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Stephens is back in black
Strategic renaissance lifts women’s school.

Parker Eshelman photo
Built in 1918 at Stephens College, Wood Hall was upgraded in 2007 in a $13 million renovation that is part of an effort to improve student housing. The refurbished hall at Broadway and College Avenue has room for 77 students.

When Wendy Libby took over as president of Stephens College five years ago, the school was in dire straits because of falling enrollment and rising debt. This year, as Stephens celebrates its 175th anniversary, enrollment has grown by 50 percent over last year.

The college is back in the black and creating fresh new programs for women in the modern marketplace. “This is a place that there’s no relationship to anything you know,” Libby said while her desktop computer monitor scrolled a message from a Class of ’07 graduate: “We love the Libbster!”

“We are not a liberal arts institution. Stephens focuses on pre-professional programs and the performing arts, undergirded by a liberal arts education,” she said. “It is its own unique jewel, fairly narrow and very deep.”

The transformational changes at Stephens in the past five years have been part of the strategic renaissance plan that enters a new phase this year, although Libby says the strategic plan never really starts or ends because it is “malleable.”

“We have the unique opportunity of defining our growth,” she said.

The initial phase of the plan called for a rocky start in 2004, when faculty was slashed and less-popular programs were cut. The school is rebounding with new hires on the horizon, an expanded co-ed graduate and continuing education program, and a conferencing space rental and catering business that produced more than $700,000 in revenue last year compared to less than $90,000 five years ago.

“The unexpectedly positive growth in other parts of our revenue sources compensates for slower growth in enrollment,” Libby said.

She has orchestrated other components to strengthen the student experience, including beautifying the campus, new capital projects and an on-campus living requirement for all students.

“For us as a small college, I thought it made even more sense and it was more powerful in creating community,” Libby said of the campus residence requirement. The ideal of community is a strong theme for Stephens, which was established as the Columbia Female Academy in 1833 — six years before the founding of the University of Missouri.

“We have been an active participant of this community for 175 years,” Libby said. “We see ourselves as a partner in the growth and flourishing of the community, and … we provide educational as well as artistic events for” community members.

This year, Stephens alumnae returned for the largest reunion in recent memory, with 300 alums visiting the campus. Some of those alums have contributed $4 million for 22 new endowed scholarships for students in the past two years and Stephens’ second endowed professorship, which will begin this fall.

The physical appearance of the campus also has changed, with new life brought to Stephens’ quadrangle on the southwest corner of College Avenue and Broadway. There, the completely refurbished Wood and Columbia Hall bring suite- and apartment-style housing options to Stephens’s upperclassmen and maintain the 1920s-era red-brick buildings.

With all that’s changed, Libby said, “After five years, it’s good to take a breath.”

The strategic plan is entering a new phase that will incorporate input from all stakeholders and culminate in a board meeting in spring 2009.

Stephens’ capital projects turn to less visible changes, such as $230,000 in elevator work, more fire-suppression sprinklers in residence halls and new lobbies in residence halls to welcome new students.

Libby said words that appear again and again on student evaluations are: “challenging,” “community,” “women,” “fun,” “supportive” and “beautiful.”

In her own words: “We actually deliver on what we promise.”

Reach Abraham Mahshie at (573) 815-1733 or





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