Campus Conversations with President Hilary L. Link

Link discusses 2021 Influential Leadership Award, institutional progress

Hilary L. Link was elected to serve as the 22nd President of Allegheny College in July 2019, the first woman to ever hold the title at the college.

“Everything that I do is as a representative of Allegheny College,” Link said. “People are intrigued by what it means to be the first female president in 205 years, who is a mother of three and does not necessarily look like a lot of the portraits that are hanging in Tippie Alumni Center (at Cochran Hall) — any way that we can get the Allegheny College name out there is better recognition for our students, our alums and the name brand of the college.” 

Link recently won the Pittsburgh Professional Women’s Association 2021 Influential Leadership Award on International Women’s Day, March 8. 

“This was all about courageous leadership in the last year,” Link said. “I am ultimately responsible for the health and well-being of our community and institution and that was a really big decision. Frankly, the easier decision would have been, especially given some push back that we received in August, to remain fully remote. It is never going to be perfect, but I think that there is courage in having made what we fundamentally believe is the right thing for our (campus community), college and the local community, but it hasn’t been without a need to be courageous day after day.”

Link said that it was an honor to receive the award along with another Allegheny-affiliated individual.

“It was really exciting to be a part of this group because it was looking at courageous and inspirational leaders with a very wide lens — there were artists, business people and several different work fields,” Link said. “It is a great community of women and a great opportunity to get Allegheny’s name out there and promote us as an excellent institution.”

Link explained that her role as president of the college involves many different sectors of the institution.

“I am responsible for the work that everybody at the college does, whether it is on the academic side or on the administrative side,” Link said. “I make sure that our students are well-educated, well-cared for, safe and engaged. There is a development and alumni affairs portion as well, so I raise money on behalf of the institution and connect with alums so that they know all of the great things happening across the institution. I work with Provost (and Dean of the College Ron Cole) on curriculum and I work with our student life staff on everything that they do. I handle financial issues, (human resource) issues, athletics and our diversity initiatives … There is also a facilities side with the Physical Plant, so everything that happens at the college ultimately passes up to me.”

Link’s tenure has been unlike any other of her predecessors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. From establishing the Allegheny College Health Agency to ensuring students’ safety amidst reopening the institution for in-person living and learning, Link has handled situations that she did not anticipate when she took office. 

“One of the big initiatives that I have been rolling out in the last few months is a realignment of the entire administration around big-picture, strategic priorities,” Link said. “The big-picture priorities are interconnected and overlapping, which are really meant to be a shared responsibility of everyone across the institution. We are doing incredibly complex — it’s like a chess board — moves between now and June —when everything will be finalized — so we have an administrative structure that makes sense for realizing those big, strategic priorities.”

Link commented that the new structure will enable each office to handle their responsibilities more effectively and efficiently than the previous structure. Link believes that students, even in the upcoming class, will notice changes on how they are supported during their time at the college. 

“We have become one of the (first) 10 institutions in the country to become carbon neutral,” Link said. “While I do not take credit for the vast, vast majority of the work done under President (Emeritus) Richard Cook and President (Emeritus) James Mullen, taking on the last piece of it has been a huge priority for me and it is something that I am really proud of.”

Link praised the work that Director of Sustainability Kelly Boulton, ’02, has done to help ensure the college reached carbon neutrality. 

To further the college’s sustainability initiative, Link mentioned that she joined the steering committee for Second Nature, which is an organization dedicated to climate action.

Link also stated that the college is working to ensure that relations with the surrounding community are beneficial to both it and the college. 

“Meadville, like many rural communities, is struggling and will continue to struggle post pandemic,” Link said. “Now is the best possible time to demonstrate our serious commitment to economic investment, to civic and community investment and to think in new, creative ways about how we engage with the local community.”

To help ensure that this can be accomplished, Link added that the college hired former Meadville City Manager Andy Walker, ’00, to help with creating relations between Meadville and the college. 

“Another piece is starting to raise serious interests from individual donors and foundations who are excited by the vision put forward,” Link said. 

