Remembering Dr. Cynthia Haldenby Tyson

MBU’s eighth president leaves a legacy of campus expansion, relationship-building

Dr. Cynthia H. Tyson

President Emerita Cynthia Haldenby Tyson passed away on Jan. 7 in Charlotte, N.C. at the age of 86. 

Tyson led Mary Baldwin from 1985 to 2003, and forged a legacy of expansion for signature academic programs and the campus footprint. Throughout her 18 years, she created partnerships, constructed and renovated campus buildings, enlarged and diversified the student body, set fundraising records, and drew national publicity.

“During her presidency, Dr. Tyson was able both to effect great change and connect to students, faculty, and staff with respect, warmth, and affection. This is a rare and outstanding gift, and one which I deeply admire in her life and work,” said President Jeff Stein. “From what I’ve learned about Dr. Tyson’s remarkable service to Mary Baldwin, she stands out as a thoughtful, approachable, and dynamic leader who made a tremendous impact on the institution while never forgetting to appreciate and elevate the people who worked and studied on these hills. Her legacy of academic excellence and entrepreneurial spirit still influences the university today and is carried forward by our students and alumni across the world.”

Born and raised in England, Tyson first came to the United States as a Fulbright scholar-teacher, after earning her bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD in English language and medieval English literature from the University of Leeds. She went on to a distinguished career in higher education in this country, eventually becoming a U.S. citizen. 

Before coming to Mary Baldwin, she served as a faculty member and as vice president for academic affairs and chief academic officer at Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina from 1969 to 1985.

Her arrival on campus coincided with the first class for the Program for the Exceptionally Gifted (PEG), and a key characteristic of her tenure became the development of distinctive student-centered programs at Mary Baldwin. 

In 1993, she made the decision at the request of the Commonwealth of Virginia to establish the Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership (VWIL), the nation’s only women’s cadet corps, which welcomed its first class of students in August 1995. Over the years, VWIL has graduated more than 500 cadets and earned a national reputation as a leadership development program for students pursuing both military and civilian careers.      

“Dr. Tyson was instrumental not only to the growth of VWIL as a program, but also to the growth of cadets on an individual level,” said Dr. Trimble Bailey Spitzer ‘99, a current MBU Trustee who served as VWIL’s first cadet first captain and graduated with the corps’ inaugural class. “I remember she gave the address at our very first parade, and in her speech she said ‘I am very proud of you’ in her British accent many times over. But she really was incredibly proud of us as young women. She was a special person and a monumental leader.”

In 1996, Tyson supported the creation of the first dedicated office at Mary Baldwin for promoting diversity and inclusion resources, programming, and opportunities. 

“During Dr. Tyson’s presidency careful attention was given to the special needs of underrepresented students,” said Andrea Cornett-Scott, chief diversity officer. “Through her leadership, the Office of African American and Multicultural Affairs was launched, transforming the cultural identity of the Mary Baldwin community.” 

Tyson enabled the founding of the Shakespeare and Performance program in 2001, which continues to offer a unique course of graduate study in partnership with Staunton’s American Shakespeare Center (ASC). To recognize Tyson’s contributions, the first-floor rehearsal room at ASC’s Blackfriars Playhouse is named for her. 

Professor Emeritus of Shakespeare and Performance and ASC co-founder Ralph Alan Cohen shared a memory of Tyson receiving one of the organization’s most prestigious awards: “In 2013, the American Shakespeare Center awarded Dr. Tyson our Robin Goodfellow Award; she stood by me as I began to read my carefully composed speech in her honor, and I wasn’t a sentence into it before she grabbed my arm and said, ‘Nice, Ralph, but let’s talk about you.’  Everyone laughed, and I tried to start over, but she grabbed my arm again and interrupted: ‘Isn’t this a wonderful theatre?’ she asked the guests. Again, huge laughter, as she basically and endearingly stole the show every time I started to say something. I never was able to finish that speech, but because of her it was the most memorable I ever made.” 

Many additional academic opportunities were initiated during the Tyson years, as Mary Baldwin added the bachelor of science as a degree option, and the option of a minor in addition to a major; offered more career-oriented majors in subjects like health care administration, marketing communication, and arts management; and organized study abroad trips to Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Korea, and China during May Term.

