UVa-Wise’s recently-hired chancellor started her career path at Thomas Jefferson University of Philadelphia. Now she continues it at Thomas Jefferson’s dream in the mountains.
Donna Price Henry, 52, began work Jan. 18 as the college’s first female chancellor. She succeeds David J. Prior, who died unexpectedly in February of an apparent heart attack after serving seven years as the college’s leader.
The University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors unanimously approved Henry as UVa-Wise’s eighth chancellor at a meeting on Dec. 7 in the college’s convocation center.
Her path to UVa-Wise began in a Philadelphia suburb, when a studious Henry, the youngest of four girls, followed her sister and self-proclaimed role model to become another first-generation college student by attending the University of Pennsylvania.
“I actually went to Penn as a biology major wanting to go to medical school,” Henry said in an interview last week. “Then when I got into my senior year I said, ‘I don’t know if this is really want I want to do.’”
She finished her senior year and was hired to do research at Thomas Jefferson, something for which she developed a passion. She took another year to apply for a graduate program at Thomas Jefferson where she went on to receive her doctorate in physiology.
After Thomas Jefferson, Henry took on her first teaching position at St. Thomas University, a small liberal arts college in Miami. There, Henry quickly made her way into leadership with an unexpected proposition from a veteran department chair to take her place.
“I’d only been a faculty member for two years,” Henry said. “Why would I step into administration?”
But a little more nudging from other faculty led her into the role and a path into administration that she came to enjoy.
“The thing I enjoyed about administration, and continue to enjoy, is the fact that as an [administrator]… I can help guide and shape the mission and the vision and help the university do its best,” she said.
Henry’s next stop in her career allowed her to practice those administrative qualities. She was recruited to be a founding faculty member at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Meyers, Fla., which gave her an opportunity to develop the biology program and the campus from the ground up.
Soon after beginning her position there, she was led back into administration, and since 2005, Henry served as dean of the university’s College of Arts and Sciences.
“When I became associate dean, that was when I think I consciously said [administration] is something that I’m good at and this is something I enjoy doing,” she recalled. “Then I pursued the deanship and here I am.”
Henry left an institution that she called home for 16 years to accept the position of eighth chancellor at UVa-Wise.
She had been in the running for at least two other executive-level jobs in the past year, as one of three finalists for president of Mansfield University of Pennsylvania in Mansfield, Pa., and one of six for president of Nevada State College in Henderson, Nev.
“I wasn’t exactly looking to leave FGCU because it was a place that I really felt invested in,” Henry said. “I was just ready in my career to move and to find some new challenges, and Wise seemed to be a great fit for that.”
She had a little help finding Wise from Fort Meyers. The consulting firm Greenwood/Asher and Associates, which worked with UVa-Wise in the search for a new chancellor, was familiar with Henry’s leadership abilities from a previous search at FGCU. One phone call from them describing the Wise job and Henry became familiar with the small college almost 1,000 miles away from her.
“I remember going home and looking up the website and everything here, and shortly thereafter I called my husband and said, ‘This looks like a great opportunity. I’m going to apply.’ And he said, ‘Well, where is Wise?’” Henry said with a smile.
About 150 people came out to witness the Board meeting in December and the announcement following, which was held in the David J. Prior Convocation Center, a building that was championed by the late chancellor and later named in his memory.
“David Prior did a superb job of putting the College at Wise in [a] position to grow and to succeed at the highest level,” UVa President Teresa Sullivan said at the announcement. “He really helped build the foundation. And now, Donna is the right person to continue that momentum and take the college to even greater heights.”
At a press conference following the Board’s vote, Sullivan said Henry stood out from among three finalists presented to her by the college’s search committee because of her experience in capital construction, strategic planning, community partnerships and academic growth.
“Donna brings a commitment to engage faculty, students and the community, and a set of ideas that have already worked in the setting of a fast-growing university,” Sullivan said.
Henry said she doesn’t know what exactly made her stand above her fellow candidates, but notes that her passion for the liberal arts college and experiences in the growth and development of a university make her a good fit for Wise.
So far that good fit has equally applied for her husband Allen, who works as a pilot for Federal Express.
“He is pretty flexible with where he can live,” Henry said. “His base is Memphis, Tenn., so from Fort Meyers he used to commute to work …[and] now it’s just in a different direction. [He] grew up in a very small town, actually smaller than Wise, so he was very excited about moving to a small town.”
Henry said her twin 13-year-old daughters, Jessie and Margaret, now seventh graders at L.F. Addington Middle School in Wise, have received a warm welcome from their new school and classmates and have made a smooth transition.
She said they did have one requirement before making any move: four seasons.
“They said they would love to move to a place that had snow,” Henry said. “So Wise met that criteria very well.”
Editor-in-Chief Jordan Fifer contributed to this report.
See video from the Dec. 7 announcement of Henry’s hiring, courtesy of UVa-Wise: