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Nearing the End of an Era: Bay Path University President Carol Leary to Retire in 2020

LONGMEADOW — Carol Leary was ready to announce her retirement, but not exactly ready to talk about it.

OK, she talked about it a little, mentioning how it would include, among other things, travel to some of the places she hasn’t been to yet (countries along the Adriatic and in Scandinavia, for example) and ongoing work to maintain the Marginal Way in Ogunquit, Maine, where she and her husband, Noel, have owned a home for some time now; she’s on that landmark’s preseveration committee.

“Everyone says you have to have a plan for retirement,” she told BusinessWest as she made her announcement public this week. “But I’m too busy working and living to have put any kind of plan together.”

Indeed, she was far more interested in discussing what she and her team want to accomplish over the next 14-15 months, before she officially moves out of the large home on campus she has occupied for the past 25 years.

And it’s a long list. It includes everything from work to advance and expand emerging degree programs in IT and cybersecurity at Bay Path to development of new graduate programs, to efforts to build what she called an ‘ecosystem’ focused on women’s education and helping more women complete degree programs that they may have put aside for one reason for another.

“Right now, we have 11 women’s colleges that have agreed to work together to address the national imperative of these adult women who have never completed their education and who need to have a very productive and successful life, especially as they raise their children and enter their retirement years,” she noted. “I’m excited by the concept of an ecosystem sharing resources among and between colleges and universities.”

It will also include work she categorized this way: “working locally and at the state level to fight against the myth that if one small, private college goes under, all private colleges are going to go under.” That was a reference, obviously, to the closing of Mount Ida College last year and the well-publicized struggles of several other institutions, including Hampshire College.

“And I’m chairing the American Association of Colleges and Universities,” she went on. “So I’ll certainly be keeping busy for the next 15 months.”

‘Keeping busy’ is an understatement, and it has been since Leary became the fifth president at Bay Path in the fall of 1994. Make that a much different Bay Path.

Indeed, back then, this was a college with only undergraduate programs and falling enrollment — maybe 450 students. Today, Bay Path is a university — one with more than 3,400 students — that offers more than 30 degree programs, including doctoral programs, as well as the American Women’s College, the first all-women, all-online baccalaureate program in the nation.

The school has become well-known regionally for the Women’s Leadership Conference it stages every spring, and it is gaining a reputation nationally for developing cutting-edge programs in IT and cybersecurity. And recently, it was named by the Chronicle of Higher Education as one of the 20 fastest-growing baccalaureate colleges in the country, and one of the fastest-growing private nonprofit master’s institutions in the U.S.

As she talked with BusinessWest, Leary acknowledged that she couldn’t have imagined that the school would have come that far in just over 20 years when she arrived. She added that all this progress has come about because of teamwork, vision, continuously raising the bar, and taking an entrepreneurial approach to higher education.

“I saw so much potential, but did I ever imagine where we would be 25 years later? No,” she said. “We have a very strong faculty and staff, and more than that, they’re committed to the mission, and when you’re committed to the mission, you’re fierce — you get up every day and you say, ‘what more can I do?’”

While best-known for her work at Bay Path, Leary has also been active within the local community. She is an emerita trustee and former chair of the Community Foundation of Western Mass., and previously served as chair of the American Assoc. of Independent Colleges and Universities of Massachusetts, chair of the WBGY public television board of tribunes, and on the board of the Beveridge Family Foundation. She also serves on the board of United Bank.

Leary’s work to not only take Bay Path to an exponentially higher plane, but also become a tireless advocate for women’s education — she wrote the book Achieving the Dream: A How-to Guide for Adult Women Seeking a College Degree — and role model for thousands of women in this region has earned her a number of awards and accolades over the past quarter-century, including two from BusinessWest.

In 2016, she was named a Difference Maker by the magazine, and just last December, she became a member of the inaugural class in BusinessWest’s Women of Impact program.

But, as noted, awards have come from a host of different agencies and institutions, including the Pioneer Valley Girl Scout Council, the YWCA of Western Massachusetts, the Women’s Partnership of the Springfield Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Pioneer Valley Chapter of the American Heart Assoc., and the Center for Human Development.

Patricia Pierce, chair of the Bay path board of trustees, praised Leary for her accomplishments and the manner in which she has led the college.

“Bay Path trustees know as Carol as a strong, energetic leader who has assembled an outstanding administrative team,” she said in a prepared statement. “We thank her for her and Noel for their uniquely personal commitment and contributions to the university and greater community. Their devotion to the education and well-being of women is the fabric of their lives.”

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