Dr. Robin Holmes-Sullivan is accustomed to making history.
“It’s not the first time that I’ve been the first,” she said.
Come July, Holmes-Sullivan will be the first woman and first African-American — and first person of color, in general — to become president of Lewis & Clark College in the school’s 155-year history. She will step into the helm this July after president Wim Wiewel retires.
“It’s obviously something that is going to be, and is, very meaningful to me and to our school and also to the young people who will be looking at me as someone who they can feel inspired by,” Holmes-Sullivan said. “They can realize that they can dream big.”
Holmes-Sullivan is currently Lewis & Clark’s vice president for student life and dean of students. Prior to Lewis & Clark, she worked for the University of California system as vice president of student affairs. Before that, she spent nearly 30 years at the University of Oregon. She started at UO as a clinical coordinator in the university’s counseling center and eventually became the vice president of student life.
College presidents tend to ascend into their roles through the academic side, Holmes-Sullivan said — working first in teaching positions, and then rising into department leadership roles such as by becoming a dean or provost. She didn’t take that path. Most of her career in higher education has focused on students, and before that she worked extensively in psychology.
“I didn’t know I was going to be in higher education. What I did know at a pretty early age is that I wanted to help people,” Holmes-Sullivan said. “Being a psychologist is something that really is very close to my heart. … It wasn’t a big stretch then to move that over into higher education, especially student affairs.”
Holmes-Sullivan said both her work as a clinical psychologist and in student affairs will inform her role as president of Lewis & Clark, especially when it comes to addressing issues students may be facing with or without a pandemic — such as the need for mental health care.
“I think I bring that understanding and that ability to work through some of those issues and inspire others to help students work through those important issues,” she said.
The Lewis & Clark Board of Trustees selected Holmes-Sullivan as president following a nationwide search that attracted more than 100 applicants, according to the college.
“In these tumultuous times, especially in regard to student issues, I can’t think of a more level-headed and experienced leader than Robin,” current president Wim Wiewel said in a statement. Wiewel said he looks forward to working closely with Holmes-Sullivan to make her transition as seamless as possible.
Holmes-Sullivan said she’s grateful for the support she’s gotten from the campus community, and from her family.
“No one accomplishes anything by themselves,” she said. “There have just been so many people, not only my parents and my family — my immediate family, my wife and my children — but also mentors along the way, the current leadership that is here at Lewis & Clark, as well as the board of trustees, and all the great people who work here on this campus.”
Holmes-Sullivan acknowledged that the job she’s stepping into won’t be easy, especially with the continuing uncertainty of the pandemic. But, she said the fact that she’s already part of the Lewis & Clark community gives her an advantage in transitioning into the position.
“I’m already here on campus. I’m already working with colleagues and the current president, and we’ve been working, I think very successfully, and making good progress on our strategic plan for several years now,” Holmes-Sullivan said. “One of the main things I want to do is keep that positive trajectory going in terms of our enrollment goals, in terms of the types of students we’re able to attract and support in their academic endeavors.”
Lewis & Clark may be weathering the pandemic better than some private colleges and universities. While remaining largely in-person over the last two years, Lewis & Clark rebounded from an enrollment dip in 2020 to enroll one of its largest classes ever last fall.
With the pandemic in mind, Holmes-Sullivan said she will continue the collaborative “all-hands-on-deck” model that Lewis & Clark has been using to manage operations during the pandemic — including frequent communication with the campus community and opportunities to gather input from students, parents and others.