Chatham University announces Dr. Rhonda Phillips as next president


Dr. Rhonda Philips gives a speech at the Campbell Memorial Chapel. Photo credit: Carson Gates

Abigail Hakas

Chatham University announced on April 18 the appointment of its 20th president, Dr. Rhonda Phillips, who will succeed the current President, Dr. David Finegold, this summer, making her the 10th woman to hold the position of president in Chatham’s 154-year history after a unanimous vote from the Board of Trustees.

Dr. Phillips is coming to Chatham after a decade of serving as the inaugural dean of the John Martinson Honors College at Purdue University, a school of 3,000 students. She is a three-time Fulbright recipient and the first woman to graduate with a doctorate in city and regional planning from the Georgia Institute of Technology. 

Dr. Phillips will officially begin as president on July 1, and she hopes to connect with the student body by attending events around campus, while also potentially organizing a student advisory group and setting up office hours for anyone in the Chatham community to speak to her. 

Drawing on her experience as a senior sustainability scientist at the Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, Dr. Phillips wants to examine Chatham’s sustainable wellbeing, which is the sustainable fulfillment of members of the community.

“When I first looked at Chatham, I saw all the different parts just coming together in this framework of wellbeing,” she said. “That’s an area that, to me, is sort of a framing of how to approach either challenges to potentially solve or to understand situations and perspectives and what you’re looking at through the lens of wellbeing. Are people thriving? Are communities thriving?”

“I look at what Chatham offers and you have this really strong foundation of sustainability and sustainable development,” she added. “[We’re] looking at what Chatham wants to do in the future and making sure that it is sustainable itself, not only teaching the precepts and the ideas around sustainable development and sustainability. We also want to be that.”

Rachel Carson’s legacy is part of what drew Dr. Phillips to Chatham.

“Just knowing that she came from here, this must be an environment that encourages innovation that encourages thinking outside the normal bounds of how we normally look at things and how we perceive challenges and issues in society and economy,” she said.

Dr. Phillips said that her work at Purdue’s honor college prepared her for stepping into the role at Chatham.

“It’s a nice transition from a deanship to a presidency because being a dean you’re really looking at everything from recruitment to enrollment management, all the way through the curriculum, to the academic experience … all those dimensions,” she said. “It’s sort of a microcosm for the president.”

Beyond her role as president, Dr. Phillips will assume a teaching faculty position as a roll-over from her previous university experiences, although she is uncertain if she will have the time to teach or guest lecture.  

President Finegold announced that he was stepping down after more than six years as president in a campus-wide email on Sept. 7, 2022. The Presidential Search Committee began the process of selecting the new president in November, and it received more than 100 applications for the position. Chatham community members were invited to give feedback via in-person and Zoom sessions and email surveys on what traits they would like to see in the next president. 

In a video interview with the Communiqué on the end of his time at Chatham, President Finegold said that his dog Louis, a fan-favorite among students, will miss the campus and the house, but students might see two new furry faces on the quad in the fall. 

Dr. Phillips will not be coming to Chatham alone.

“I have Ellie, who was named for Eleanor Roosevelt, and she is a giant Bernese mountain dog and she’s very big. She’s a little shy, but she’s like a gentle champion,” she said. “And then I have a little American mini shepherd which is a cousin to the Aussies. They’re herding dogs, and she is on high alert at all times. She is so energetic, and she watches everything.”