May 10th, 2022, 08:00 AM

Motivations and Mistakes: A Conversation with Sonya Stephens

By Molly Wilhelm
Image Credit: AUP Presidential Announcement
An exploration into the complexities of Sonya Stephens' career, character, and controversy.

“There is a cohesive sense of what AUP is,” Sonya Stephens said. “This sort of excited and exciting global community which is really looking at the world in new ways.” Stephens is the current president of Mount Holyoke College and a scholar of 19th century French literature. She has served as president of Mount Holyoke for nearly six years and will assume the role of president at The American University of Paris in the Fall. 

An alumna of the University of Cambridge, Stephens received a bachelor’s degree in modern and medieval languages as well as a doctorate in French. She was a Commonwealth scholar at the Université de Montréal in Canada, where she received her master’s in French studies 

“I’ve always been a person who has been committed to France and French culture since I was 15 and I came on a school exchange here,” Stephens said, explaining her initial affection for the country. “I remember sitting on the bus going back and saying, 'I’m going to speak this language fluently and I’m going to speak it so well that nobody knows I'm English.'"

Image Credit: Unsplash/ Alexander Kagan

Stephens has previously taught at Royal Holloway, University of London, where she served as chair of the Department of French. She continued in her career to the Indiana University Bloomington, where she served as chair of the Department of French and Italian and as Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education.

Joining Mount Holyoke College in 2013 as Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty, Stephens became acting president at the university in 2016. In 2018, Stephens assumed the role of president full-time at Mount Holyoke. “When I moved to Mount Holyoke as president, it was a desire to be kind of be back in a smaller community,” Stephens said. “A big part of our plan at Mount Holyoke had been centered on building community.” 

During her time at Mount Holyoke, Stephens said she worked to advance sustainability and diversity efforts. Stephens focused heavily on the university’s progress towards fossil fuel divestment, shifting towards investment in sustainable energy sources. She mentioned the implementation of composting in the residents' halls, reusable dining containers, solar panels, and university engagement with local conservationists and the surrounding community.

“We have a competition between the different resident halls to see who can save the most energy,” Stephens said. “Lots of things like that to sort of raise awareness of environmental issues and get everybody involved in playing their part.”

BOOM! 2021: Community Day

Pulling out a worksheet displaying the college’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives, Stephens spoke about her role in forming the DEI office. Mount Holyoke received a grant from the AAC&U to examine previous university commitments in inclusivity and community, according to Stephens. Following this examination, the college hired a Chief Diversity Officer in 2018, established living-learning communities, and introduced the BOOM! or Building on our Momentum conference. More information can be found on the Mount Holyoke webpage about the college’s Anti-racism Plan of Action and the work of the DEI Office.  

Among her other achievements at Mount Holyoke, Stephens centralized dining, increased the university’s fundraising, aided in the development of a creator space on campus, and oversaw the building of a community center. She spoke repeatedly about her goals to promote movement within and between the disciplines.  

“I wanted to be connected to the student experience in many ways,” Stephens said, discussing her career path. “One of the ironies of being President is you become more and more remote from the student experience,” she added. “I hope I’m going to have much more opportunity to engage with the students.” 

Elena Berg, one of two faculty members on the Presidential Search Committee at AUP, spoke highly of Stephens’ previous experience as president of another liberal arts college. “She has a particularly excellent background that I think will really help her transition into life at AUP,” Berg said.  

“She came up on the screen and instantly we all were comfortable in her presence,” Berg said, referring to Stephens’ virtual interview with the committee. “You need someone who’s not only good at the job, but who also lights up the room,” Berg added. “She really lights up the room.” 

AUP’s Presidential Search Committee worked alongside Isaacson Miller, a search firm used to scout potential candidates for the university’s open position. After crafting an agreed upon job description, the committee engaged in multiple rounds of interviews with possible presidential candidates before presenting a narrowed list to The Board of Trustees. The committee’s candidate interviewing process took place during a singular week for roughly thirty-five hours, according to Berg. Further information about Isaacson Miller, a brief summary of the presidential search process, and a list of members on AUP’s Presidential Search Committee can be found on AUP’s webpage here

Stephen Sawyer, another faculty member on the Presidential Search Committee, spoke of Stephens’ range of professional experience. “She had sort of gone through every rank, from being a professor all the way up to being president,” Sawyer added.  

Sawyer shared that Stephens’ excellent interview, proposed vision for the university, experience with fundraising, and French scholarship were notable aspects that qualified her as fit for the role of president at AUP. Sawyer also referred to Stephen’s fluency in French as “essential.” 

Image Credit: Unsplash / Anthony Choren

Sawyer prominently emphasized that The Board of Trustees ultimately determines who is selected as AUP’s next president through a voting process. “We just presented our findings from the search,” Sawyer said. “The Board of Trustees is, if you will, completely sovereign in choosing the president. The search committee does not choose the president,” Sawyer added. The Board of Trustees declined to comment on the presidential selection process.  

