In her nine years as president of Mary Baldwin College, Virginia L. Lester has not earned a reputation for orthodoxy. So it is hardly a surprise that the dynamic -- and sometimes controversial -- woman has decided at the peak of her career to leave her job.
Why? To go to law school.
She had her pick. Lester was accepted by Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Virginia, Columbia, Penn and Georgetown.
"I'm 54, and I knew if I didn't do it now it would be too late," she said during an interview in her office. "I've been teasing students that I'm going to have a garage sale and sell all my ultrasuede suits because all I'll wear next year is blue jeans."
Lester, who has ferocious drive and energy, leaves Mary Baldwin with a glowing list of accomplishments -- and some nightmarish controversies. A feisty, no-nonsense administrator, she ushered in dramatic curricular changes and helped reverse a financial decline that threatened the survival of the college. She reinvigorated the alumni network and was a champion fund-raiser. In the process, she angered some faculty members and townspeople who were not accustomed to her rough-and-tumble manner.
"When she accepted the job she told one board member she going to make people mad, and that's exactly what she did," said one of her professional acquaintances.
"I nickeled and dimed people to death," Lester said in a recent interview. "We were feeding staff free. There were direct-dial phones with no locks. There were a million little things" she said she did to save money, including selling the six-bedroom house on a four-acre lot that had been home to previous Mary Baldwin presidents.
Lester then took on the faculty, urging the board of trustees to establish new criteria for tenure. As a result, two expected tenured positions were blocked.
"If the faculty could have run me off campus tarred and feathered, they would have," she said. "It was an armed camp."
And then there were the merchants in Staunton, who had had business relationships with the college for generations. Lester made them bid for college projects.
"It was comfortable for them to deal with the college and I wasn't going to be comfortable to deal with," she explained. "It's a business. There has got to be an equitable exchange."
Despite the controversies, everyone seems to agree that without Lester's energy and determination, Mary Baldwin might have folded.
"She did an astonishing job at Mary Baldwin," said Alberta Arthurs, former president of Chatham College in Pittsburgh and now director of arts and humanities for the Rockefeller Foundation. "There is no question that people were going to resist and resent her."
"She made some tough decisions she had to make," said a Virginia educator who knows Lester well. "She just didn't have much bedside manner in doing it."
Last week, her toughest decision had little to do with Mary Baldwin. The divorced mother of two -- who as a college student was told by a male professor that she was "too dumb" to go to law school (as a result she majored in education and became an elementary school teacher) -- was agonizing over which law school to attend.
Her plans are to study social and ethical issues related to biotechnology and biomedical research. "It's a whole body of law not written about, and I'd like to be part of that debate," she said.