WELLESLEY — As another presidential campaign heats up, Kerry Healey finds herself in an unusual position: spectator.
During Mitt Romney's 2012 run, Healey, who was his lieutenant governor, traveled with the Republican nominee and played campaign surrogate, popping up on TV to defend him. This go-around, Healey has officially retired from politics as she begins her third year in academia as president of Babson College.
Not that this means she doesn't have opinions about who should be the Republican nominee. She's backing Jeb Bush, and even gave $50,000 to a pro-Bush super PAC this spring.
Is she worried about some guy named Donald Trump?
"It's a testament to the power of free media," Healey told me. "Historically, Republicans will choose a candidate with a proven record of conservative leadership. Despite the distracting and entertaining conversations, I trust the voters will do the same in 2016."
I've got to think that, at times like this, Healey does not miss politics at all. Her last run for office ended in a 20-point drubbing, with her losing the 2006 gubernatorial race to political neophyte Deval Patrick. These days, the 55-year-old Healey is focused on a more important mission: churning out the next generation of entrepreneurs at the business-focused campus.
Under her watch, Babson has already received a huge boost in the college rankings. Last year, Money magazine introduced a formula to calculate which schools give you the best bang for your buck. Babson topped the list, beating usual suspects like Harvard and MIT. This year, Babson slipped, but just by a notch, to number two — bested only by Stanford.
"Any time you can rank higher than MIT, Princeton, or Harvard, you are still doing well," Healey said recently over lunch on Babson's bucolic campus, set on 375 acres. "It's good company to be keeping."
Now Babson isn't cheap. The private college sets families back about $61,700 a year, including room and board. But even without an Ivy League pedigree, Babson grads find well-paying jobs. In another survey, done by the database firm PayScale, Babson alums rank in the top 10 in terms of earning potential, with a mid-career salary of $121,000, just below Princeton's.
In college-rich New England, it can be easy to overlook and underestimate Babson and its 3,000 students. But not for long. Applications surged 21 percent from a year ago, and alumni giving is on the rise. Babson is bucking a trend as small private colleges face declining enrollments and shrinking endowments. Recognizing the progress Babson has made, Moody's and Standard & Poor's upgraded the school's bond ratings in July on the strength of its financials and demand for its programs.
Healey is also crowing about the freshmen — the Class of 2019. For the first time in Babson history, women, at 54 percent of the class, outnumber men. Just five years ago, female students made up 41 percent of the incoming class.
"We've really moved the needle," said Healey on making Babson's business curriculum appeal to women. "We are becoming well-known for our focus on women entrepreneurs, and I hope having a female head of the school has been a welcoming symbol."
But two years ago, Healey's appointment caused a stir on campus, with some students, faculty, and alumni objecting to the idea of a politician as president and decrying the selection process as hasty.
Now plenty of politicians become college presidents — most notably here at the University of Massachusetts system — but some at Babson questioned Healey's qualifications. Never mind that Healey, a Harvard graduate, began her career in academia and holds a doctorate in political science and law from Trinity College in Dublin.
Soham Khaitan was among those students who expressed skepticism, but talk to him today and he'll tell you Healey has won him over.
"She has absolutely killed it at Babson," said Khaitan, a 21-year-old senior, who went on to describe Healey as a leader who can balance a grand vision with a common touch with students.
Put another way, Healey put her political skills to use, and that's what Joseph Winn, chairman of the Babson board of trustees, hoped would happen.
"She seemed like someone who could work hard and work across the aisle and work with various constituencies," Winn said. "That needs to be done at the college level, too."
Healey was also brought in to raise the profile of the school globally and make stronger connections with the school's more than 38,000 alumni from 114 countries. To that end, Healey has started to bring reunions to them, and so far has traveled to 16 countries, from Austria to the United Arab Emirates.
Between building a broad base of support and courting donors, being a college president might seem a lot like being in politics.
Not so, Healey said. "There is actually no comparison."
The biggest difference, in her mind, is that in government the roles are clear. In academia, everyone thinks they are in charge, from students to faculty.
"No one knows," she said, "where the power begins and ends."