Jewel in an educator's crown

Professor to ascend to WMC presidency

April 21, 2001|By Maria Blackburn | Maria Blackburn,SUN STAFF

A tiara sits behind a glass door in the president's office at Western Maryland College - a girly, sparkly crown of rhinestones and pink plastic hearts.

On a shelf next to it, wrapped in clear plastic, is the new black velvet tam with the gold tassel Joan Develin Coley will wear today when she is inaugurated as the Westminster college's eighth president.

Coley seems slightly embarrassed about the tiara, one of the few personal effects in the otherwise bare office she has yet to make her own. Being a princess is not exactly the image she wants to convey as the first female president and the first person to rise through the ranks of the 134-year-old college from assistant professor to president.

The lifelong educator would much prefer to talk about her vision for the college as a nationally recognized, top-ranked institution, her plans to triple the endowment by 2010 or otherwise assert herself as the passionate, committed leader of the school where she has worked for nearly 30 years.

"I hate those academic hats you have to wear," Coley said. The foppish tams worn for academic ceremonies are "pretentious" and "mess up your hair," she said. At a recent meeting she told faculty members, "Forget that, I think I want a tiara."

Since then, Coley has received four.

For Western Maryland College, a tightly knit community of 1,600 students and 88 faculty members, Coley's inauguration is a coronation of sorts, a two-day celebration beginning with a cross-campus parade of 300 delegates, faculty members, students and trustees, the recitation of an original inaugural poem, a fireworks display and a concert.

Compared with previous inaugurations at the college - one of which lasted an entire week-Coley's gala, at her request, is relatively low key.

However, the event is still more elaborate than the new president wanted, confided Julie Develin, a Western Maryland senior from Plymouth Meeting, Pa., who is also Coley's niece. "She wanted as little pomp and circumstance as possible," said Develin, 21. "She's humbled by this."

Prefers simplicity

Coley hates pretension. A nationally recognized reading specialist, the 56-year-old Philadelphia native refuses to display the awards she has received over the years and her diplomas, preferring to keep them at home in a cardboard box. Nearly everyone at the college, from the lowliest freshman to the loftiest professor emeritus, addresses her simply as Joan, not President Coley.

"On her playing field, whether you're president of the college or the person in charge of the mailroom, you hold the same place in her heart," said Debra A. Miller, an associate professor of education at Western Maryland who coordinates the graduate reading program Coley developed and led from 1973 to 2000. "She's very genuine. With Joan, what you see is what you get and much, much more."

Lauding the college

Coley would rather consider her inauguration as a celebration of the college, "an entire community reaffirming itself."

Western Maryland has a lot to crow about. Enrollment is up. The school - home to nationally recognized deaf education and reading programs - was named recently as one of 40 colleges in the nation that changes lives.

In addition, the college recently received a $100,000 grant from the William Randolph Hearst Foundation it plans to use for minority scholarships.

Coley takes pride in her school's accomplishments, but she is committed to doing more. She has spent one week a month out of the past year visiting corporations and foundations in New York, Florida, California and elsewhere, building relationships that she hopes will help increase the college's $50 million endowment, the lowest in the 11-school Centennial Conference, which includes Swarthmore College and the Johns Hopkins University.

While she doesn't have aspirations that the college will become as well-known as Swarthmore or as wealthy as Harvard University, which has a $20 billion endowment, Coley said she does want Western Maryland's reputation as a small, private liberal arts institution to become better known.

"Right now we're a hidden gem," she said.

"We'll forget it - we're tired of being a hidden gem. Somehow, we have to get the word out about what we do and what we do well. We teach."

Setting goals

Francis "Skip" Fennell, a professor of education who has worked with Coley for 25 years, has little doubt that she will accomplish her goals. "Joan has figured out a way to be very good at what she does at every station in her professional career," said Fennell. "She is constantly seeking a challenge."

When Coley's working-class Philadelphia family was unable to pay for her college education, she worked three jobs to pay her own way at Albright College in Reading, Pa.

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