Pareena Lawrence Pareena Lawrence, who was inaugurated as the 12th president of Hollins University in February 2018, enjoyed a distinguished career as a professor before shifting her focus to higher education administration. (Photo provided)

Multiplying Access and Equality

Alumna Pareena Lawrence takes the helm at Hollins University

Pareena Lawrence always knew she wanted to change the world. As her career path began taking shape, however, she never saw herself becoming a university president.

But she’s done that and made history in the process.

Lawrence, who earned her PhD in economics from the Krannert School of Management in 1993, was inaugurated this February as the 12th president of Hollins University, a private university in Roanoke, Virginia. She is the first president of color in the university’s history.

Growing up with limited economic means in northern India, where gender roles were clearly defined, it was important to her to make the world better.

She graduated with her master’s from the University of Delhi at age 21, and because of the indefinite timeline on doctoral degrees in India, she made the decision to leave her friends and family to seek her PhD at Krannert. It was the combination of Purdue’s worldwide reputation and small-town feel that made the sale.

“What I really wanted to do was go change the world. It seemed to me, as I was doing my dissertation, that the best way to change the world would have been to get a job with USAID or the World Bank,” Lawrence says.

But that’s not where she found her calling. A hiring freeze during her graduation year rerouted her to academia.

“I thought it was going to be a short tenure,” she says. “But within three months, I knew that this was my calling — preparing the next generation to go change the world.”

She found that rather than going out into the world as a single economist, she could make an exponentially larger difference  in the world by sending out hundreds  of them — an act she calls “the  multiplier effect.”

After a distinguished career as a professor at the University of Minnesota Morris, Lawrence started breaking down barriers for underrepresented groups. She became the first female provost at Augustana College in Illinois, and ultimately, the first woman of color to reach the presidency at Hollins University — an institution built in significant part by the enslaved 176 years ago.

Her achievement, she says, is both a needed change in higher education and a challenge.

“People have different expectations for you when you are a person of color,” Lawrence says. “Many of my students of color, for example, think I can do magic, can change the world for the better because  I was the provost and now the president.  I often sit and talk to them, and I tell them this is a struggle for all of us. Just because you have a woman of color in leadership, things are not going to change overnight. We will still have to struggle to bring about change. We still need everybody to be part of making this place — or any place we’re at — more inclusive.”

And inclusivity is central to her philosophy — one that took shape  at Purdue, and one she’s determined to multiply.

“I am so grateful to Purdue, and to my professors and mentors — in particular, Dr. John Sanders,” she says. “Purdue opened doors for me and provided me with incredible opportunities. It provided access for me, and that’s something I’ve continued — making sure our institutions provide access.”