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Saint Mary-of-the-Woods

October 16, 2011

Dottie King becomes 16th president of St. Mary-of-the-Woods College

WEST TERRE HAUTE — As the mother of six children, Dottie King learned early on the importance of setting priorities and achieving the right balance between family, education and work.

King grew up in Vigo and Clay counties, got married at age 19, and raised a family with her husband and high school sweetheart, Wayne, to whom she has been married for 32 years.

Even with those family obligations, she obtained her bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees at Indiana State University, where she taught for 17 years. She later taught at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College and then rose through the administrative ranks.

Today, the 51-year-old King is the college’s 16th president and the first non-Catholic and female layperson to serve in that capacity. She also notes with a smile that she is the college’s “first mother” to serve as president. Her children range in ages from 16 to 30, and she also has four grandchildren.

Her youngest daughter is a student at Northview High School and a member of the marching band. “She’s the cutest drummer in Indiana,” King, a band booster, says with pride.

Students at The Woods recently asked her how she’s been able to accomplish so much, with so many obligations and responsibilities.

“I think that women are great at balancing things,” she said recently during an interview in the president’s office. “I think the more committed a woman gets to something, the stronger she gets.”

King said she learned to prioritize.

Motherhood, she said, “has almost been the perfect preparation for this job. When you have six children, you can’t hold everyone at once, you can’t be every place you need to be. So every day and sometimes every minute, you’re thinking about what is the most important thing for this minute.”

And what she learned “has really helped me to handle this job, which is complex at times,” she said. She must transition from the needs of students, to the expectations of alums and other campus groups.

“It’s kind of like juggling those different personalities of your own children,” she said.

King became interim president in July 2010, and was named president in February. On Friday, King will be inaugurated as the 16th president in a 2 p.m. ceremony at the Cecilian Auditorium.

“It’s still a little humbling,” she said.

Commitment to family and to learning

Born and raised in Terre Haute, King says her childhood was a happy one, despite the death of her father when she was just 2 years old. For a while, it was an all-female household, with King, her mom and sister. “We didn’t have bats or balls or any of that,” she said.

Both she and her sister later had four sons each, and they laugh that “We’ve figured out this other breed of humans — males,” King said.

She grew up with horses, and visiting the equine program at the Woods brings back happy memories, she said.

Her mom eventually re-married, and the family liked to take road trips that included one adventurous tour of western states as well as simple, one-day excursions as close as Vincennes. “I was always the navigator. I love to navigate. I love maps,” she said.

King attended Warren and Lost Creek elementary schools and later Woodrow Wilson Junior High, and it was while she was in junior high that the family moved to Clay County, where she graduated from the former Van Buren High School.

She ended up staying in the Wabash Valley. A first-generation college student, she had to pay for her own education, which limited her choices. She also got married at age 19 and had her first baby 16 months later. At the time, “I thought I was extremely grown up,” she said. Now, she realizes “I was incredibly young … But it worked out fine for me.”

King married after her first year of college; the couple wed on a Friday night, and she started summer school the next Monday. She never lost sight of her educational and career goals, and she aspired to be a high school math teacher.

Even with a baby born 16 months later, when she took a semester off, King still graduated with a bachelor’s degree in math in 31⁄2 years. “I don’t know why I was in a big hurry, but every summer I took full loads,” she said.

She and her husband had to coordinate schedules, and they had just one car, a Honda Civic. King went to school full time during the day, and her husband worked the second shift at his job; that way, they didn’t need a babysitter.

“He’d do all the morning/afternoon stuff, we’d meet in the driveway and I would hand him the keys and he would hand me the child and he would go to work. We did a lot of things that probably wouldn’t work for a lot of couples,” she said.

After the birth of her second child, King began working on a master’s degree in mathematics, and when she completed it, ISU offered her an adjunct teaching job that would last three years and involve teaching three days a  week. She found that to be a good compromise that allowed her to spend a lot of time with her growing family, yet still teach.

She stayed at ISU as an adjunct faculty member for 17 years.

After her youngest child was in first grade, King decided to pursue her doctorate in curriculum and instruction/educational leadership, again at ISU. It was there that a faculty member by the name of John Moore — who also happened to be the ISU president at that time — had a profound impact on her.

She credits his class with sparking her interest in administration. “He was so fascinating. He was an excellent teacher and knew so much about higher education and I could just listen to him for hours, I enjoyed his class so much,” she recalled.

But advancement in her chosen career would require a move to another, nearby college.

The path to a presidency

“I really believe it was Providence because of the set of circumstances,” King said of her career move to the Woods from ISU.

King aspired to be a tenured faculty member but knew it would not happen at ISU. Because all three college degrees were from ISU, she was told, “You will never be hired here” as a regular faculty member.

When she learned of a “visiting” faculty position at SMWC in 2002, she applied. She interviewed with Sister Ellen Cunningham and did express concerns about making a move for a position that wasn’t permanent. Cunningham told her there were “no promises … but sometimes these things work out.”

