Kerry Healey, a former lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, will begin working at Babson College full time next week, as president-elect, and will become the institution's first female president in July. Not long after she was named to her new post, students, faculty members, and alumni began openly questioning why and how she had been chosen.
She is now speaking individually with students and faculty members at the small business college near Boston. "I want to answer those questions," she says. "And I'm actually excited by the degree of engagement that the students and the faculty and the staff and the alumni all have for the institution."
Ms. Healey does not bring to the job the more traditional experience of the departing president, Leonard A. Schlesinger, who had been both a Harvard business professor and vice chairman and chief operating officer of Limited Brands. But, she says, the post "has genuinely clarified for me what the unifying factor was in all of the other things that I have felt passionate about in my life," and that's using entrepreneurship to create positive change in the world.
Ms. Healey, 52, served as lieutenant governor under Mitt Romney from 2003 to 2007 and was a domestic- and foreign-policy adviser to his presidential campaign last year. She has done policy and advocacy work in areas that include criminal justice, child homelessness, and women's education in Afghanistan.
"We recognized in Dr. Healey a leader who is committed to excellence, comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty, open and receptive to new ideas, and energized by change and action," Joseph L. Winn, chair of Babson's Board of Trustees, said in an e-mail.
Some news outlets had speculated that Ms. Healey might run for Secretary of State John F. Kerry's former Senate seat, but Ms. Healey says higher education will allow her to do more than she might in the U.S. Senate.
"I have felt stifled in my ability to effect significant change since I left government," she says. "When you think about ways you can be immediately impactful, education is right at the top of the list." Her goals include decreasing student debt and raising the college's global profile.
Several soon-to-be colleagues say Ms. Healey's political and diplomatic skills, name recognition, and political fund-raising experience could open new doors for Babson as it approaches its centennial, in 2019.
Heidi M. Neck, an associate professor of entrepreneurial studies, says Ms. Healey "has access to some environments that Babson hasn't traditionally had access to, where perhaps we have something to say but perhaps haven't had the medium to say it yet."
But Ms. Healey's political background, and her lack of long-term higher-education experience, has also drawn fire. A student-led petition on Change.org that questions whether the search process upheld Babson's values has gathered more than 170 signatures. Some faculty members raised concerns with the Faculty Senate's executive committee about political statements Ms. Healey made during her time in the governor's office, says the committee's chair, Mary Godwyn, an associate professor of sociology.
The focus of faculty and staff criticism quickly shifted from Ms. Healey's record to how the selection had come about. Their expectations of being involved "were much higher than seemed to be reflected back in the process," Ms. Godwyn says.
The college has held question-and-answer sessions to respond.
Ms. Healey, who has a Ph.D. in political science and law from Trinity College Dublin, resigned as Massachusetts Republican National Committeewoman when she was appointed and says she has retired from all political activity for the duration of her time at Babson.
Shahid Ansari, the college's provost, and Dennis M. Hanno, a vice provost and graduate dean, say they have been impressed with her reaction and her ability to work with a variety of people. "She's learned the meaning of academic freedom now," Mr. Ansari says.