These donors have begun to financially support the college’s new initiatives and vision for the advancement of the institution, Link added. Link announced a significant contribution that will be made to advance diversity and equity initiatives on campus.

“I think both (Link) and I would acknowledge that we have done a better job over the past decade of recruiting a diverse student body than we have supporting a diverse student body,” said Vice President for Institutional Advancement Matthew Stinson. “We are not done — there is a lot more work to do — but this is a huge step forward in the process of (supporting a diverse student body) … This will really build our capacity to do the right thing for the students that we have brought here and hope to continue to bring here.”

Dean for Institutional Diversity Kristen Dukes has begun to search for a new assistant Dean for Institutional Diversity, and through the realignment process, Dukes’ office will report directly to Link moving forward. 

“We have a lot of work to do for DEI, however where I have been really focusing is generating the funding and putting in place a structure to support success in DEI moving forward — by elevating (Dukes’) position to be a part of the president’s cabinet and bringing in funding that will allow her to expand her portfolio,” Link added. “We have created long-lasting collaborations with facilitators who are working right now with faculty, and they will then work with administrators and staff as well as students so that we are really trying to do the work rather than talk about what needs to be done. To do the work to get at the root causes of what makes this a less welcoming place for some members of our community so that we can really work toward changing that instead of just kind of dealing with issues as they pop up. We are just starting to lay the groundwork, but the groundwork that we have laid is going to give us the momentum we need to do the work that we need to do for the future.”  

Link mentioned that many other institutions decided not to take on additional initiatives while managing the pandemic. 

Link believes that through focusing on the aforementioned issues and “big-picture priorities” that Allegheny College will be able to raise its profile in the national realm.

“I think that Allegheny is full of unrealized potential,” Link said. “I think that the sky’s the limit. There is no reason why this institution is not known all over the place for a rigorous, interdisciplinary, comprehensive and research-based undergraduate experience.”

Link discussed some of the concerns that arose during her tenure as well. 

“I was blindsided by a number of things that happened in my first five to seven months that I did not even know were issues,” Link said. “To be frank, we have drastically enhanced safety security with Public Safety on this campus because it was the right thing to do. Anyone who works for me will tell you that one of the first things that I noticed was that we had to do a deep dive that would not be comfortable into why there were issues of racism on this campus and how to better the relationship among different student groups and marginalized communities on this campus — that was not something that I was not entirely aware of when I got here.”

In addition to some of the events that occurred on campus during her tenure, Link discussed current students concerns regarding transparency.

“I know students may say that we have not been transparent but I believe that we have communicated every single thing that we have known and learned to our students, faculty and staff,” Link said. “I am probably one of the more transparent people and presidents that you may ever meet. I have no issue sharing information with students, but I only want to do so in collaborative ways.”

Link mentioned that she had met throughout the fall semester with the President and Vice President of the Allegheny Student Government more than she ever had during her first year at the institution. She also recalled attending a General Assembly to listen to student concerns and increase accessibility. 

“I believe that not being able to gather in-person gives students the perception that I am not accessible and present,” Link said. “Students who have had the opportunity to spend time with me and my family, who get to know me understand that is not the case. The reality is that we cannot gather the way that previous presidents have been able to do. It is very hard to have informal interactions during (COVID-19). I am looking forward to having more informal and casual interactions to get to know students better.”

On a more personal note, Link reiterated that aside from being the institution’s president, she is a working mother of three and mentioned that she is very passionate about baking and athleticism. She loves to play tennis and frequently hosts matches with faculty and staff. 

Members of the executive administration want students to get to know them better and more personally, according to Stinson.

“People will say ‘administration’ and not really know who those people are,” Stinson said. “We are looking for opportunities to put faces to names … The more students understand who we are and what we do, the more students will reach out to us … Until students know who we are, they hesitate to reach out. Because of (COVID-19) we are not able to (talk with students) in the ways that we have traditionally done before so we all —  (the campus community) — collaboratively need to work on how to intentionally forge those relationships that make the Allegheny experience what it is.”