When King sees Cunningham on campus, she’ll often tell her, “Sister Ellen, I think it worked out.”

King received a permanent position her third year at SMWC and eventually was granted tenure and became an associate professor.

While at the Woods, King sought out administrative roles and became an assistant academic dean and an interim vice president for academic affairs, serving on the cabinet of former president David Behrs. “I loved that. He had a lot of energy. Keeping up with him was challenging but invigorating,” she said.

When Behrs resigned to move back to California and King became interim president, she did not initially aspire to be president, although others had encouraged her.

Events on campus, and the advice of others, propelled her to seek the top job.

A fire at Guerin Hall — which occurred only one month after King became interim president — meant that all offices (including the president’s), classes and residents in the historic structure had to be temporarily relocated. King had to lead the community through the turmoil that resulted. It also got her thinking about the turnover that had been occurring on the president’s cabinet.

She turned to former Woods president Sister Jeanne Knoerle for advice. “I still consider Jeanne to be a mentor,” she said, and Knoerle encouraged her to apply.

“I applied and decided to leave the answer in the hands of Providence,” she said. “And here I am.”

Learning environment fosters growth

King, as she was growing up, didn’t know much about all-women’s colleges, although she had attended math competitions at The Woods.

In her college research, she had studied why young women don’t persist in their studies of math and science. “I found research that said single-gender [schools] seemed to encourage women in key fields,” she said.

Once she began teaching at the Woods in a single-gender classroom, King noticed a difference among her students. “I really began to see that women were more actively engaged with their own learning and they were more willing to ask questions,” she said.

King, who also served as an adviser to students, began to notice how they would gain confidence and become empowered. They would “find their voice,” she said. “Once a woman finds her voice, she never loses it,” even beyond the borders of St. Mary-of-the-Woods College.

While King already had leadership skills, “I think I found my voice here, too. I think I’m a different person for having taught and worked here,” she said. The Woods helps young women develop their leadership skills, she said.

“The Wabash Valley is blessed to have a women’s college in its midst and I feel blessed to be its leader,” she said.

The future of SMWC

She is passionate about the importance of women’s colleges and she’s excited about what the future could hold at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College. “I feel it has so much potential,” she said.

Yet, King also wants to move the college forward, she said.

In the future, she hopes to focus on women’s leadership, such as through a leadership institute. “We have produced so many leaders here,” she said. She’d also like to see more outreach and leadership training in the community.

King also would like to see the college develop programs in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and math. “We will maintain our commitment to the liberal arts core, but I’d really like to see us push forward with a STEM initiative for women,” she said, something that is more of a long-term strategy.

The college is still talking about building a sports and wellness center, which has been under discussion for many years. “It is an important need,” she said. Athletes make up about 30 percent of the college’s on-campus enrollment. Not only are they good athletes, but also they are good students and leaders, she said.

The college continues to raise money, and King is evaluating the proposed structure to make sure it is the right size and scope.

Increasing enrollment and maintaining a healthy financial picture also will be focuses, as it would be at any college, the president says. Private colleges, in particular, have been challenged by the country’s economic downturn. “When families are pressed, they go to less-costly options,” she said.

The Woods offers much institutional aid, and part of that comes from generous alumnae who endow scholarships, she said.

Attracting students to an all-women campus is a challenge, but King believes the education it provides “is very relevant today … We need to make the case about why a women’s college education is not only still relevant but maybe more relevant than ever because it empowers women to try things and experience a different leadership than maybe they would someplace else.”

Another challenge is some of the turnover that has occurred in administration. Behrs, whose tenure was three years, worked with three different vice presidents for advancement, a position currently vacant.

“I think a significant challenge is for me to help build some confidence internally among faculty and staff that I’m here to stay; this is not a stepping stone for me. Together, we can build on what we already have and make the Woods an even stronger place,” she said.

A leader by example

Vicki Kosowsky, the college’s vice president for student life, has known King since she arrived on campus in 2002. Kosowsky describes King as bright and high-energy, yet down-to-earth and approachable.

King has a sense of humor and the ability to laugh at herself, Kosowsky said. “Not everyone can do that.”

King’s priorities are her family, her Christian faith and St. Mary-of-the-Woods College, Kosowsky said.

“She has a real passion for this place and embracing tradition but not wanting tradition to hold us back from going where we need to go,” Kosowsky said.

The Woods’ new president is a consensus-builder who works collaboratively and  listens to the point of view of others.

But King is also willing to make the tough decisions, or “flip the switch,” as she describes it, when necessary. King served on the Clay Community School Board for seven years, where she said she learned to make tough decisions “even if it’s not popular, if I believe it’s for the good of the institution.”

According to Kosowsky, “There is no question for any of us that she has the strength of will and character to make the kinds of decisions that will move us forward.”

Sue Loughlin can be reached at (812) 231-4235 or

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