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One corner turned, a school nears another

As president exits, college thinks big

The average local may know a thing or two about Simmons College.

They may speak of librarians, social workers, nurses, and women. The well-informed may know that Simmons is soon to become the only all-women's undergraduate institution in Boston/Cambridge. (Lesley College goes coed this fall.) Art lovers may even know exactly where Simmons is: next to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on the Fenway, just around the corner from the MFA.

If they do, they know more than Simmons president Dan Cheever did when he took the job 10 years ago.

"I didn't know where Simmons was," when he took over, concedes Cheever , though he had a general idea. What's more, he says, "I wasn't really interested" in the job. After talking with members of Simmons' board, he reconsidered. Cheever, who recently announced that he will step down next year, loves a challenge. And Simmons College in 1995 was a bona fide mess.

Incorporated in 1899 by the estate of clothing magnate John Simmons to train women to "acquire an independent livelihood," the college prospered during much of the 20th century, adding four coed graduate schools and a women's-only management school. By the early 1990s, however, Simmons appeared in danger of going under.

President William Holmes stepped down in 1993 several months after a faculty vote of no confidence. His replacement, Jean Dowdall, was the first female president of the college, and the second successive leader to receive a no-confidence vote from the faculty, in this case in reference to a strategic plan. She resigned in May of 1995.

Enter Cheever, who set about to gather accurate data. Cold and hard facts they were. Undergraduate enrollment had plummeted. The operating budget had been in the red for seven years. Salaries were frozen. As Cheever crunched numbers and shook hands, his challenge was revealed, but so was Simmons's potential. "I did realize . . . that things were in pretty dire shape," he says. "I also realized that there were a lot of good people here."

It was men who presented an obstacle. Not the men at Simmons, but the men who weren't. Some faculty members thought the undergraduate school should welcome men. Professor Raquel Halty, now director of the graduate program in Spanish, was a tentative member of the coed camp.

"Some people think that not being coed nowadays is an anachronism," she says. Others believed adding men and their tuition would ensure Simmons's future.

Cheever believed the school didn't need to abandon its historical commitment to women to succeed, even at a time when women's colleges across the country had become coeducational of perceived necessity. So confident was he that the current strategic plan has as its first goal "to position Simmons as an authority on women."

In addition to numbers and gender, Cheever believes Simmons's psyche needed immediate attention. "There wasn't self-confidence and self-pride," he says. "I think the first and most important thing is you try to be the kind of person you want everyone else to be, to model behavior. . . . Treat each other with respect, buck each other up, and support each other."

Though it all sounds like what Cheever calls "very sort of cotton candy," employees responded (and today use cotton candy terms such as "empowering" and "affirming" when talking about Cheever). Cheever's spiritual buoying was backed up by hard-nosed action. Stellar faculty members were encouraged to innovate, and less-than-satisfactory faculty members were shown the door. Marketing became key, from hiring new staff to placing flags in front of the college so Bostonians would finally know where Simmons was. The college brought student loans in-house, a controversial move that brings the college nearly $1 million a year in related fees.

As Cheever steps down, enrollments have risen 42 percent since 1998. SAT scores are at a 30-year high (average 1109 in 2004). Salaries are in the top 15 percent for comparable schools, according to the college. Simmons operates in the black. New buildings are rising. And a lot more people have heard of Simmons.

The college has earned a spot on U.S. News & World Report's much-ballyhooed list, where it tied with Connecticut's Quinnipiac University as one of the best master's level universities in the north. Senior Colleen Teixeira says in addition to Simmons, she applied to Smith and Mount Holyoke, two schools with longtime cache. She ended up at Simmons, her second choice.

Perhaps the most notable sign of the school's turnaround is that students who apply to Simmons are also applying to the Smiths, the Mount Holyokes, and other institutions Cheever cites as peers. "Students admitted to Simmons who don't come here tend to go to BC and Northeastern and BU," he says. He hopes his successor honks the Simmons horn even more loudly than he has. "I think the challenge for the next president will be to help the rest of the world recognize Simmons for what it is, which really is a small university and a wonderful place."

Snippets about Simmons

  • More than 50 percent of Simmons undergraduate women major in science or health science. "Take that, Larry Summers," says President Dan Cheever.

  • Simmons is home to the only business school in the world designed for women, school officials say.

  • Simmons is hosting two Afghan women on full scholarship, the first college in the state and the only women's college in the country participating in the Rhode Island-based Initiative to Educate Afghan Women.

  • Approximately one-fifth of Simmons's undergraduate students are Dix Scholars, women beginning their Simmons careers at age 24 or older.

    SUSANNA BAIRD

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