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Staying in Step

Carol Leary Directs Bay Path Toward a Second Act

In her first 12 years as president of Bay Path College, Carol Leary has choreographed a stunning metamorphosis — transforming the formerly sleepy Longmeadow institution not long ago considered a secretarial school into a leader in innovation, entrepreneurship, and professional development. Always looking forward, her next strategic plan, titled ‘Good to Great,’ borrows from author Jim Collins and speaks to her philosophy that the process of continuous improvement never ends.

Carol Leary, president of Bay Path College, remembers a time when her life’s ambition was to be a choreographer.

She had the background – years of dance training – and the requisite passion, as a great lover of culture and the arts.

But Leary ultimately chose to forgo dancing with the stars and instead focus on a different creative pursuit – essentially, creating opportunities to allow others to find their true callings. Fueled by her vast experience in higher education and a deep affinity for learning at all stages of life, Leary brought with her to Bay Path a leadership philosophy that leans heavily on the power of teams, along with a strong belief in ongoing professional development, particularly for women.

The result is a flourishing campus with several new programs aimed at the needs of the region served by the four-year, private women’s college – primarily Western Mass. and Northern Conn. – and a school that has raised its profile in national and international circles of late.

All this didn’t happen overnight, but many of Bay Path’s latest developments didn’t take years to develop, either. Just as in dance, a lot had to do with timing, said Leary, and with careful attention to each step of the process on the part of the entire Bay Path troupe.

The college recently completed its five-year ‘Vision 2006’ strategic plan, and has just embarked on ‘Vision 2011,’ which carries the theme ‘Good to Great,’ borrowed from the title of one of Leary’s favorite professional development books, written by Jim Collins.

The theme is an apt example of the mission of the college and its ongoing development goals, which Leary said are geared toward the improvement of not only its students on professional and personal levels, but also on the betterment of the region’s many businesses, and of professional women in general.

“What I take from the idea of ‘good to great’ is that when you think you’ve reached where you want to be, you have to realize that you still have to improve, because you can’t become complacent,” said Leary. “Things change, environments change, and you must be nimble and flexible enough to welcome opportunity to your doorstep.”

When she arrived in Longmeadow, this challenge translated into hiring the best people to develop new programs to meet market trends, always with a focus on innovation, and in many ways those practices remain at the forefront of Bay Path’s development plans.

“I truly believe that our success has been because of the people who have been hired and have committed their own visions to this college in the last 12 years,” she said. “When I arrived here, I recognized a sense of anticipation – when a new president enters an organization, be it corporate, private, not-for-profit, or educational, the members of that community try to figure out what is going to happen. They ask, ‘what will my role be with this new person at the helm?’

“But my philosophy has always been to make use of the best talents of the people you have, and let them use their imagination, their creativity, and their expertise to develop programs that they think will meet market demand,” she added. “So that’s basically been my style – use everyone’s potential, nurture it, and then implement whatever their ideas may be.”

However, to make best use of those ideas, Leary said not everything can be left to the process of free, organic thought; there must also be a clear plan for progress in place to organize all of those divergent thoughts into one course of action.

“I’m also a true believer that the people and the plan have to work together,” she explained. “You can hire the very best people, but if you do not have a road map or a vision of where you want to be, then I think you can become very scattered, and you can detour into areas that might not be where you should be.”

By the Book

That mode of thinking has kept several new initiatives running smoothly at Bay Path, including a number of new academic programs and majors, which have been introduced over the past decade in addition to a suite of successful professional development conferences.

The college changed from a two-year college offering associate’s degrees to a four-year baccalaureate college in 1988, but Leary said in many ways Bay Path was still operating as a two-year college when she arrived in 1994. At the time, it offered 14 associate’s degree programs and three baccalaureate degrees, and no graduate programs.

“I saw that as an opportunity,” she said. “I saw the expanse of where we could go.”

The course offerings have since shifted to include nine baccalaureate programs and five master’s programs. Bay Path also operates six days a week, having added its ‘Saturday school’ in 1999, and offers classes in two locations, at the main Longmeadow campus and its satellite location in Southbridge. Leary said extending the off-campus sites across the Commonwealth is a new goal, but at the start of her career at Bay Path, it was an idea that seemed lofty and far off.

