Mary Dana Hinton addresses a capacity-crowd on April 22 at Jessie Ball duPont Chapel in Roanoke, during her inauguration as 13th president of Hollins University. (Courtesy Hollins University)

Among the goals Mary Dana Hinton seeks as Hollins University’s newest president, a primary goal is to ensure students have a welcoming environment to find their voices.   

“I’ve never met a graduate of a women’s high school or college who I would say is a shrinking violet,” Hinton said in a recent interview. “You learn to practice your voice in a space where people want you to use your voice.”

Mary Dana Hinton. Official portrait.

It’s the kind of experience Hinton wants for all 821 undergraduate and graduate students at the Roanoke-based institution, where the board of trustees last month inaugurated her as its 13th president. 

The event, streamed live on April 22, was held at the campus’ Jessie Ball duPont Chapel, some 18 months after Hinton’s actual first day on the job, two summers ago during the pandemic. The inauguration also marks the first time in the history of the 180-year-old pioneering women’s college that a Black woman will lead.

The program theme, “Imagining a community of learning, belonging, love and justice,” reflects not only the celebratory moment, but the values Hinton herself brings to the college landscape. 

Majorie Hass, president of the Council of Independent Colleges and among the speakers at the inaugural, said the events during the past two years, in addition to the pandemic, include “racial reckoning, truth decay and economic uncertainty” and highlight challenges small liberal arts colleges such as Hollins are facing. 

Compounding that are the shifts in humanity and the “great cultural and historic changes” as the world adapts to “revolutionary developments and technology,” in an effort to “make the promises of democracy and economic growth truly available to a diverse citizenry,” she said. 

The liberal art colleges that will thrive will be ones that understand “the changing nature of work and public life, the ones that build a culture of inclusive excellence, and find real solutions to affordability and access,” Hass said. “We will need leaders who, like Mary, can lead us with courage and grace.”

Hinton shared that she wants to change a common narrative among many. That narrative claims students growing up now, students of color, those who hail from low-income families, those who are first-generation to attend college, or questioning students — and even women, at one time — are better off pursuing 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,” Hinton told a packed house at the chapel. “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 51-year-old North Carolina native seeks to build on the liberal arts education tradition at Hollins, but one that also creates access where there were once barriers. Officially in the president’s chair since August 2020, Hinton wasted little time placing her mark to create opportunity for students most in need. 

It included accepting a $75 million gift from an anonymous alumna donor and also securing another $10 million in gifts to fund the Imagination Campaign to establish new programs, both revenue-generating and sustainable, according to the university’s website. 

Among the newer programs is the Hollins Opportunity for Promise Through Education, or the HOPE scholar program, aimed at lifting, as stated on the school’s website, “the burden of private college tuition for area students with financial need.”  

Hinton previously served as president of the College of St. Benedict in Minnesota. But what drew her to the campus in Virginia’s hills had more to do with her love of the South and a desire to help young women in this neck of the woods. 

“I have not lived in the South since I graduated from high school. I felt a real calling to come home to help serve students who, too, were growing up in Virginia and North Carolina, Maryland, who had aspirations to go to college, but some of whom weren’t sure of what that path would look like, and weren’t sure they could access an education,” Hinton said. “Being able to help women lift up their leadership and their voice, being able to help women live into their best selves and their best lives, was really powerful to me.”

It was a powerful calling for Hinton because it was the same nurturing she received during her high school years, at an all-girls boarding school. The opportunity to attend the posh school was a pivotal point in Hinton’s life journey.   

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Mary Dana Hinton addresses a capacity crowd on April 22 at Jessie Ball duPont Chapel during her inauguration as 13th president of Hollins University. (Courtesy Hollins University)

‘You’re going to go to college’ 

Hinton recalled a time when she was informed by a school guidance counselor that people who looked like her didn’t go to college. 

It was nearly four decades ago, in 1985, when this bit of advice came from a school guidance counselor at a public school in Henderson, North Carolina, not far from her native Kittrell. Hinton, being raised by a single mother (her father had recently died) in a mid-sized family, was just beginning high school, but already was excited about the next life phase — college. 

Her mom, a domestic worker, always told her that education was the ticket out of poverty and instructed her to connect with a guidance counselor. 

Kittrell was quite rural and still quite segregated, even in the late 1970 and 1980s, as was the case with many small southern towns post-Jim Crow era, Hinton said. Most people didn’t have much and there weren’t very many resources there.   

“I grew up in a home that had a lot of love. But that was pretty much our only resource,” Hinton said. “We were a pretty poor family, economically.”

With a record of excellent grades and an ambitious flame for knowledge growing inside her, Hinton’s passion almost was snuffed out after the counselor’s matter-of-fact remark.

“She told me that Black women don’t go to college [and] that I needed to go straight into the military,” Hinton said during a recent telephone interview.  

Surprised to hear this, Hinton knew it wasn’t true, since one of her sisters already was on a path to college. But she still was afraid of her future, and when Hinton told her mother, the family matriarch with four children, sought help. 

Hinton was able to overcome this near derailment, something she discusses in a 2014 Tedx Talk held in St. Cloud, Minnesota, called “Leading from the Margins.”  The lessons she shared from her lived experiences will be the subject of a new book she is crafting.  

“In the most generous assessment, [my guidance counselor] simply failed to imagine someone from the margins, a Black woman, being successful,” Hinton said during the Tedx Talk. “That failure of imagination is not hers alone. We as a society failed to imagine success [of someone] simply because they come from the margins.”

Upon recent reflection of that life changing event with her guidance counselor, Hinton says her big take away comes in three lessons. They resonate with her today in her leadership capacity. 

One, that there are still people in the world telling young women they aren’t enough or can’t be successful, she said. It’s an experience all too familiar to many African American women — even some famous ones, such as former first lady Michelle Obama —  who are categorized into a box that limits their ambitions. 

Two, that there is “radical kindness” of others, that is needed and really important. For Hinton, that kindness came in the form of the family her mother worked for, who stepped up to help Hinton gain an opportunity to attend St. Mary’s School, an all-girls boarding school in Raleigh, North Carolina.

The third is about having access to the richest, deepest education, if that is what one desires.  

“As hard as that moment was, it’s what inspires me today, because I don’t ever want to hear another young person being told they can’t access an education,” Hinton said. “That gets me out of bed every day.”

After graduating high school, Hinton earned her bachelor’s degree from Williams College, where she majored in psychology. She later received her master of arts degree in clinical child psychology from the University of Kansas. Hinton climbed higher, earning a Ph.D. in religion and religious education with high honors from Fordham University in New York. 

Adding to her accomplishments, Hinton has received the Bicentennial Medal from Williams College and honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degrees from Misericordia University and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.

Throughout her many years serving in higher education, Hinton’s focus has always been about ensuring access, especially for those who are among underrepresented groups.

Hollins boasts undergraduate enrollment of 713, which is all women, and 108 for its co-ed graduate school program. Demographics include about 40% who come from lower-income families, 35% who identify as students of color, 28% who are first generation coming to college, some 37% who are eligible to receive the Pell Grant, 8% who are international students, and 3% who are older than 25. 

Building on the commitment to ensure all the students have access and feel a sense of belonging, Hollins has hired its first vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion, a person who will oversee this renewed configuration at the school. 

 “You can’t do excellent education without attending to issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, it is impossible,” Hinton said.  “That is now part of the lifeblood of what we’re doing. And we’re really excited about that.”  

Lisa Vernon Sparks is a freelance editor living in Virginia. She may be reached at