FREDERICK -- The idea of former IRS Commissioner Shirley D. Peterson -- a tax attorney, for crying out loud -- as college president initially held little appeal for some students at Hood College. Now they're among her biggest fans.
For Mrs. Peterson, 54, a self-described "little farm girl" turned Washington powerhouse, assuming the presidency of this largely women's college represents the fulfillment of a decades-old dream. Although she has been on campus since April, Mrs. Peterson is to be formally invested today with the powers of president during a morning inauguration ceremony. She replaces Martha E. Church, a nationally known educator who left office last year after 20 years.
As a high school senior in Twin Falls, Idaho, Mrs. Peterson applied only to all-women schools in New England's Seven Sisters group -- inspired by a Look magazine article she had seen several years earlier. "It had pictures of girls sitting in ivy-covered towers reading books," Mrs. Peterson recalled recently. "I said, 'That's for me.' I committed the names of those seven colleges to memory."
During her freshman fall at Pennsylvania's Bryn Mawr College in 1959, she was invited with other new students to the home of President Catherine Elizabeth McBride for tea. "I thought, 'She is so wonderful -- if I could ever be a college president, that would be the pinnacle of my career,' " Mrs. Peterson said.
In her career, Mrs. Peterson, a lifelong Republican, worked as a partner in the Washington law firm Steptoe and Johnson. In the Bush administration, she was an assistant attorney general, then the first woman commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service. She left office when President Clinton took over.
"There's something very satisfying in knowing that you can and you are improving things for the American public," Mrs. Peterson said of her efforts to make the IRS more citizen-friendly and more efficient. "When I left government, I asked myself, how can I capture this same feeling? I remembered my old goal of being a college president."
Hood came calling first, she said.
"She was a candidate who was better than we ever dreamed exists," said Linda Bosmajian, an associate professor of psychology who served on the search committee.
Since her unofficial arrival on April 1, Mrs. Peterson has fired out a series of initiatives -- some modest, some sweeping -- to involve students, faculty and staff on campus in a way that harks back to her own days at Bryn Mawr. Such as:
* Mrs. Peterson holds teas at her home to welcome every new student, as President McBride did for her.
* She rekindled chapel sessions every other Thursday, at which students can debate campus issues, perform songs or read poetry.
* She started an annual colloquium drawing on a theme intended to appear in every class. On March 6, faculty and students will be separated into groups of 30 to discuss conceptions of justice from Plato to the present. The day will be capped by a talk by Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
* She promised professors and staffers free lunches at the student dining hall, as long as they eat while students are there. Mrs. Peterson herself can be seen at least once a week at Coblentz dining hall.
* She encouraged students to set up a Homecoming Day this fall, the campus' first.
And the students have responded. When she walks around the 50-acre campus, students smile broadly and nod, greeting her by name, just as she often greets them.
"I know a lot of people were worried -- what's this new president going to be like? -- especially an IRS commissioner," said student government president Deborah LaBoo, 21, a senior from Randallstown. "She really put our fears to rest, by eating in the dining halls, attending the first soccer and field hockey games. She even came to our first big party of the year -- the freshman bash.
"She is simply the best. She is so energetic, so friendly -- she'll talk to you, she'll shake your hand, she'll hug you. I'm for real about this. It's like the birds sing a lovelier song."
Her approach is not all style. Mrs. Peterson said she wants to reinvigorate the liberal arts core. But she also emphasized opportunities for computer technology offered in the new library and pledged to increase course offerings coordinated with other schools.
In her office lined with pictures of her with President George Bush and other federal officials, Mrs. Peterson has a sign with the legend "That's the Way We've Always Done It" and a thick red line through it.
"That sign basically says it all -- we cannot continue to do business as we have before," she said.
Dr. Church, Mrs. Peterson's predecessor, is credited with keeping the college afloat during an era when many women's schools, such as Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and Goucher College in Towson, became co-educational to deal with dwindling student populations.