While the self-proclaimed Francophile’s academic and professional background is extensive, controversy precedes Stephens in her arrival to campus.  

Madeline Fitzgerald, a former Mount Holyoke student, wrote an article about Stephens in October of 2018. Fitzgerald mentions an incident in which Stephens utilized the n-word while sharing the title of a book at an academic retreat, known as the Posse Plus retreat. In an interview with Fitzgerald, Stephens apologized for her use of the racial slur. She addressed the incident first-hand in April of 2018 with an op-ed published with the Mount Holyoke News.  

Fitzgerald said Mount Holyoke students felt Stephens’ response to the matter was delayed. “The timing was strange,” Fitzgerald said. “It was kind of a while after she had actually said the n-word,” she added.  

“It was in the middle of several paragraphs where she was like ‘by the way I shouldn’t have said the n-word' rather than it kind of being like an upfront thing,” Fitzgerald said. “A lot of people didn’t even realize she had apologized because it was so buried.”  

During the presidential selection process, Berg said she was aware of the controversy after doing her own personal online research about Stephens. “To me, that was disturbing and not okay,” Berg said. “But I do feel that she did the right thing in terms of not hiding that, denying it, burying it. She said I did that and I am sorry I did that.”  

Image Credit: AUP Instagram 

“I think using that word in that context of naming the title of a book, kind of wearing that academic hat in an academic context, I can understand the mistake that she made,” Berg said. “While I agree that she shouldn’t have said it, I also don’t feel like that should kind of brand her as a racist who shouldn’t be trusted,” she added.  

Berg said Stephens’ use of the slur was discussed briefly and informally by the Presidential Selection Committee. “It came up,” Berg said. “But more of our conversations had to do with the framing of the person’s credentials and not as much this particular incident,” she added. 

“I think she made a mistake and I think that that was a really really important mistake for her to kind of learn from,” Berg said. “I think we can forgive her for that.” 

Sawyer was asked if he was aware of the incident and whether it was discussed amongst the Presidential Selection Committee during the search process. “You would have to talk to other people about that,” Sawyer said.  

When Stephens was asked what she would like to directly express to AUP students regarding the incident, she started with an explanation of the event. She said that a student had posed a question about the difference between race and ethnicity in a small group setting. A discussion then began about the connections between religion, socioeconomics, race, and ethnicity, according to Stephens. Stephens referenced the history of French-Canadian separatism. In doing so, she shared the title of a book by Pierre Vallières, which contains the n-word.  

Image Credit: Unsplash / Olga Tutunaru

“Sometimes you're pulled between the discourse of academic convention and the work you’re trying to do in a situation like that,” Stephens said. “I think I went into faculty mode and I will always regret the fact that I named the book,” she added. “I could’ve not named the book, I could’ve evoked the idea.”  

“I apologized immediately,” Stephens said. “I met with student leaders of color and said ‘how would you like me to address this?’ ‘what would be most useful for you for me to do?’” Stephens said agreement was shared that a response published in the student newspaper would be best. Within her op-ed, her use of the racial slur was addressed alongside other concerns that students had shared with her, according to Stephens. 

Alluding to the work of Loretta Ross, Stephens spoke about the creation of a “call in” rather than a “call out” culture. “I think it’s not for white people to talk about calling in,” Stephens said, “On the other hand, I think we all have to recognize when we make mistakes, and everybody makes mistakes. I own mine and I am deeply sorry for it.” Stephens spoke about her continued diversity and inclusion efforts. “Judge me not by that one incident but judge me by the work that we’ve done and how far we’ve come,” Stephens said.  

Stephens reflected upon her use of the slur in a current Mount Holyoke News article, published on April 16th of this year. Within this article, Stephens also discusses her upcoming transition from Mount Holyoke to AUP, mentioning the applicability of her previous work with DEI and community building.  

Expressing her enthusiasm to join the AUP community, Stephens said she was honored and pleased to accept the role as president, according to AUP’s presidential announcement. Speaking about the creativity, innovation, and interdisciplinary focus of the university’s education, Stephens smiled. “I think what appeals to me so much about AUP is the way that that is so baked into the way in which the curriculum is,” Stephens said. 

“For me, what I think AUP represents is this group of adventurous scholars and students who come together in this place which has so much to offer” Stephens said, describing what excites her most about the university. “Students can make connections with faculty and with each other. I have really sensed that there are these close connections.” 

Stephens visited with the AUP faculty and student body during a meet-and-greet on April 25. She will assume the presidency at AUP on Sept. 1, 2022, according to the university

“What we try to do is give everybody the opportunity to be fully themselves,” Stephens said, speaking about the campus culture she hoped to create at Mount Holyoke. “I hope that AUP is a place where people come to learn who they are, who they want to be, and what they want to be in the world,” Stephens said.