Agnes Scott College named its ninth president Tuesday, choosing a leader who champions global education and predicts a resurgence of women’s colleges.
Leocadia “Lee” Zak, 60, greeted several hundred students, alumnae, faculty and staff — many of whom wore purple, the school color, as they crowded into the dining hall on the Decatur campus for the presidential announcement.
“Agnes Scott had me at ‘hello.’ The minute that I walked onto this beautiful campus I flashed back to my days when I first saw my college campus, a women’s college: Yay,” Zak said, to cheers. “It is beautiful. It is an environment that is inclusive and diverse, but it’s also one that has outstanding people. It’s warm. It’s special.”
Zak, the former director of the U.S. Trade and Development Agency, graduated from Mount Holyoke College, a women’s school in Massachusetts. She received her law degree from Northeastern University.
She takes over July 1 from Elizabeth Kiss, who announced last year she would step down in June after 12 years as president.
Under Kiss, the college focused on developing leaders and global learning. The curriculum tied to those themes is woven into classes throughout a student’s college career and features a travel component in the first year.
Zak said the initiative is a major reason she was interested in the position: “There is nothing like it at any other college.”
Her background skews to government service and the law, not academia; and she pledged to reach out and talk regularly to Agnes Scott faculty.
President Barack Obama appointed her director of the federal agency that works in developing and middle-income countries. She led the agency, in which she worked at in various capacities since 2000, for seven years.
Before that, she practiced law for 18 years in Boston and Washington, D.C.
Her more recent classroom experience includes teaching as an adjunct instructor at Georgetown University Law Center and the Boston University School of Law, according to a biography released by Agnes Scott.
Zak described herself as “a huge advocate” of women’s colleges, which have dwindled from more than 200 in the 1960s to about three dozen today, according to the Women’s College Coalition.
She said she’s not interested in making Agnes Scott co-ed.
“I actually think it’s going to be the day of women’s colleges. I think that’s going to reverse, that people are going to look and see that we need more women leaders in places of influence. How you get them there? You get them there through women’s colleges,” she said, in an interview.
Women’s colleges allow students to be heard and educated in an environment where they are encouraged to be leaders and take risks, she said.
Several students said they were hopeful Zak would be a good fit.
Oné Carrington, an 18-year-old first-year student from the Virgin Islands, praised the college’s emphasis on diversity and was happy to hear the incoming president tout it.
“Her mentioning that was really important to me because it shows that she knows how Agnes is. I feel like she will continue to push Agnes to be better,” Carrington said.
Cassie Munnell, a 21-year-old Marietta senior studying history, said she thinks Zak will do a good job, but said she’s just learning about the incoming president.
“We weren’t told a lot about who was being interviewed. Only a very select few got to know about it, and I wasn’t one,” she said. “It is hard to know what the future will hold and all of that, but I think that the way the college has been trending, like higher enrollments the last few years, I think she’ll be able to continue that.”
Board of trustees chairman Beth Holder said the college received more than 80 applications for the job and more than 1,000 inquiries.
College officials said four finalists were brought to campus for multiday interviews. Zak, a choice unanimously approved by the board, received praise for her international experience, leadership skills, financial acumen, and commitment to educating women.
“It was important to us that our next president understand and appreciate women’s education and naturally coming from a women’s college background she offers that,” Holder said.
Holder declined to disclose the length of Zak’s contract or her salary.
Agnes Scott, founded in 1889, enrolled 937 students in the fall.