“Back then, I wasn’t thinking about branch locations,” said Leary. “But because of the people who were hired over the next five years, a whole host of ideas were introduced to the college that included one-day-a-week programs and graduate programs. We also started looking at the talents of our current faculty, and we found that many of them had dreams that we could fulfill.”

These included an expanded science program that led to the creation of Forensic Science and Forensic Psychology programs at Bay Path that are now attracting students from across the country as that field grows in popularity, particularly among women.

“From a recruitment standpoint, there is a market there for forensic science and biology,” she said, “and at women’s colleges we saw that it was one of the four top majors that women went into, so we knew it was going to be a good market. We also had faculty with the expertise in all of the areas that surround forensic science, and we gave them the opportunity to hire faculty to fill the gaps. It was just the right time, the right voices, and the right people in place that brought those programs to the forefront for Bay Path.”

In addition to the forensic science programs, Bay Path has also created four master’s degree programs over the past seven years: a master’s in Communication and Information Management, introduced in 2000, a master’s in Occupational Therapy in 2002, an MBA in Entrepreneurial Thinking and Innovative Practice, and, most recently, a master’s in Philanthropy and Nonprofit Management, unveiled just this year.

The master’s in Communication and Information Management was largely spearheaded by William Sipple, Bay Path’s provost and vice president of Academic Affairs, who had taught in a similar program at Robert Morse College prior to relocating.

“That was an easy transition into the master’s program because he had done it,” Leary said, adding that the master’s in Occupational Therapy that followed was also added relatively easily. “That was a natural outgrowth. The accrediting body had said that by 2007, a master’s would be the minimum requirement in that field, and so creating that program was a gradual process.”

The MBA, however, introduced in 2005, was built from the ground up over a period of a few years, and was tailored to address the need for entrepreneurial ventures in the region, as well as those led by women.

“We realized that, in many ways, we as an institution were representative of the degree we were going to create, because every year we seem to have something new happening on this campus,” Leary said. “Therefore, we had some experts we could draw upon, and then in turn use to recruit new experts to Bay Path.

“We did not want to do a standard MBA program, because of the other 15 programs in a 45-minute radius,” she continued. “We knew we needed a niche program. This area is one of the top areas in the country for entrepreneurship, and it needs an infusion of new companies in the area, so that program was one that we had really thought about, and we waited until the right moment.”

A Woman’s World

The first MBA class will graduate from Bay Path this May, just as the first class in the new master’s in Philanthropy and Nonprofit Management will enter courses.
Leary calls this newest offering “the soul of Bay Path,” in part due to her own observances in the non-profit sector, where she often volunteers her time.

“I have seen firsthand that it’s such an important part of the psyche of an area to have a good, well-run non-profit sector. I listen very hard to what the struggles are, and I watch when a leader of a not-for-profit retires and how hard it is to find a successor.”

In addition to those challenges, Leary said there is currently a national trend of turnover in non-profit leadership as leaders at retirement age make way for new blood, and 70% of the people who work in the sector are women.

“Those two factors, for me, created the perfect mix,” she said. “It happened very quickly, but we had all the pieces to create a stand-alone master’s program.”
Those new programs also add weight to one of Leary’s most challenging decisions, which came very early in her presidency: the choice to maintain Bay Path’s identity as an all-women’s college, even while the current national trend is toward a co-ed charter, or toward closing completely.

“I think we realized 12 years ago that even though we knew it was not going to be a smooth run, we were going to remain a women’s college,” she said, “even though they were closing everywhere.”

Leary referenced several institutions in Massachusetts alone that have gone co-ed – among them Elms College, Regis College, Emmanuel College, and Lesley College – all in the last decade.

“But we believed in the professional development of women. That’s our mission, and we’ve made a strong commitment to figure out what programs women needed for the future. In every conversation we have we want to make sure that new programs, including the master’s programs that by law are open to men, include a few courses that look at a woman’s perspective, which can be taken by both men and women.”

Leary herself is not the product of a women’s college – she attended Boston University and graduated with a degree in Political Science, and later earned her master’s in Student Personnel and Counseling from SUNY Albany, and her Ph.D. in Educational Administration from American University. However, she said her experiences at Boston’s Simmons College, as director of Residence from 1978 to 1984 and as the college’s associate dean in 1984 and 1985, cemented her belief in the power of women’s education.

“Working at Simmons College really opened my eyes to the incredible potential and possibility women’s education had,” she said. “So when I came to Bay Path after having worked at Simmons for many years, I realized we could stay an all-women’s college and be successful.”

A Development Story

To prove that theory, Bay Path made its first major stride in women’s development early in Leary’s presidency, by instituting the Women’s Professional Development Conference (WPDC) in 1996.

The annual event attracts more than 800 attendees, most women, but Leary said men attend too, in part to hear from an impressive list of speakers that has featured Sen. Elizabeth Dole, Cokie Roberts, Jackie Joyner Kersee, and Madeleine Albright.

“I look back at that first women’s conference and reflect, and in many ways I think that was one of the defining moments of Bay Path as a women’s college,” said Leary. “We stayed true to our mission for professional education of women and by having this conference and by inviting the very best minds in America to Springfield, it helped define our image in the eyes of many people in the community.

“That image,” she explained further, “is of a college that is going to take risks, and is going to ask the very best to come to Springfield. And, we are going to encourage women to take advantage of professional development opportunities that we have brought to their doorsteps.”

The WPDC’s continuously impressive list of speakers, to which writer and poet Maya Angelou and Valerie Plame (the CIA agent outed by the press in 2003) will be added in April, 2007, has also added to the buzz about the annual event and its host college on both a regional and national level. Returning to the idea of timing, Leary said some of those speakers were the result of a simple invitation, but others have chosen to speak based on the conference’s theme that year – usually a one-word notion that ties the entire day of workshops and networking together.

Last year, that theme was humor, an idea that resonated with the day’s keynote, producer, writer, and director Nora Ephron, famous for directing such films as Sleepless in Seattle and writing When Harry Met Sally. And this year, the theme of ‘resilience’ played a major role in Angelou’s decision to lend her name and her voice to the program.

“She had eight speaking engagements before her that had been offered,” Leary said, “and the reason she chose us was she loved the theme. I think it’s easier for us to get speakers now because of our themes, and also because they can look at who we’ve had in the past.

“Our speakers are also women who really enjoy being surrounded by other women who are there to learn from them,” she added. “From that very first conference to the one we will present in 2007, I think we have set the standard very high.”

Other development programs have followed the WPDC, including a wide array of workshops, academic programs, and community partnerships centered on entrepreneuriship and innovation. These programs, which include courses in Innovation in Business, Entrepreneurship, and ‘Entrevation,’ a term coined to represent skills that pair the two concepts, began to emerge in 2001 and have since created a campus-wide initiative that has received some national attention.

There’s also the Innovator’s Roundtable, comprised of area CEOs and business owners who provide advice and expertise regarding the skills required when starting a business or even entering today’s job market; a cooperative education program, in which students are placed in area small businesses, where they will gain hands-on experience in what is required to be an entrepreneur; a summer program in entrepreneurship for high school girls that acts as a bridge between area youth entrepreneurship programs and the initiatives at Bay Path; and the Innovative Thinking and Entrepreneurial Summit, which began as a series of lectures and expanded, now held each year since 2003. The summit draws on entrepreneurial minds both nationally and regionally, and is just one of many entrepreneurship-related ventures funded by a $143,000, three-year Coleman Foundation grant received by the college in 2005.

In the past, entrepreneurs such as Yankee Candle CEO Craig Rydin and Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, have spoken, and this year Jeff Taylor of Monster.com fame visited to speak about his latest venture, the Baby Boomer-driven Web site Eons.

Tapping into Talent

All of these programs revisit that theme of lifelong learning that Leary enjoys and respects so much, and have contributed to a cohesive educational repertoire at Bay Path, aimed at preparing people – students, area residents, business owners, and especially women – for the job market of today and the challenges of the world at large.

“You need to have a mind that’s an open book, so that no matter what you’re doing, you can learn from it,” Lear
concluded. “If I have an idea, and I share my idea, others can add to that idea, so a small kernel can lead to great things.

“It’s all about the ability to speak up, to take a risk, and to step back from the comfort zone.”

Leary has taken that step, and countless others are following her lead. While she’s yet to take her talents to Broadway, Bay Path’s resident dancer has made some impressive moves – and promises to keep a close watch on her timing, her audience, and the stage she has set.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]

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