What Chatham’s New President Hopes To Achieve At The University’s Helm
Rhonda Phillips becomes the 10th woman to lead Chatham in its 154-year history.
Chatham University has ended its five-month presidential search with the unanimous appointment of Rhonda Phillips to replace outgoing President David Finegold.
The board voted Tuesday to appoint Phillips, current dean of Purdue University’s Honors College in Indiana. She will be the university’s 10th woman president in the institution’s 154-year history. She will assume her role this summer, where she will also serve as a member of the university’s teaching staff.
Phillips is the second woman leader named to a Pittsburgh university this month. The University of Pittsburgh appointed Joan T.A. Gabel as the university’s first woman chancellor on April 3.
Phillips will join Chatham following completion of her decade-long role as the inaugural dean of the John Martinson Honors College at Purdue University, an innovative 3,000- student residential honors college that under her leadership was named one of the Top 20 Honors Colleges in the U.S.
“Enhancing student experiences is a passion for me and I am thrilled to lead the university that influenced Rachel Carson to shape new environmental standards while leaving a legacy that influenced my own and countless others’ work in sustainable development,” Phillips said in a Chatham press release. “I am also drawn to Chatham’s unique combination of strengths in the health sciences, sustainability, women’s leadership and the liberal arts and sciences that produce students willing to respond to the opportunities and big challenges facing society today.”
Chatham has nearly 2,400 students in both undergraduate and graduate programs. As environmental icon Rachel Carson’s alma mater, Chatham is ranked as one of the greenest colleges in the country. It is composed of the historic arboretum at the Shadyside Campus, Chatham Eastside in the East End and Eden Hall Campus in Richland.
According to Pittsburgh Magazine’s Power Shift in Education series from January, the average tenure of university presidents nationwide was 6.5 years in 2016, down from 8.5 years in 2006, according to the 2017 American College President Study. Locally, university presidents have tended to stay longer, but that may be changing.
Finegold attributed part of that trend to economic pressures, political divisions and other societal issues. “In many ways, college campuses are little microcosms of that,” he said, creating “a challenging job these days.” He announced in September 2022 that he will step down this summer, after serving as president for seven years.
“Chatham is a place that fosters innovation, but it is also positioned within the highly creative, dynamic environment of Pittsburgh, which provides a living laboratory and countless partnership opportunities for students to enhance learning. I am excited to become part of the Chatham and Pittsburgh communities, and can’t wait to get started this summer,” Phillips added.
Phillips has more than 30 years’ experience as a progressive academic administrator, scholar and author, with both private and public sector experience.
She also served as associate dean for Barrett, The Honors College, at Arizona State University, where she was also a professor and director of the School of Community Resources and Development.
Phillips was a senior sustainability scientist at the Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability. She also held faculty and administrator roles at the universities of Florida and Southern Mississippi.
She has a Ph.D. in city and regional planning and a master’s in economics from Georgia Tech, and a master’s in economic development from the University of Southern Mississippi, where she also earned her bachelor’s degree in geography.
She is a three-time Fulbright recipient, including serving as the 2006 Fulbright UK Ulster Policy Fellow in Northern Ireland.
Phillips has also served as the associate director of economic development for the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, has written or edited more than 30 academic books, including a community development textbook used by students and practitioners across the globe.
Her research focus is on community and sustainable well-being studies, economic and technology-based development.
“Dr. Phillips was the unanimous choice of the Board of Trustees based in large part on her commitment to fostering inclusive and transformative learning environments and opportunities, which is a hallmark of the Chatham undergraduate experience,” said David M. Hall, chair of Chatham University’s Board of Trustees. “Rhonda’s impressive experience and scholarship — coupled with her work in sustainable development, well-being and agriculture — is a perfect complement to the work of Chatham’s Falk School of Sustainability & Environment at Eden Hall Campus and make her the right leader to help continue Chatham’s historic, undergraduate growth since going all-gender in 2014.”
During Tuesday’s announcement in Campbell Memorial Chapel, Finegold said he doesn’t remember much from his appointment as president seven years ago — except how welcomed he and his wife, Sue, felt.
“I know you will extend that same welcome to Chatham’s new leader,” he said, adding the last three years have proved that the Chatham community is at its strongest during times of great challenge.
“I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to be your next president,” Phillips said Tuesday. “I think what strikes me about Chatham is what you’ve already accomplished. We are in a unique situation to face any challenge that comes our way.”
She added people asked her why she wanted to lead Chatham, noting it was a different role than she is used to.
“With my work, it was always about having a strong sense of place,” she said. “To me, that’s community well-being, and you’ve got that. Chatham has a strong liberal arts and sciences reputation and it all connects; it’s all part of sustainable well-being. You are a beacon for others to learn how to do this. To me, that’s very special. I look forward to meeting students, faculty and staff, and moving forward together with you.”