When Richard Hansen first visited campus, it was to interview for a one-year position as interim provost. Two years, later, he’s retiring after serving in three roles that have kept Lesley moving forward in a season of transition.
“We are so fortunate to have Rich during the crowning point of his career,” Board of Trustees Chair Hans Strauch said at a recent celebration for Hansen. “You have made Lesley a better place and you have made the world a better place.”
The word interim has been part of Hansen’s title during his time at Lesley — first as provost, then a brief stint as the Graduate School of Education dean and, finally, president. Yet, when Strauch asked Hansen to step into the role of president, he agreed under one condition, saying, “I don’t want to be a placeholder.”
With higher education facing financial and other challenges, particularly in New England, Hansen didn’t want to waste a year maintaining the status quo.
“I wanted to work on our budgeting, organizational structure, our advancement. I really wanted to give faculty an opportunity to recapture that creativity that they felt we had missed over the last few years,” Hansen said.
Hansen began his first job in higher education in 1969, as the University of Vermont’s director of student activities. The position showed what kind of leader he would be.
His first year on the job, Vietnam War protesters tried to storm the student center. Then, he came up against Cake Walk, a yearly event in which students paraded in black face and minstrel costumes.
“Nobody questioned that they could do anything about it. I just couldn’t imagine it continuing,” said Hansen, who despite opposition, helped dismantled the questionable tradition.
Even though he’s held a number of positions in his 50-year career, Hansen remembers that as a defining moment.
“I think in higher education, and any walk of life, you have to be willing to recognize and be willing to step up to those big key decisions,” he said. “You can go through life with your head down ignoring those things. At some point you have to step up.”
These challenges were tempered by his love of the work and meeting his wife, Lynne Davis Hansen, who directed the residence hall next to his apartment building.
He and his friend often played tennis on the dorm’s court (technically reserved for the residents) until one day she threw them out. Lynne didn’t back down, even when he told her his job title.
“I don’t care who you are,” she replied.
“I thought I better get to know her,” Hansen recalled with a smile.
The two married in 1972 and that year moved to Denver, Colorado, where Hansen got his Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration. Soon, with two daughters in tow, the family returned to Vermont, where he worked as senior vice president of Norwich University, followed by a post as provost of Union Institute and University, which took them to Ohio.
He decided to retire in 2013 (“or tried to”), but was asked to be the interim provost at the University of Louisiana system and then the University of New Orleans. When an interim opportunity opened at Wentworth Institute of Technology, the Hansens returned to New England so they could also be close to their eldest daughter’s family.
Approximately two years later, Hansen accepted the interim provost job at Lesley.
Always listening and looking for solutions are the qualities that have made Hansen successful.
“I really think it’s about the softer skills, about building trust,” he explained. “I think it’s about being able to recognize the strengths of people that are working in your organization.”
His approach bolstered Hansen’s reputation. Vice President for Strategy & Implementation MaryPat Lohse said she heard many times, “‘Rich is such a good guy and we are so lucky to have him.’ He is, and we are. He had a keen sense of what needed to be done and he did it. We benefitted from it immensely.”
One particular area of pride for Hansen is progress on diversity, equity and inclusion work, including the establishment of the Bias Education & Response Team (BERT), work around restorative justice and the hiring of a new Title IX coordinator, done in partnership with the Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion director.
“It has to be high on everyone’s priority,” he said of the university’s efforts.
Hansen praised the student organizers of Bridge the Gap, a conference focused on diversity, activism and advocacy through the arts, and a graduation ceremony for undocumented students and students of color. At these events, Hansen was frequently joined by Lynne, who became an active supporter and contributor to the campus community along with her husband.
Additionally, Hansen noted progress on Lesley 2030, a plan for the university’s next decade, and efforts to encourage innovation and updates to Brattle Campus, following the purchase of buildings from the former Episcopal Divinity School last summer. He also launched the Economic Sustainability Committee to look at budgetary issues from the micro and macro level.
Associate Professor Liv Cummins was a leader on the committee, where Hansen demonstrated that he was indeed anything but a placeholder.
“I was just so impressed with his authentic, genuine desire to help the university. It was work that could have very easily been passed on to the next person,” said Cummins.
She found Hansen’s collaborative approach refreshing and effective.
“He engages all people in the room and hears people,” she said.
Hansen, often noted for being a collaborator, never fails to use the word “we” when he discusses the accomplishments of the past year, and although he is handing over responsibilities to incoming President Janet Steinmayer in July, Hansen, a Somerville resident, wants to continue to support the Lesley community he’s become a part of.
Said Hansen, “To close out my professional career at a place like Lesley is a dream come true.”