For non-traditional students, Tyson expanded the then-named Adult Degree Program to satellite locations throughout Virginia, to increase access to a college education for those who were often juggling coursework, careers, and family responsibilities. 

Campus buildings and grounds grew and transformed during Tyson’s tenure: she led the renovation to Carpenter Academic Hall in the 1990s, which was rededicated in honor of alumna Leona Bowman Carpenter ‘35 and a significant grant from the Carpenter Foundation. She spearheaded the purchase of the Staunton YMCA, which became the Physical Activities Center. 

The William G. Pannill Student Center was constructed in 1992 as a dedicated space for students to gather. The patio joining Pannill with Kable House and the Student Activities Center is named in Dr. Tyson’s honor, given by former Board Chair Charles S. Luck III and his family. 

Toward the end of her tenure, she led the way for the construction of a residence hall and home base for PEG students, which in 2021 was renamed Cynthia Haldenby Tyson Hall in her honor. 

Upon her retirement as president in 2003, the Legislature of Virginia recognized her distinguished service to the Commonwealth by legislative commendation, and the U.S. Congress likewise voted to recognize her accomplishments. Mary Baldwin also named her an honorary doctor of humane letters at her final Commencement ceremony. 

Despite the significant transformations at MBU during the 18 years of her presidency, Tyson created enduring connections and loyalty among students, faculty, and staff. Many remember that her leadership style involved being out and about on campus as much as possible, attending athletic and arts events, student government meetings, orientations, and formal dances, and stationing herself at a lunch table in Hunt Dining Hall so students could share what was on their minds.

For Dr. Edward Scott, associate professor emeritus of philosophy, Tyson had a particularly strong grasp of personal details among members of the Mary Baldwin community.

“She knew our spouses and our children by name, our origins of town, country and kin,” Scott recalled. “It always moved me to hear her call my name with affection, so much so that I could never bring myself to call her Cynthia. I called her President Tyson from the beginning until the very end and thus shall she ever remain, so fondly remembered beyond the veil.”

Chaplain Emerita Pat Hunt, who joined Mary Baldwin the same year as Tyson, remembers how she led with equity and compassion: “I said to her once, ‘There are surely people you like better than others and even people you don’t like at all. How do you handle that?’ She said, ‘Oh, I just think of them as characters in Canterbury Tales.’ I had to laugh. Good advice and an insight into the source of her patience with us.”

Also highly respected in the larger Staunton community, Tyson was named the first female president of the Rotary Club; was an elder at First Presbyterian Church; and served on numerous boards including those of the Frontier Culture Museum, Shenandoah Shakespeare, and the Community Foundation of the Central Blue Ridge. 

An enthusiastic and accomplished public speaker, she spoke at the 259th Anniversary of the Birth of Thomas Jefferson Ceremony and Dedication of the Jefferson Library at Monticello in 2002.

During her career, she gave her talents to many professional associations including as president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and in leadership roles for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities; the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges; and the Council of Independent Colleges in Virginia. 

Tyson most recently served as president of the Robert Haywood Morrison Foundation, a non-profit, charitable organization based in Charlotte, that supports higher education, the arts and culture, and the natural environment.

She is survived by her son, Marcus James Tyson, of Winterton, U.K. and her daughter, Alexandra Elizabeth Butler, of Charlotte; grandchildren, Hannah Elizabeth Butler MacLeod, her husband, Ian, and Christopher Michael Butler; and great grandchildren, Kiera Lily MacLeod and Jack Hilton MacLeod. 

The memorial service will be held on Jan. 16 at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, N.C.

Tyson’s family asks that memorial gifts be made to Covenant Presbyterian Church, 1000 East Morehead Street, Charlotte, NC 28204; Queens University of Charlotte, 1900 Selwyn Avenue, Charlotte, NC 28274; or Mary Baldwin University, Frederick and New Streets, Staunton, VA 24401.

Read her full obituary here.

Cancelled due to inclement weather: The virtual viewing of Cynthia H. Tyson’s memorial service in Miller Chapel, located on the MBU campus in Staunton, has been cancelled.

The service will be livestreamed at at 11 a.m. from Covenant Presbyterian Church in North Carolina.