by S. Rotan Hale
Imagine a day, stunningly beautiful weather-wise and perfectly suited for a historic crowning. The setting was a ceremony that opened with the sound of a pipe organ, massive and classic. A procession of esteemed dignitaries, faculty and students filed past a host of other invited guests all packed into Hollins University’s duPont Chapel in celebration of Mary Dana Hinton inaugurated as the 13th president of the institution. Hinton makes history as the first African American woman to head this elite university for women established in 1842 and nestled in the hills of Roanoke County in Virginia. Just the mention of Hinton’s name triggered applause interrupting the ceremony at various points yet it was nothing like the resounding ovation that welcomed her as she entered the hall. The mood was infectious and everyone was caught in the irie and mystical vibe that pervaded throughout the entire service and on to the lawn afterwards where most continued to joyfully interact still reeling under the spell of such a milestone moment in Hollins history. Since assuming her position in August of 2020 Hinton has led the institution through some rather remarkable developments including an unprecedented $75 million pledge from an anonymous donor. Also notable is the securing of an additional $10 million for funding programs for which she has instituted several since being at the Hollins helm. Mary Hinton comes from humble roots, raised in Kittrell, North Carolina. She rose to become a seasoned, stalwart leader in higher education who came to Hollins from the College of Saint Benedict in Minnesota where she served as president. She’s an accomplished author having penned The Commercial Church: Black Churches and the New Religious Marketplace in America. Her resume is an extensive list of accomplishments and positions on a number of boards relative to academia nationwide. The ceremony was a fitting tribute to, yet another who breaks the proverbial glass ceiling for women of color. The powerful significance of the accomplishments of both Hinton and Hollins was genuinely expressed by each ceremony speaker who attested to Hinton’s graceful manner, her authenticity and her amazing ability to connect with any and everyone regardless of status. As an added attraction, Natasha Trethewey, former U.S. Poet Laureate and a Hollins Board of Trustees member expressed congratulations through a special appearance via Zoom. Among the musical tributes was one from Metropolitan Opera soprano Helena Brown, herself a Hollins graduate, who’s full-bodied voice resonated deeply through two selections that heightened the majesty of the moment. The ceremony had its share of officials of various degrees who one after another proudly paid tribute to the new president. Among those on the program was guest speaker Marjorie Hass, president, Council of Independent Colleges who praised Hinton as “a leader of courage and grace” and spoke of the high-minded mission of the school. During her introduction of the president, Rev. Cynthia Hale, founder and senior pastor, Ray of Hope Christian Church, Decatur, GA proudly praised Hinton for navigating the school through the pandemic and spoke of her profound ability to foster great change within the university. “When the nation and the world as well as our campus were in the throes of COVID-19, …she, entered our world bringing life and love into the chaos, causing us to believe in destiny,” said Rev. Hale a native Roanoker who also sits on Hollins’ Board of Trustees. “With a heart for inclusion she (Hinton) leads the charge to transform our campus into an environment that is truly diverse, inclusive and just.” Hale went on to lift Hinton as “a woman of vision who gave voice to the voiceless and hope to the hopeless.” Without a doubt, President Hinton’s scholarly attributes and accomplishments are truly remarkable but for the moment at hand they played second fiddle to the incredible speech that revealed the depth of her deeply spiritual innermost self. After a moving tribute to family, friends, her newfound Hollins family and all those responsible for her subsequent rise, Hinton opened her speech much like a course in mindfulness and love, gracefully urging the crowd to first open their hearts. It was a consciousness adjustment measure for the unsuspecting crowd in preparation for the powerfully uplifting lecture that followed. Hinton approached the podium and delivered a speech that made you wanna dance in the aisles and testify. It was a speech that made you grateful for each inspiring word she spoke. It conjured up feelings that made you want to strive to be a better person – a speech that in all probability, once subscribed to, would certainly be a guide for anyone seeking to be just that, a better person. She spoke to Hollins but it was a message for the ages and one that should be heard around this world that starves for a return to civility. It was the kind of speech that drives one to tears as many were. However, in no way was there any hint of sadness in her message ~ for it was the calm and penetrating force of each well-crafted element that she so eloquently and delicately delivered to those who were so fortunate to be in attendance. “Open your heart and be truly present and mindful of this moment,’’ she said calmly yet delivered with a certain intensity. “Do not just hear my words but allow our souls to connect,” she continued and launched into a lecture that centered on soul-to-soul connection and the transformative power of imagination. Hinton proceeded to masterfully lay out the benefits thereof – linking the stages of her life and the many people who propelled her through their support and guidance as they imagined a better world for her. She recounted the story of a high school guidance counselor who once told her as a Black woman in America, that college wasn’t an option for her. Imagine such a potentially defeating statement being told to a person with the instinctive ability to transform imposed barriers into hurdles over which one such as Hinton, not only overcame but triumphantly ascended to great heights in the world of higher education. At one point she graciously acknowledged the presence of one very special guest in attendance, Cecelia Long, the first African American woman to graduate from Hollins U, then Hollins College class of 1970 – the year Hinton was born. Her slow-burning flame began to rise as she passionately spoke of her “deep and abiding love for a liberal arts education,” referring to it as “the work and the action of moral imagination.” “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 – looking at one’s circumstances and being able to conceive something different, something more.” She went on feeding what essentially turned into her congregation due to the ministerial nature of her soul-stirring discourse and a few biblical references for good measure. Her message clearly laced with love was rooted in her allegiance to mindfulness, imagination and the benefits of a liberal arts education – elements that unequivocally lead to a healthy more balanced society and planet. Additionally she addressed the issue of justice and equity in education and spoke emphatically against discriminating attitudes towards “today’s students, students of color, low income students and first generation students” who some consider unfit for the “trivium and quadrivium” of a liberal arts education. “I would argue that limiting learning and circumscribing how we think about education and who has access to it is a failure of imagination,” she said. “To shroud oneself in exclusion in the name of liberal arts is to fundamentally misunderstand and misappropriate that very thing we claim to love.” Scholars of this caliber are not just helpful but necessary to the mission of transitioning humanity from the darkness that clouds this turbulent and troubled life we now live. Her impassioned and encouraging words trigger a level of hope typically unexplored by most. With great clarity she blazes a path for all to follow. Driven by an incredible desire and her ability to strengthen and unleash potential in not only young lives, President Mary Dana Hinton, armed with brilliance, humility and grace now leads Hollins University boldly into the future. Levavi Oculos!