MONTGOMERY, Alabama — Gwendolyn Boyd grew up in a rough Montgomery housing project before leaving home to find success at John Hopkins University in Maryland. Now she has returned to Montgomery to make her home at one of the capital city's most prestigious addresses — — the president's home at Alabama State University.
Boyd said Montgomery has a more relaxed pace than her old residence in Washington, D.C., but she is enjoying being back. "Home is always comfortable," she said.
The ASU trustees, including Gov. Robert Bentley, interviewed three finalists for the president's job in December. Boyd walked into the trustees' meeting with a big smile, plenty of confidence and a plan not only to restore order, but to bring growth to a campus rocked by turmoil for the last year.
The trustees picked her unanimously to take charge.
"I try to be engaging. My style is to be inclusive and to understand why I'm present in any room in any situation and to make sure that we leave in a winning manner," she said.
Boyd, 58, grew up in Tulane Court. She said she didn't get much encouragement in her neighborhood, but she credits teachers in the Montgomery public school system — she was one of the first black students at Jefferson Davis High School — and faculty at Alabama State with helping her achieve.
"I acknowledged early that I'm a nerd. I've always liked school. I've always liked math. My teachers would always encourage me to do more. They would never allow me to do less than my best," she said.
She earned a scholarship to Alabama State, where she got a bachelor's degree in math. She got her master's degree in mechanical engineering from Yale University and her doctorate in divinity from Howard University. She spent 34 years as John Hopkins, most recently serving as executive assistant to the chief of staff of the Applied Physics Lab at John Hopkins.
About the same time she signed her contract with Alabama State, President Obama selected her as one of 15 members the President's Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African-Americans. The group is supposed to improve educational outcome for African-American students.
Alabama State's trustees have given Boyd a two-year contract worth $300,000 a year.
That contract got a lot of attention in academic circles before she ever had a single day on the job.
Boyd's contract provides that the single woman can't share the president's home with any "romantic interest" as long as she isn't married. The university issued a statement saying the trustees included it in the contract because of "the increasing scrutiny that university presidents face as the top image-makers of their respective universities."
Boyd said she knew what she was doing when she signed the contract.
"You can only have a controversy when two people don't agree. I agree. The university agrees. There is no controversy," she said.
She replaces Joseph Silver, who signed a $685,000 severance agreement with the university in December 2012 after serving three months.
Silver questioned several university contracts and hirings, which upset some school leaders. His allegations prompted the governor to hire a forensic auditing firm to review the Montgomery university. Forensic Strategic Solutions is still working on its report, but its preliminary findings in October raised concerns about fraud and waste. In response, the university sued the auditing firm and had its regular auditor do a review. University officials said their review found no problems.
With only a week on the job, Boyd said she hasn't had time to dig into the details of the forensic audit. She's waiting for it to be finished and for the governor to follow through with his plan to turn over the findings to the state attorney general and U.S. attorney.
Boyd said that to her knowledge, the university has not received any subpoenas for information.
While much remains unknown about what might happen with the financial review, Boyd is already looking beyond it.
"As an institution, we want to address all the issues and then move beyond it and then get back to sharing the great news about what our students are doing," she said.
Her goals include making sure no one still thinks of Alabama State as the teachers' college it used to be. While the College of Education is still the biggest school on campus, the campus boasts lots of new programs and buildings, multiple advance degrees and a new 26,500-seat football stadium that no one traveling through downtown Montgomery on Interstate 85 can miss.
"We are world class," she said.
Alabama State already has students from 30 countries, including 40 newcomers from Nigeria, but she wants to expand that through exchange programs that get more foreign students on campus and more Alabama State students going aboard.
"It is so important for these young people to understand world travel is more than going to Atlanta," she said.
Other goals including growing the student body beyond the current 5,600, getting students more engaged in the Montgomery area through service projects, arranging for more community events to held on the campus, and developing a school of engineering because she sees an unmet demand for more "math nerds" like her.
And when her two-year contract is coming up for review, Boyd is ready to be judged on the kind of students Alabama State is turning out.
"My sole responsibility is their success," she said.