After working for nearly three decades in public higher education, former MCLA President Mary K. Grant is hanging up her cap on this part of her career and taking on a new challenge.
Grant, who has served as chancellor of University of North Carolina at Asheville since 2015, has been named president of the Boston-based Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate beginning in January.
Sister institution to the popular John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, the Edward M. Kennedy Institute opened its doors in March 2015 to honor its namesake's legacy in public office and — through exhibits and immersive experiences — help to inspire new generations to learn about the U.S. Senate and the active roles citizens can play in it.
But, in today's tense political climate, it's been challenging to get people excited and thinking positively about government and policy.
Grant, in a telephone interview with The Eagle on Thursday afternoon, said she's eager to be a part of changing that.
"It's been 27 years I've been in public higher education and it's been just a privilege," said Grant, who for 12 years served at the helm of the Massachusetts College of liberal Arts in North Adams. "This new role allows me, in a way, to stay in the field of education but also explore how to get some of the next generation thinking," she said.
Grant has spent the past 14 years of her career as a college president or chancellor, but her roots are in political science and social thinking. She holds a doctorate in social policy from the Heller School at Brandeis University; a master's degree in public affairs from the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Boston, and a bachelor's degree in sociology from the former North Adams State College, now known as MCLA.
Grant said she's been following the development of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute through her work as vice chairwoman of the Campus Compact, a national coalition of more than a thousand colleges and universities committed to promoting public higher education institutions as conduits for building democracy through civic education and community development.
In her prepared remarks for Wednesday's announcement about her appointment to the institute, Grant said, "I am impressed by what is taking place there — the vibrant conversations, the civic learning, the exchange of ideas, and the active demonstration of democracy. The Institute is a place where people from all walks of life can experience the power of finding common ground and shifting political dialogue away from polarization and towards bipartisanship. This work is greatly important and I look forward to the opportunity to continue expanding the Institute's reach."
Grant will succeed Jean MacCormack, the retired chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, who has run the institute in an interim capacity since November 2014. Grant said she and MacCormack are working side by side to make sure that transition goes smoothly.
During her tenure in the Berkshires, Grant was known as an effective and passionate leader — inside and outside the campus community.
She is credited with spearheading numerous capital improvements at MCLA, including the renovation of historic Murdock Hall, the construction of the Feigenbaum Center for Science and Innovation, and the recent renovation of Bowman Hall, in addition to innovating new pathways for institutional development and foundation funding campaigns.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, a Richmond resident, developed a working relationship with Grant as she lobbied for state funding and support to bring many of these projects to fruition. He affirmed the match of Grant and the institute.
"How nice to think of having Mary back in Massachusetts, and in such an important role," he wrote in an email to The Eagle. "Her ability to convene and engage competing interests will serve the Institute well."
State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, who has been trying to develop a relationship with Berkshire County schools and the Institute, said she's also pleased to have Grant back in Massachusetts, "with her professionalism, her experience, her commitment to the education of young people and how young people need to be exposed to a variety of ways of learning. What a great fit for her to be there."
Berkshire Community College President Ellen Kennedy said Grant was vital in the formation of a partnership now known as the Berkshire Compact for Education, an initiative of more than 80 public and private sector members whose mission is to raise the aspirations of county residents for education and careers.
"She's been an incredible leader," Kennedy told The Eagle in 2014 when Grant announced she was taking the North Carolina chancellorship. "I think we're a more thoughtful and engaging community because of all the work she did to bring us together."
Laurie Norton Moffatt, a member of the Berkshire Compact and director and CEO of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, said she was "thrilled" by the news of Grant's new role.
She lauded her "creative energy and talents" in addition to myriad skills that she brings to the table as a leader and professional administrator.
"To have her closer to home and to put her back to work on a commonwealth institution made me really happy," Norton Moffatt said.
"Mary is a wonderful collaborator," she said, and called the Berkshire Compact a "lasting contribution to the community."
"Mary's model for that brought people from all facets of the community together, from private to legislative and public sectors, and it showed how a community could come together in creating goals and how we could all work together to do it."
In fact, Grant said she will be in the Berkshires on Friday to attend a meeting of the Rockwell Museum's board of trustees, of which she is an active member.
The late Senator Edward "Ted" Kennedy's family is still active and interested in how their new leader can help elevate the status and mission of the institute.
Victoria "Vicki" Reggie Kennedy, wife of the late Massachusetts senator and co-founder and president of the institute's board, said in a prepared statement that she was "thrilled" to have Grant on board.
"Dr. Grant is passionate about the Institute's mission to use a deeper of understanding of the United States Senate to encourage participatory democracy. She has the experience and vision to inspire the next generation of our nation's leaders and to lead the Institute into its next phase of growth and development," Kennedy said. "Now, more than ever, we believe it important to fulfill my husband's vision of engaging Americans, young and old, in active citizenship."
Jim Karam, board chairman of the institute, told The Eagle in an email interview that Grant will be a key leader for growth there, from raising a struggling attendance, to raising revenue.
"The Institute is very much in its startup phase," he said. "We've grown from a concept to a reality and are now in our third year of operations. I feel confident that Dr. Grant's leadership will move the organization forward, expanding awareness about the Institute for potential visitors, as well as educators and those in the political world. We are excited about her experience connecting organizations with relevant partners and communities from across the country."
U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, in a prepared statement, said Grant's appointment was "welcome news" for the institute.
"Dr. Grant's experience and commitment to education will be valuable assets as the Institute continues to bring to life Teddy Kennedy's great vision of motivating the next generation to learn, to serve, and to dream," he said.
Reach staff writer Jenn Smith at 413-496-6239.