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A Conversation With President Zak

A Conversation with President Leocadia Zak

By Sara Baxter

 

In the days following the announcement of Leocadia I. Zak being named Agnes Scott College’s ninth president, there were more than 10,000 visits to the presidential search website. Understandably, people were excited about the news and interested in learning more about the woman leading the college into its next chapter, and since President Zak officially assumed her role on July 1, 2018, that excitement and interest has remained high. President Zak shares her thoughts on how attending a women’s college shaped her career, the importance of SUMMIT, joining the Agnes Scott community and more. 

 

Where did you grow up?

Lynn, Massachusetts—just north of Boston. I am a proud product of Lynn Public Schools.

 

What led you to choose Mount Holyoke as an undergraduate? Were you looking for a women’s college? 

When I was in high school, one of the things I was focusing on was becoming a lawyer—it was a dream of mine. When I was looking at colleges, I wanted one that had top-notch academic credentials. I also wanted to be at a place where I thought I could grow the skills and have experiences that would help me become an effective lawyer. I stepped on the campus of Mount Holyoke, and I had that “I belong here” feeling, which was the exact same feeling I had when I stepped on the campus of Agnes Scott. 

 

How was your undergraduate experience influential in shaping you?

It put me on the path to my next adventure. Mount Holyoke has stayed with me my entire life, particularly the faculty, the staff, the friends that I made—they have all had a profound influence on me. The faculty was amazing in teaching me the skills that I needed, including critical thinking and writing. They demonstrated a belief in me, and that translated into a belief in myself. I was also extremely fortunate to meet people who have been my lifelong friends, and they have been cheering me on as the president of Agnes Scott. Mount Holyoke was clearly an environment where I was able to grow and to obtain the confidence as well as the voice that I needed for the future. These were extremely important skills for me to have as I went forward in my law school career, as a practicing attorney, as someone who ran a government agency and now as a college president.

 

What made you decide to become a lawyer? 

It came out of a sense of wanting to help people. When I was in middle school, I had a sense it would be a way I could do good to help people. My goal when I was in college and law school was to focus on public service as an area in which I wanted to practice. I took a little bit of a different route. I went to a large law firm first. And this was very valuable because it gave me critical skills and exposed me to areas, such as meaningful finance and international practices, that led me to ultimately focus on public service. If you had told me in college that I’d have expertise in finance, I would have laughed. But I did develop the expertise that is important, particularly focusing on colleges and universities. Also, as a lawyer, I gained experience working through the process of getting projects done. My work was very much about execution, getting to win-win solutions, getting things built, and ending with a situation where all parties felt they had a good result. These are skills that served me well and will continue to serve me well. 

 

What led you to apply for the Agnes Scott presidency? 

As the Obama administration was coming to an end, people would ask me what I wanted to do, and I would tell them: “Become a college president.” I was so influenced by my experience at Mount Holyoke; it had been with me every day. So when I was considering the next chapter in my career, I wanted to return to what had such a profound impact on me. 

I had heard of Agnes Scott through the women’s college network. Also, Agnes Scott and Elizabeth Kiss have done a wonderful job of letting the world know about the school. I read an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about Agnes Scott and SUMMIT, and I was truly impressed to see SUMMIT featured there. 

There were really two things that attracted me to Agnes Scott. One was the school itself—it has an extremely good reputation and clearly is a place that focuses on students and the ability to think critically, which are things I strongly value. The college also focuses on honesty and integrity, which are very much part of my values. But in particular, the SUMMIT experience is something that spoke to me. The focus on leadership development and global learning is invaluable in this day and age. Other things that are also important to me are vision and innovation, and I saw the development of SUMMIT at Agnes Scott as being representative of the college’s innovative spirit.

 

As you were going through the interview process during the presidential search, what were some of the things you learned about Agnes Scott that made you excited about being a candidate? 

Throughout the entire process—the search committee interviews, meetings with members of the community—the people were absolutely amazing. They were incredibly caring individuals, really focused on doing the right thing for the college as well as being extremely welcoming. For me, it was the feeling of community that was extremely important in my decision making and something that was exhibited from the moment I walked in the room for that first meeting. There was a strong sense of love for Agnes Scott and a high level of integrity.

