Roanoke College and Hollins University reach a milestone in 2017 and getting there hasn’t always been easy.
There remains to this day some dispute about whether both Roanoke College and Hollins University are the same age, 175. They were both founded in 1842, but Hollins was an “institute” and a “seminary” before finally becoming Hollins College in 1911, the first chartered women’s college in Virginia.
Roanoke College history department head Mark Miller and his wife, Linda, the school’s archivist, bring up the point in casual conversation, then smile that “it doesn’t really matter, does it?” and move on to the next topic. Hollins, however, has been far more sensitive to the point over the years, perhaps due to its 19th and early 20th century financial struggles and its difficult battle for accreditation in the 1930s.
Regardless of the fine points of the argument—if you want to call it that—the fact is that Hollins and Roanoke are the Roanoke Valley’s two prominent liberal arts colleges and neither is in the City of Roanoke. Roanoke College is firmly in the center of Salem and Hollins is in … well, Hollins, a division of Roanoke County, an area named—as the school was—for a couple of prominent benefactors.
In recent years, both schools have outstripped expectations and traditional roles. Hollins’ goal initially was to produce competent wives, who could hold up their end of a discussion while simultaneously cooking a scrumptious beef burgonionne for 20. Quiet Roanoke College has become anything but during the past 20 years and has had a flurry of impressive growth—including a lot of new, big buildings—of late. That means a steady stream of alumni gifts and spectacular fund-raising success.
Mike Maxey took the reins at Roanoke College in 2007 after Nancy Gray accepted the presidency of Hollins in 2004. Both were the 11th presidents of their schools (not counting interim appointments). He had never been—nor even aspired to—a presidency. Gray accepted the presidency of women-only Converse College in South Carolina five years earlier, basically to “see if I could be a college president,” she says now. She became convinced of the value of women’s colleges.
Maxey had been brought in by President Norm Fintel, whose legacy was expansion and fund-raising, because he showed promise in that regard. He was good at it, but as important, he was roundly liked and respected, so his appointment to the top spot was enormously popular.
“The first big fund-raiser in 1989,” he says, “helped define” what was coming for Roanoke. “It was far and away the biggest we’d ever done.” Programs and faculty reached heights never before imagined. “It made us see ourselves differently,” he says. The college “was in great shape when I got here,” and it has improved almost exponentially since then.
Nancy Gray has seen considerable advancement for women in our culture, but despite “more women in law, medicine, Congress,” there is “still the invisible ceiling that has not been broken.” Women are underrepresented in the STEM disciplines, she says, and Hollins is intent on making a difference there. Women’s colleges—Hollins specifically—make a difference “by instilling confidence and leadership” in their graduates.
She has also seen a questioning of the value of college, especially when escalating costs are considered. “How do you pay for it? Is it worth [the cost]?” she asks. “We have to make the case in a stronger and more profound way than ever” as a college intent on producing leaders.
The Batten Institute at Hollins, which was begun under interim president Walter Rugaber in 2001, has been wildly successful in training women for business leadership. Hollins, generally, is “preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, technology that’s not yet there.”
Gray earned considerable statewide—and perhaps national—recognition for Hollins’ performance during the deep recession of 2008 and beyond. Maxey calls it “one of the great stories of Virginia” financial sophistication.
Gray likes to quote former President John A. Logan Jr. (1961-1975) with an observation that could equally apply to Roanoke College: “Hollins never had any money, but always found a way.”
Charles Lewis Cocke knew from the time he was a teenager that he wanted to concentrate his life’s work on the “higher education of women in the South.” By the time he was 25 in 1846, the Richmond math instructor had been appointed principal of the four-year-old Valley Union Seminary in Botetourt Springs, the original name of the site of the present campus. He showed up with a wife and 16 slaves in tow and almost immediately established a school for the area’s slaves, teaching them to read.
The original co-educational institute was established by Rev. Joshua Bradley in 1842. In 1851, Cocke closed the school’s men’s department, and in 1852, established the Roanoke Female Seminary. Three years later, it was renamed Hollins Institute (after donors John and Ann Halsey Hollins).
Hollins College became Virginia’s first chartered women’s college in 1911 and by 1958, it was offering graduate programs. Hollins achieved university status in 1998.
Cocke’s educational philosophy, basically, was based upon the “Southern sensibility that a lady was to be trained to submit to the order of men.” He also wrote that “young women require the same thorough and rigid mental training as that afforded to young men,” which is considerably closer to the modern Hollins. Under Cocke’s presidency, “The school became the first in the United States to begin a system of elective study, and it was the first to establish an English department under a full professor,” according to a 1932 Time magazine article.
Hollins struggled financially—though not academically—well into the 20th century, and before the Civil War used slaves to maintain and build a good bit of its campus, a sore point to some today. Cocke’s 45-year-old daughter, Matty, took over the presidency upon Cocke’s death at 81 in 1901, the family actually owning the school outright at that point. Matty Cocke, Virginia’s first woman college president, hated fund-raising and the school had no endowment because it was owned by her family. That meant financial hardship.
In 1932, after considerable wrangling, the Cockes released the school to a board of trustees and Matty Cox resigned. The school was then accredited.
In 1960, Louis Rubin instituted the Hollins writing program, which was to become the hallmark of the school’s national reputation. The writer-in-residence program, one of the nation’s first, was established a year earlier. In 2008, Hollins opened the Jackson Center for Creative Writing.