Mary Todd to Retire as Executive Director of Phi Kappa Phi

Phi Kappa Phi staff
Apr 15, 2021

Mary Todd, who oversaw striking growth in Phi Kappa Phi’s chapter development and awards program during nearly a decade as executive director, has announced she will retire on May 15.

“I think everyone comes to a point in time when they recognize it’s time for a change,” Todd said. “This has been a remarkable capstone to an academic career. I’d like to do some other things going forward.”

Todd became the Society’s 11th executive director in 2012, the first woman to hold that position. During her time at the helm, the Society added 37 new chapters. Phi Kappa Phi’s awards program, which distributes funds to advance scholarship and academic innovation, grew from awarding $1 million every two years to more than $1 million annually.

Diane Smathers, who chaired the search committee that led to Todd’s appointment, said the decision to bring Todd aboard has reaped big benefits for Phi Kappa Phi. “She foresaw the challenges to higher education and positioned the Society for relevance in an ever-changing landscape,” Smathers said. “She also works tirelessly.”

Bill Bloodworth, the Society’s president when Todd was hired, agreed. “Her administrative experience in higher education was a plus, but her ideas and her sense of what needed to be done by and for the Society were what led the board to appoint her,” Bloodworth recalled. “It was a great choice for Phi Kappa Phi, as her years in the post have verified.”

A scholar of American history, American religion, and the interdisciplinary fields of women and gender studies and Holocaust studies, Todd was initiated into the Society as a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1993.

“I was a returning learner,” Todd said of her time pursuing a doctorate in Chicago. The experience deepened her conviction that Phi Kappa Phi should be open to all students who demonstrate academic excellence. “It’s what the Society’s founders wanted,” Todd noted, “There are excellent students at every institution.”

To expand the Society’s footprint, Todd traveled extensively during her tenure as executive director. “I’ve done close to 40 site visits in the past nine years,” Todd said of her travels to campuses far and wide. “Almost all of these visits have led to new chapters, I’m happy to say. Building relationships with those institutions has been invaluable.” 

Before becoming executive director, Todd served as founding dean of the Honors College at Marshall University. “I’ve always been involved in honors education,” Todd said. “It’s been a long, strong passion of mine.” When the opportunity to lead the Society’s executive team emerged, she was intrigued. “It became a strong sense of fit for me, a sense that I could contribute,” Todd said.

“I got to know Mary Todd soon after I became the president of Chapter 1 at the University of Maine, and it was Mary who drew me into service at the national level,” said Dan Sandweiss, the Society’s current president. “I had the privilege of visiting campuses with her as well as meeting regularly in Baton Rouge. I learned much from her deep knowledge of Phi Kappa Phi's history and processes, and we have all benefited from her dedication to the Society's well-being. She leaves Phi Kappa Phi much stronger for her leadership.”

On Todd’s watch, Phi Kappa Phi’s awards program grew dramatically, including the creation of the Excellence in Innovation Award in 2014. The biennial award recognizes initiatives for creative change in academic institutions. “It’s just been a joy to see students, members and institutions benefit from the increase in awards,” Todd said.

To honor Todd’s years of service to Phi Kappa Phi, the Society’s board of directors voted unanimously at its spring meeting to create the Mary Todd Sabbatical Fellowship. Valued at $50,000 annually, the new award will be earmarked for faculty members of Phi Kappa Phi who have a long history of engagement with the Society and leadership in their campus chapter.

“I am humbled by the board’s decision to create a new fellowship in my name,” Todd said. “I’ve always had a faculty heart. The opportunity a sabbatical offers faculty to research and study, as well as refresh and renew, is so important to their professional development; this grant supports them during their time away from the classroom.”

“Any leader hopes to leave the organization in a better place than when you first arrived,” said Gypsy Denzine, who served as the Society’s president for the 2016-2018 term. “This is certainly true for Dr. Todd. The Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi is in a better place because of her leadership and expertise in higher education. Our membership is strong, she has hired amazing new staff members, and Phi Kappa Phi remains at the forefront of rapid changes in higher education. Dr. Todd has helped the Society stay laser-focused on our core mission of recognizing and promoting excellence in higher education.”                   

Todd is looking forward to spending more time with family and would like to finish writing an oral history of the 1970s schism in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, the church body whose history she has previously written.  

Traci Navarre, the Society’s chief operating officer, has been named acting executive director while Phi Kappa Phi’s national board of directors conducts a search for a permanent executive director.

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