 

What does it mean to you personally as a graduate of a women’s college to become the president of one?

I cannot be happier to be Agnes Scott’s president. It’s a dream come true; it’s like coming home. It’s an opportunity to be deeply involved with the community and hopefully to give back a little bit of what was so meaningful to me—the encouragement, the leadership and the inspiring confidence. I hope to create an environment where that can be done, and I’m honored to be able to be a part of it. 

 

Do you remember your first thought or reaction the day you were announced as the college’s ninth president? 

It was amazing. I was thrilled, and I was also really honored. I do know it’s a very special place, and I’m sure there were many extremely well-qualified candidates. I called all my supporters—my friends and family. But the other thing that was very special was all the calls and the emails I received from members of the Board of Trustees and the search committee. In a very short period of time, the spirit of the Agnes Scott community, everyone’s welcoming nature and belief in the college, came through very quickly, helping to make the day extremely special. 

 

What stood out to you as particularly memorable in your conversations with the students, faculty and staff the day of your announcement as president? 

First, in everyone I spoke to, I could see the love for Agnes Scott. They talked about how much they loved the college and what a wonderful place it is. I knew I was going to love it, too. Also, I could see a pride in the institution and how strongly everyone felt it was a special place. 

 

Are there things you are particularly looking forward to enjoying or experiencing at Agnes Scott? 

Clearly, it’s the people. Every time I step on campus, I’m just amazed at how at home I feel, and this comes down to the people. The students have been absolutely incredible. During the announcement, from the stage, it was wonderful to look out and see the diversity of the students and the ones who had been part of the interview process right in the front row. I’m really looking forward to getting to know everyone on campus. Both my husband, Ken, and I enjoy being in a learning environment—I have been an adjunct professor for 13 years, and early in his career, Ken was a professor of economics at Wellesley College. We are excited to be in an environment where all aspects of learning are valued.

 

What are your hopes for SUMMIT as the college moves into the next phase?

First, I have to acknowledge the vision of the Board of Trustees, President Emerita Elizabeth Kiss and the faculty and staff in the creation of SUMMIT. It really is unique and took a tremendous amount of vision. They have done a remarkable job in not only developing but also implementing SUMMIT. 

What I hope for is to continue SUMMIT’s extraordinary trajectory and ensure it receives the recognition it truly deserves. Agnes Scott has reinvented the liberal arts, and it’s important for this to be known throughout the academic world as well as by leaders and prospective students across the country. I think Scotties will be the best ambassadors for the program, and I am delighted that this May we will have an outstanding graduating class that has experienced SUMMIT across all four years. I know they will be tremendous ambassadors, as will future Scotties. 

 

An integral part of SUMMIT is global learning. How did your previous role at the U.S. Trade and Development Agency inform your global perspective? 

The USTDA is very similar to Agnes Scott. It clearly is a gem with heart. It gave me an opportunity to not only travel but also meet people from around the world. I think the most important part of that was the ability to develop relationships with people from other cultures and other backgrounds. I think this level of learning and being able to work collaboratively and being able to listen and learn from others are skills that are extremely valuable and ones that will be particularly beneficial to Agnes Scott and the SUMMIT experience.

 

What do you hope you will have accomplished in five years? 

It really is a matter of everyone working together—the faculty, staff, board and students—to see what we can accomplish. I hope that we will have continued to both prepare students to be global change agents and guide them in whatever it is they want to achieve in the future. 

 

How will your family support you in your new role? 

I have an incredibly supportive and encouraging family. My mother, who recently passed away, was an amazing influence with respect to the value of education, as was my father, who was a veterinarian. They were among the first in their families to go to college. Both my brother and sister have been involved in secondary education and are strong advocates. My brother is a high school principal, and my sister is a middle school math coach. They are particularly excited to have me join the fold of education, and I know they will continue to have advice because they have always been supportive—as have my friends. I’m very fortunate that way. 

 

As you and your husband are new residents of Decatur, what are you most excited about experiencing here?

We’re enjoying meeting people in the community and learning more about the history of the city. We’re also excited to experience the food, and we have already visited some local restaurants. There’s so much happening in Decatur and a lot for us to do, see and be a part of!

 

What is one thing people might be surprised to learn about you?

I’m pretty much an open book.