Elizabeth A. Fleming will be inaugurated as president of Converse College Thursday, April 27 at 11:30 a.m. in Twichell Auditorium. She is the ninth president to lead the liberal arts college for women since its founding in 1889.
A celebration of community, complete with fireworks and performances by local bands, will be held at 7:30 p.m. on the campus back lawn. The day holds significant meaning for the students and alumnae of Converse as they celebrate Founder’s Day, the 177th birthday of Dexter Edgar Converse, the college’s founder.
At first glance, the 37-year-old Fleming is not the typical college president. While her academic credentials are salient-magna cum laude from Harvard, masters degrees from Yale and the Royal College of Art, and a soon-to-be completed Ph.D. dissertation from Yale-her appointment at Converse is the result of her proven record of leadership coupled with infectious energy and a passion for education.
Fleming is best known for leading a remarkable turnaround at The Gibbes Museum in Charleston, one of the oldest arts organizations in the U.S. that was suffering from poor attendance and support. She knew the field thoroughly from her work for some of the most well known art museums in the country including The Frick Collection in New York, The J. Paul Getty Trust in Los Angeles and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. With a fresh point of view, and a strong background in marketing and branding, she guided The Gibbes to a 20 percent increase in attendance and a 75 percent increase in contributions.
“(Betsy’s) candidacy gave us a whole new way of looking at the job of a college president,” said Converse alumna and trustee Susan Phifer Johnson, who chaired the presidential search committee in 2005 following the departure of Nancy Oliver Gray. “She is an energetic and dynamic woman who understands wholeheartedly the value of education, understands what it is to be excited about learning, and understands that it is fulfilling to take your passion and make it your life.”
Fleming attributed the turnaround at The Gibbes as a combination of two essential ingredients. “The first involved building on the core strengths of The Gibbes as an attraction, a center for learning and a distinct collection within the museum world,” she said. “The second emphasized changing public perceptions about The Gibbes through a grassroots marketing strategy that included targeted public relations, positive word-of-mouth and special invitations.”
It was that sort of creativity that led to Fleming being named one of just 20 members selected from 215 nominees statewide to participate in the inaugural class of the Liberty Fellows, a selective training program for proven leaders under 45.
Converse was not the only college looking outside the ranks of academe for someone with Fleming’s business savvy. In fact, the college was at the forefront of a growing trend among other colleges and universities. In a Chronicle of Higher Education survey of 1,400 four-year college presidents released late last year, 22 percent described their previous job as nonacademic. In a more expansive American Council on Education survey, 30 percent of college presidents in 2001 had never held a faculty position, up from 25 percent in 1986.