Sue Ott Rowlands. Courtesy of Randolph College.

What business does an actor have running a college?

“The thing about the theater is that it’s a very collaborative process,” said Sue Ott Rowlands, who moves into the President’s House at Randolph College in Lynchburg on July 1. “And so we work in teams on every production. And I think that really informs my leadership style. I think it is collaborative and does focus on teamwork and team building.

“I also think it’s made me a good listener.  I’m pretty good at assessing people.  Acting, which is my area of expertise, is really about human behavior. And so the study of that leads me to … put a lot of emphasis on how I assess people and their strengths and what they can bring to the project or the process.”

Ott Rowlands comes from Northern Kentucky University where she served in a variety of roles, including provost (chief academic officer), executive vice president for academic affairs,  and professor of theatre arts. At Randolph, she takes the reins from retiring president Bradley W. Bateman. 

When interviewing the final candidates, Hylan “Hank” Hubbard, chair of Randolph’s board of trustees, said he immediately noticed Ott Rowlands’ sensitivity.

“The one thing that really stuck out for me, and it’s extremely important, I think, in this type of environment, is to have someone who is extra sensitive, almost having a sixth sense about students’ needs. She went so far as to have kind of a slush fund at Northern Kentucky; when she saw a kid that looked like they were having a little bit of difficulty, she would pull ’em aside or hear from an advisor of that kid and say, they need a little bit of help here and there.

“So it is that type of sensitivity, especially in an environment that is as small as Randolph where it’s a pretty tight community. So, long story short, I think that she will be great with students.”

Randolph-Macon Woman’s College offered its first classes in 1893. Facing enrollment declines, the private school on Rivermont Avenue changed its name and went co-ed in 2007, sparking protests from students and alumnae. More drama ensued when the college sold a painting, “Men of the Docks,” in 2014 to pump up its endowment. 

Total enrollment is 550, according to with 62% women and 38% men.

“Going to a smaller school does allow you to have a better relationship with the President,” said Elana West-Smith, a third-year student from Charlottesville. “But I do think it depends … on the president, if they make themselves more accessible or open. I think in the past, it has been that way, like I’ll see the President and I’m like, ‘Oh, he’s here!”

Ott Rowland plans to continue the open-door tradition at her new home, also called the Pettyjohn House.

“I’m looking forward to opening that house up to events and having people in. I think in the early fall, the first-year students come to the house for a picnic. I think a little bit after that, the faculty and staff come for a picnic. And so I’m really looking forward to having the president’s house really be the college’s house. And since it’s just me, that’s very easy to do.”

Sue Ott Rowlands in “Mud Nostalgia” at Northern Kentucky University. Courtesy of Rowlands.

Sue Ott Rowlands, 68, was born and raised in Duncan, Oklahoma. She left Duncan to attend college in Oklahoma City, beginning a long career in theater and academia. Her curriculum vitae runs to 17 pages. To cherry-pick a few items,  she has acted in “The Cherry Orchard,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “Elektra” and “Butterflies Are Free,” and is a member of Actor’s Equity Association. She has directed “King Lear,” “Richard III,” “Bus Stop,” “The Glass Menagerie,” “Orpheus Descending,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” and “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.”

There is a similarly lengthy list of academic appointments. In Virginia she is best known as former dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Tech where she was also a professor of theater.

On a Zoom call from Charlottesville, where her daughter lives, Ott Rowlands said she would love to continue acting, “but I think that’s probably not a realistic goal. As I’ve gotten more and more involved in administration, in higher education, it’s become increasingly more difficult to keep my [acting] work up.

“I think one of the most immediate and ongoing challenges is enrollment. For a small liberal arts college like Randolph, and really for most universities around the country in this day and age, enrollment is a real challenge. The pandemic has, of course, impacted enrollments, and I think Randolph was struggling with enrollment challenges even before the pandemic.”

Raising enrollment will invigorate campus life and help with budget issues, she said, and “may be the most important challenge to confront first thing. I think we’d like to see a total enrollment closer to 800 or 850. And then maybe even more than that down the road. But for right now, I think if we could increase our incoming class of undergraduates by 50 or 60 students, that would be terrific. We would consider that a win, and then be able to go from there.

“I think right now we’re looking at partnerships with enrollment management specialists. That can help us with strategy with marketing, with messaging. I think we’ve got to be increasingly user-friendly in our websites and messaging. I want to make sure that we’re really reaching students in the way they want to be reached these days, which changes so rapidly, and that we’re using the right kind of technology.”

Ott Rowlands said she was drawn to Randolph by, among other things, the college’s emphasis on innovation. 

“I think the Randolph new curriculum model, TAKE2, which allows students to take two classes at a time each seven weeks, is a great innovation. And the fact that the faculty developed that initiative and designed the program, and now has had a year of implementation, to me spoke to an entrepreneurial spirit in the college that was really important to me.”

“I’m very proud of the faculty engagement with the TAKE2 effort,” said Elizabeth Perry-Sizemore, economics professor who becomes interim provost on July 1.

Perry-Sizemore, who is also a graduate of the college, added: “I am convinced that Sue respects our history as a woman’s college, our commitment to our mission, and our hopes for our students, ourselves, and our community.”

“I’m looking forward to getting there,” Ott Rowlands said. 

The next act in the long-running story of Randolph College begins July 1.

Randy Walker is a musician and freelance writer in Roanoke. He received a bachelor's degree in journalism...