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Mount Holyoke names HBCU dean as next president

Danielle Ren Holley currently heads Howard University’s law school

Danielle Ren Holley: "Mount Holyoke is such an exciting and vibrant community."Oscar Merrida IV/Howard University

Mount Holyoke College on Tuesday named Danielle Ren Holley, dean of the Howard University School of Law, as its next president in a move that will give the women’s college its first permanent Black female leader.

Holley, who will assume the position on July 1, succeeds interim president Beverly Daniel Tatum, who has served in the role since last July. Tatum is president emerita of Spelman College, a historically Black women’s college in Atlanta.

Holley, who joined Howard in 2014, said she sees similarities between the missions of historically Black colleges and universities and women’s colleges. Young people are more often seeking campus communities that reflect their personal values, higher education experts have said.


“That ability for students to choose an educational environment in which they can say, this environment fully not only accepts me but my identity is a key part of what’s empowering me inside the college community,” Holley said in an interview.

Many women’s colleges have reported declining enrollment in recent years. After years of losing students, Mills College in Oakland, Calif., agreed in 2021 to merge with Northeastern University in a deal that closed last summer. Salem College in North Carolina, meanwhile, adopted a health care focus in 2021 to reverse enrollment declines.

Mount Holyoke, a liberal arts college in South Hadley, has avoided the drastic declines of its peers and has become more selective over the years, Holley said. She expects more students will seek out women’s colleges because of the “tumultuous and fractured time in our country’s history.”

“Women and people who have been marginalized on the basis of their gender are looking for spaces in which they can really learn to make the world a better place,” Holley said. “I’ve seen how mission-based colleges can give that experience to students in a way that it’s hard to find in more generalized higher ed settings.”


Holley, an expert on diversity in the legal profession and higher education, says affordability and access to higher education is top of mind. Mount Holyoke, which enrolls about 2,200 students, posts a total annual cost before financial aid of $75,678.

“I do think that the first thing that colleges must do, which Mount Holyoke has done, is to make a commitment that our doors are open to students who may not have the ability to fund an education,” Holley said. “And then we have to always be very mindful of [our] costs.”

A Harvard Law graduate, Holley said she is looking forward to living in Massachusetts again. Once she takes the helm, Holley plans to bolster programs connecting students with jobs and graduate schools and promoting faculty scholarship.

“Mount Holyoke is such an exciting and vibrant community,” she said. “Liberal arts education has been under attack and I think wrongly so because the liberal arts are the building blocks to opening up the doors of opportunity for students.”

Hilary Burns can be reached at Follow her @Hilarysburns.