HOLLY HART MCKIERNAN Making higher education more attainable Attorney brings key players together to reach goals When Holly McKiernan was a secondyear law student at Indiana University, she took a seminar course on not-for-profits-and her career path became clear. She wanted a job where she could use her skills as a lawyer in helping charitable and educational organizations.
The West Lafayette native had earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from DePauw University-magna cum laude-graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1980. As an undergraduate, McKiernan pledged at Alpha Chi Omega, a sorority with its national headquarters in Indianapolis. Little did she know that, a decade later, her first job in the not-for-profit sector would be as its executive director.
Today, McKiernan is senior vice president and general counsel for Indianapolisbased Lumina Foundation for Education Inc. Lumina, with assets of $1.3 billion, was formed with proceeds from the 2000 sale of USA Group to Reston, Va.-based Sallie Mae.
McKiernan acknowledged that her career path seemed “very purposeful,” but it wasn’t. “I’ve just been fortunate that there were great opportunities,” McKiernan said.
Following a serendipitous path
While working as an associate with the Indianapolis law firm Baker & Daniels, McKiernan was introduced by a colleague to Nancy Leonard, who at the time was executive director of Alpha Chi Omega. Leonard hired McKiernan to handle some legal issues for the fraternal organization.
“We were facing a dilemma about our headquarters that we owned in College Park,” Leonard said. “We were outgrowing the space and needed guidance on what to do.” McKiernan investigated the options and recommended building a new headquarters.
At the time, McKiernan was pregnant with her third child and was exploring parttime work arrangements. Leonard said she “knew a good thing when I saw one,” and hired McKiernan as general counsel. When Leonard retired in 1991, McKiernan kept her role as general counsel and added the title of executive director.
While at Alpha Chi Omega, McKiernan ran a not-for-profit group comprising three corporations covering fund raising, chapter house ownership and membership. She remained there until 2003, when she was hired as general counsel at Lumina.
“I learned about non-profit management and relationships with universities,” McKiernan said of Alpha Chi. “Because of issues facing Greek organizations, I became involved in high-risk student behavior and the legal relationship between universities and student organizations.” Through that work, she learned about higher-education law. “This job brings all that experience together.”
It was that experience with legal issues relating to high-risk behavior of students that proved invaluable to Leonard and Alpha Chi Omega.
“I had never heard of risk management,” Leonard said. It became a top priority when educating chapter leaders and members about the risks of alcohol use on college campuses.
“We traveled together to campuses, and she could take the policies and positions and talk to the young women and men in a way that they related to,” Leonard said. “She didn’t speak in ‘academese.’ She made it all understandable and logical.”
McKiernan, 50, has extensive experience in studying student alcohol use and highrisk behaviors and counsels higher education leaders on legal liability issues.
At Lumina, she supports the office of the president and handles all legal matters. McKiernan said the most satisfying part of her job is bringing together staff and stakeholders to bring about change.
“We’re going to be embarking on a new strategic-planning process looking at the policies that could really open the doors to higher education,” she said. “Whether it’s for adult learners or students who have dropped out of college-we want to [come up with] significant policy changes that can bring about results.”
Part of her job is supporting the work of Lumina’s board. Edward Schmidt, who chairs Lumina’s audit and finance committee, was one of the people who interviewed McKiernan for her position.
“She can take on a task and deliver results that are first-class,” Schmidt said. “She’s much more than general counsel. She has the ability to assess … business issues that ultimately could rise to a legal problem, so her judgment comes into play in how to handle those issues.”
In addition to her duties as general counsel, McKiernan finds time to serve on several boards, including the Fathers and Families Center and the Catholic Community Foundation. She will join the DePauw University Board of Visitors in November.
She’s working to advance Lumina’s mission of expanding access and attainment in post-secondary education, increasing the number of Americans with degrees from 39 percent to 60 percent by 2025.
“I really believe that our goal is the right goal,” McKiernan said. “For my children’s lives, this is what really matters. It’s like planting a tree for the next generation. It’s doing the right thing to make certain that we really tackle this education issue.”