Kendra Stearns O'Donnell

Kendra Stearns O'Donnell

"I was less wrapped up in being the first woman and more conscious of being the 12th principal at this ancient and revered institution.”

Other than the groundbreaking decision to enroll girls, few milestones in the Academy’s coeducational journey measure up to the hiring of Kendra Stearns O’Donnell as the first woman to serve as Exeter’s principal. 

The Trustees announced to the campus community on Feb. 21, 1987, that O’Donnell would be assuming the role upon Principal Stephen Kurtz’s retirement that June. The announcement concluded a search process that O’Donnell nearly won after one interview. “Why don’t we stop the search right now? Why are we looking anymore?” a member of the nine-person search committee is reported to have asked.

History is not so hasty, however, and this decision was unquestionably historic. After all, no formerly all-boys preparatory school in the United States had chosen a woman to run things. O’Donnell had won over the search committee; but the committee had to convince the Trustees. Another finalist, a man with a more traditional résumé, was a safer choice than O’Donnell, who at the time was not in academia but rather working at a private philanthropy. 

A story about O’Donnell’s first months on the job merited 3,000 words in the Sunday New York Times and recounted how the selection ultimately came to pass: 

“In the end, the search committee prevailed. At a meeting in the fusty downstairs billiard parlor of the Century Association (which does not yet admit women as members), the committee members persuaded the board of trustees to see things their way. ‘The trustees decided that if this is the way the school feels, we don’t dare not take her,’ one participant said.”

O’Donnell told The Exonian on the day of her appointment, “Exeter is in a period where it is examining the old ways, and seeing how it can make things work better. I especially want to examine just what it means to be a coeducational school today. I am going to listen a lot,” she said, “to listen and to learn. This is a school that knows where it wants to go.”

Last fall, in a conversation with Principal Bill Rawson ’71; P’08, O’Donnell spoke about her selection. “I think I felt like every new student at Exeter: I was full of imagining all the great things ahead and also some nervousness about everything being so new.

“I was excited to be a part of Exeter’s history. I was less wrapped up in being the first woman and more conscious, I think, of being the 12th principal at this ancient and revered institution.”

—Patrick Garrity

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the winter 2021 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.