Meet the first woman president
By Julie Depenbrock ‘13
Published: Friday, February 1, 2013
Updated: Friday, February 1, 2013 01:02
Even in middle school, Alison Byerly was sure she wanted to be a college professor. “I know that sounds impossibly geeky,” she said. “But it’s actually true.”
Plans to become a college president came later.
Born in Glenside, Pa. in 1961, Byerly grew up in a collegiate household. Both of her parents were professors: her mother taught English at Ursinus College and her father taught Electrical Engineering at a Penn State branch.
In 1979, Byerly left for Wellesley College, a competitive, Lafayette-sized liberal arts school in Massachusetts. There, she majored in English and became editor of a literary magazine.
She graduated magna cum laude from Wellesley in 1983 and later got a Ph.D. in English from the University of Pennsylvania.
At Penn, she met her future husband, Stephen Jensen, while working on a graduate student social committee. “We used to throw cocktail parties every Friday,” Byerly said. “I found out later he joined because he wanted to get to know me better.”
When she got a professorship at Middlebury College in Vermont, Jensen moved with her and landed a job as a freelance editor of medical journals. The couple eventually had two children—Ryan, now a freshman in high school, and Laramie, a sophomore in college.
Over the span of 23 years at Middlebury, Byerly escalated from English professor to Provost and Executive Vice President, which she served under President Ron Liebowitz.
Byerly confessed she didn’t know much about being an administrator when she became Provost, but learned from experience.
“One of the things you become accustomed to as an administrator is having the humility to know when you don’t know something and turning to those who do,” she said. “Relying on the talent of people around you.”
Byerly has plenty of talent herself, according to her colleagues at Middlebury.
“She’s really remarkable—and I know this is going to sound like I’m saying this just because she’s a friend of mine—but the truth is I’m not the kind of faculty member who normally inclines toward administration,” Paul Monod, a professor of history at Middlebury, said. “But she will step out there and say the things that are controversial and she will get people riled up and interested and involved.”
“I think she managed to do that because people take her seriously,” Monod continued. “She projects her competence and she’s just very, very competent at what she does.”
Middlebury President Ron Liebowitz said he was “quite delighted” to hear of Byerly’s appointment, though International Studies Professor Jeff Cason was quicker to reflect on Middlebury’s “great loss of a leader.”
Before Byerly assumes the presidency on July 1, she wants to get to know her new school as much as possible.
“I think my role as someone who is not yet president but is preparing to be president is to learn all I can,” she said. “Lafayette is a deep and rich community and it isn’t a project for overnight.”