondack chairs that have been placed around campus. Given the warm weather in November, students would sit outside to study, socialize, and even eat their meals because of limited space in the dining hall.
“As challenging as a college president’s job is, it has been the most refreshing time because I can look out my window and look at the shoreline,” says Espy, who enjoys the scenery around Mitchell’s campus.
At present, her presidency is taking her total focus, but eventually she would like to do research on learning differences across ethnicities, and access to services and what can be done to improve access. She collects data and hopes to do some writing on the subject.
“I’m very interested in service learning and civic engagement,” says Espy. “We talk a lot about informed citizenry and…I really want to encourage our students, faculty, and staff to engage more intentionally in the community. I see civic engagement as a critical experience of students in higher ed.”
Published in the January 2021 issue of Women in Higher Ed.