College chief retires after 20 years on job


The budget battles are over. The lingering pain caused by faculty cuts and coeducation will be left for her successor.

After 40 years, Rhoda Dorsey is leaving Goucher College.

On a cloudless spring morning, Goucher's president took care of her last major duty yesterday, presiding over the 103rd graduation ceremony at the Towson college.

After a procession of bagpipers, diplomas were given to 142 graduates, and honorary degrees were bestowed upon Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, civic activist Sally James Michel, and New York philanthropist Eugene M. Lang. But, in many ways, the day belonged to Dr. Dorsey. The graduates surprised her with a magnolia to be planted in her honor.

Bruce Alexander, chairman of Goucher's board of trustees, presented her with an honorary degree.

"There are some things even presidents don't know about," Mr. Alexander said, grinning.

"How nice," an apparently surprised Dr. Dorsey replied.

Mr. Alexander praised the longtime president, concluding: "It is with the deepest gratitude that Goucher College now makes you one of our own." "I am pleased and honored to be officially a part of the Goucher community," she responded.

Dr. Dorsey, 66, actually became a part of the Goucher community in 1954, when she was hired as an assistant professor of history. She had earned degrees at Smith College and Newnham College in Cambridge, England, but she was still two years away from finishing a doctorate at the University of Minnesota.

"Students had fear and trembling before they would take a class with her," recalled Wolf Thormann, a retired French professor who came to Goucher in 1957. "She was very demanding. We were all extremely tough, but she was the toughest."

It was a vibrant time at Goucher, with good students and good professors.

But by the time Dr. Dorsey became academic dean in 1968, the atmosphere was changing, she says. Students questioned the authority of the faculty, and the faculty in turn rebelled against the administration.

"There was a great deal of incivility," she said. "There was a great deal of hurt inflicted."

She became acting president in 1973, then won the job permanently in 1974, becoming Goucher's first woman president.

She took over in the midst of crisis. Enrollment was down, and the college had a $1.6 million deficit. "The college was in very dire straits," Dr. Dorsey said.

The college twice resorted to firing several tenured faculty members. On the small Goucher campus, which now has fewer than 1,000 students and only 77 full-time professors, the cuts were painful.

"For anyone to have to be let go is an absolutely wrenching decision," Dr. Thormann said. Almost two decades later, he said, faculty members are "still smarting from the whole thing," with much of the resentment directed at Dr. Dorsey.

Financial troubles returned in the early 1980s. Some were pushing Goucher to abandon its historic role as a women's college.

Dr. Dorsey, a staunch supporter of women's colleges who had attended one, resisted. She, too, finally conceded that Goucher would not survive without male students, and the trustees voted in 1986 to admit men.

"Once she made the decision, she embraced it and never looked back," said Judith T. Phair, who was until recently a Goucher vice president.

Dr. Dorsey seems satisfied about her decisions over two decades.

"I believe the change from single sex to coed takes many years," Dr. Dorsey said in an interview this week. "You're talking 20 or 30 years until that transition is complete."

As for firing tenured faculty, she said: "I believed it to be necessary. I guess I regret having to do it."

Dr. Thormann said Dr. Dorsey "must have been an extremely strong person to take all of that and not to have said, 'Let me out of this thing.' But, no. She stood there and fought for what she believed in."

"The college had some hard choices to make several years ago," vTC Mr. Alexander said. "Whenever there is a shortage of resources, it's a contracting, constraining environment and leadership is difficult. We are now in a position where we have new horizons, new potential and it's really all built on the foundation that Rhoda laid."

Rhoda Dorsey was born in 1927 in Dorchester, Mass. Her mother died when she was in her teens and her father hired Clara MacKenzie to look after her and her younger sister.

For years after coming to Towson, Dr. Dorsey shared her campus residence with her.

Dr. Dorsey spends hours in her flower and herb gardens, enjoys movies, travels widely and dotes on her cat Sophie, friends say.

In the office, Dr. Dorsey is known for her crisp, no-nonsense style.

"She's such a strong personality that some people interpreted that as intimidating," Ms. Phair said. "She has a very warm side, but you need to get to know her to see that."

Dr. Dorsey will leave her position June 30 but will travel until then. She will be succeeded by Judy Jolley Mohraz, an associate provost at Southern Methodist University.

Dr. Dorsey said she will "move to Lutherville and do good."

She plans to remain on several corporate boards and volunteer at the historic Hampton Mansion in Towson. She will help run the Smith College used book sale next spring.

"I think she realizes that her time has come to retire, to move on," said George Foote, a retired professor who taught in the history department with Dr. Dorsey. "I think she's feeling sadness, but also a sense of completion," he said.

"Why am I going?" she asked rhetorically. "Get out while I'm ahead."

She has traveled around the country saying farewell to alumni. "I thought it might be quite lugubrious. But I've enjoyed it quite a bit."

In a characteristically matter-of-fact assessment, she said she will leave Goucher in good shape.

"The college is on firm financial footing. The enrollment is increasing. The quality of the student body is improving. That makes the faculty happier," she said. "Now I think the college is just poised for another great period of blossoming.

"It would have been terrible to have left it in bad shape," she said. "I've lived most of my professional life here. I care a great deal about it."

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