UVA’s Board of Visitors, meeting in full at UVa-Wise for the first time since 1993, unanimously approved the choice of the first woman to lead UVA’s only branch campus. The meeting was held at the college’s David J. Prior Convocation Center, named for Henry’s predecessor.
Henry received a standing ovation from about 300 UVa-Wise faculty, staff and students, and regional community members including state Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City, when taking the podium for her introduction.
A biologist, Henry has spent the last 16 years in a variety of positions at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU), including as a founding faculty member of the Fort Myers institution. Since 2005 she has served as dean of FGCU’s College of Arts and Sciences.
UVA Rector Helen Dragas said Henry “clearly shares our dedication to providing talented students from across the commonwealth with life-changing opportunities in higher education.”
Dragas said Henry’s experience managing and implementing a collegiate strategic plan while expanding enrollment “will be valued, especially as we meet our commitment to the governor and the General Assembly to increase the number of college graduates to lead Virginia into the future.”
Henry, 52, was accompanied by her husband, Allen, a pilot for Federal Express, and their 13-year-old twin daughters, Jessie and Margaret. The new chancellor said she and her family will return to Fort Myers for the holidays and then “begin to pack” for the move to Wise soon after New Year’s Day.
Henry acknowledged she will “have some very big shoes to fill” as the next chancellor to serve after the tenure of Prior, a highly popular UVa-Wise leader who died unexpectedly in February. She said she will “look to Merry Lu,” Prior’s widow who still resides in the area, for advice in getting to know the community, “but I am unique and have my own leadership style.”
Sullivan said the 15-member UVa-Wise chancellor search committee, led by Marcia Gilliam, presented her with a tough choice among the three finalist candidates. Sullivan said she traveled to the hometowns of the three finalists and spent about four hours getting to know each of them.
“In four hours it’s a little hard to keep the real you in hiding, and the real Donna came out very quickly,” Sullivan said of choosing Henry. Sullivan said Henry possesses the “vision and experience and enthusiasm” the UVA Board of Visitors believe was needed to lead UVa-Wise.
Henry earned a bachelor of arts degree in biological basis of behavior from the University of Pennsylvania, where she also minored in Spanish. She earned a doctorate in physiology from Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.
Besides her most recent tenure as a dean at FGCU, Henry served as a professor of biology and director of the Whitaker Center for Science, Mathematics and Technology Education. On Friday she said she witnessed and assisted in the growth of the Fort Myers institution “from swamp land” to a university that now boasts well more than 13,000 students.
Henry quipped that her daughters have observed their new home “is not flat like Florida, so that’s really cool,” and are looking forward to their first snow. She said Friday’s announcement would be a huge relief to her mother, who has been bursting at the seams to share the news with her friends and other family members.
UVA kept the seven-month search process under strict wraps to encourage qualified individuals to apply. Applicants from 27 states and even a few international locales entered the candidate pool, Dragas said.
Meanwhile, Henry said one of her first top priorities is to “get to know this region and community because I know UVa-Wise is such an important part of that.”