On Wednesday, May 26, the Virginia Network for Women in Higher Education named Anne Holton as the 2021 Outstanding Woman Leader in Virginia Higher Education.
Holton served as the interim president of George Mason University, the largest, most diverse and fastest-growing university in Virginia, from August 1, 2019, to June 30, 2020. She was the first female president in Mason history. Since May 2017, Holton has also served as a visiting professor in Mason’s Schar School of Policy and Government and its College of Education and Human Development. She is a senior fellow at EdPolicy Forward.
The Roanoke, Virginia, native was selected from a pool of 30 nominees to become the third recipient of the award, which honors women who serve as role models to other women, display a commitment to developing and fostering the empowerment of women leaders, and exemplify leadership, success and service. Holton, a longtime clog dancer, received a painting by Roanoke artist Yolanda Eaddy titled “Time to Dance” to commemorate the event.
“It is a distinct honor to recognize Anne Holton and the tireless efforts she has devoted to women all across the commonwealth. She continues to inspire and lead us,” says Karen Campbell, current chair of the Virginia Network board, and vice president of student affairs at Tidewater Community College.
The Virginia Network is one of more than 50 state networks created and supported by the American Council on Education’s (ACE) Office of Women in Higher Education. In 1977, ACE initiated an effort to identify and prepare more women for presidential positions. Since that time, they have expanded their outreach to supporting women who are interested in other senior leadership positions, such as deans, provosts and vice presidents.
As interim president of Mason, Holton helped the university secure $235 million in state funding through the Tech Talent Investment Program, raised Mason’s profile as an R-1 institution and promoted its mission of access. She also led the institution through one of higher education’s greatest crises, the COVID-19 pandemic. With Holton at the helm, Mason made smart decisions about campus activity and planned carefully for the future. The Board of Visitors noted that her firm, yet positive, approach to issues helped provide a calm, confident voice for students, faculty and staff in a time of significant uncertainty.
“I am honored to receive this beautiful award and especially humbled to have been nominated by my women leader colleagues at Mason,” Holton said.
In her career in education, law and public service, Holton has focused her efforts on behalf of families and children. After earning her law degree at Harvard, Holton worked as an attorney for low-income families from 1985 to 1998 with the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society. She then served as a judge on the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court for the city of Richmond from 1998 to 2005, including a stint as chief judge from 2000 to 2003.
As Virginia’s First Lady when her husband, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, was governor from 2006 to 2010, Holton championed foster care system reform. Her program, For Keeps: Families for All Virginia Teens, helped find permanent families for foster children of all ages. Holton consulted on national foster care reform with the Annie E. Casey Foundation Child Welfare Strategy Group and later directed Great Expectations, a Virginia Foundation for Community College Education program that assists foster youth in pursuing a college education.
As Virginia’s Secretary of Education from 2014 to 2016, Holton worked to increase Virginia’s investment in public education, to promote innovation and teaching and learning in state schools, and to ensure every student has a successful pathway to the future, particularly children who live in poverty.
Her father, former Virginia Gov. A. Linwood Holton Jr., helped integrate the Richmond city schools by sending his own children there. Her three children, now adults, also attended Richmond public schools.
Nominators emphasized Holton’s lifelong commitment to public service. Her life is a testament to the ways that women can lead, serve as role models and impact the development of other women in leadership. Through her roles as judge, state secretary, first lady, professor and president, she has composed a life of service and commitment to education and to helping others, especially young people, obtain their educational dreams.
Holton’s awards include Outstanding Woman of the Year in Law from the YWCA of Richmond in 2006 and the Annie E. Casey Foundation Families for Life Award of Distinction in 2008. In 2017, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe appointed her to the Virginia Board of Education.