How does one get to be president of a prestigious women's college? For Mary Metz, president of Mills College, in East Oakland, Calif., it was a combination of early family experiences, her husband's ''portable'' career, and her own tendency to ''do everything the best I can.''
This vibrant, suntanned administrator spoke with me during a recent visit to Boston. A soft Southern accent mellowed her crisp speech as she recalled the beginnings of her route to Mills in her own upbringing and the regional tradition of her native South Carolina.
She reminded me that the South has a tradition of female strength. ''Maybe it goes back to the Civil War, when many strong women ran the farms. The families were kept together by the women. They weren't necessarily out working in the marketplace, but they were managers.''
Her grandmother was one of those women. Dr. Metz considers her ''an outstanding role model, because she was a leader in the church and community.''
Dr. Metz's parents also contributed to her interest in education. ''My mother ,'' she said, ''was a schoolteacher and the only woman principal. My father was an intelligent mentor who asked my opinion on politics and economics, even though he had to explain the issues to me. I can remember his doing this at dinner when I was seven years old. He was ready to listen to my answers to his questions. He never said, 'If you go to college . . . .' He always said, 'When you go to college . . . .' ''
She and Eugene, her husband of 26 years, dated for seven years before getting married. He graduated from Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., she from Furman University in Greenville, S.C., in the '50s. Shortly after graduating, Dr. Metz began teaching at her local high school.
Her husband's flexibility was one of the keys to her success, she says. ''We made a pact to help each other through graduate school. For economic reasons, I got my degree first. That alone was a liberated decision for the 1950s.
''At Louisiana State University, we both became tenured members of the faculty. I taught French, and he taught architecture. I served also as assistant to the chancellor.''
It was this stint at LSU that fired her interest in women's education and the liberal arts. She considers liberal arts colleges ''the last strongholds that can say, 'We do have a value system.' Universities and community colleges can't say that. Not long ago I heard a chief executive officer say, 'Leaders teach values; managers enforce rules.' He was advocating hiring liberal arts graduates , because they have values and communication skills.
''So when we had an opportunity to move to Hood College in Frederick, Md., I felt I could also test my growing conviction that women's colleges create an affirming environment for women.''
While she was at Hood, her husband worked for the National Bureau of Standards just outside Washington. ''I'm blessed by a husband whose field is portable,'' she explains. ''We had agreed we would not have a commuting marriage. So we had to seek urban areas where both of us could work in our careers.''
At Hood she was provost (second to president) and dean of academic affairs. After five years, she was nominated for the presidency of Mills, in 1981.
Dr. Metz's husband worked as a consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area and then was appointed campus architect of the University of California at Berkeley.
''It took about six months after I accepted to work out the right place for my husband. We had to fly blind for a little while. But you take risks. . . . In our case, it was important that both of us move ahead, not that one tag along because the other had an opportunity.''