HERS Summer Institute, the presidents

One of the best things about the first week of the HERS Summer Institute was the opportunity to meet a variety of women who have become Presidents or Chancellors of their Colleges or Universities. I have been amazed at how open and available to us these women have been through the HERS program.  Over the first week of training we had the opportunity to interact with several amazing women. I will summarize their histories in the order they presented.

Adrian Tinsley

Adrian served as the President of Bridgewater State College for 13 years. She spoke to us on several topics one of which was how she plotted her course to become a College President. She has been part of the HERS program since 1976. Her ambitions first came to light as a student at Bryn Mawr where she noticed that most of her peers were training to become secretaries, nurses and teachers. She also noticed the relative freedom held by the Dean of her college. She set an appointment to learn how to prepare to have her job.

Adrian started out ordinarily enough. She earned her doctorate in English and began teaching. She learned that while she loved teaching, she did not love research and writing. Her mother taught her that if you want something you have to tell people. And yes, this can be excruciatingly difficult. She had shared her goal with colleagues, one of whom called her about an opening for a Dean of a small college when she was just 35 years old. At this time, she was not aware of the differences between Research 1 institutions and regional comprehensive colleges. Nor was she familiar with the differences between public and private institutions.

She admitted to being under-prepared for this job. However, her advice to us was “Just take the job. Do not admit you do not have the experience. Watch and Learn.” In many ways, the only way to get the experience you need is to get the job. She never planned to become a college president. She spent a few years as an associate vice chancellor for academic affairs. She warned us not to stay too long in such a job if it is intended as a stepping stone. From this position she was able to watch the president’s job and set her course to become one. Her experience taking on the position of President of Bridgewater State College was used as a teaching tool later in the HERS program. I will write more on this separately since the story of the problems she faced and was able to solve gave me a lot of hope about the challenges I face.

While Adrian’s path to president was fairly traditional, there were two striking omissions from her resume: she never earned tenure and she never served as a department chair.

Dene Thomas

Dene, an incredibly vibrant woman, is the current President of Lewis-Clark State College in Idaho. Dene’s path was quite different. At age 29, Dene was a farmer’s wife with 3 children, a husband who stated that “no wife of his would ever go to college” (there was a roomful of horrified gasps at this comment), and no education beyond high school. At age 30, newly divorced, she started college. She finished her PhD in English in 1984. She completed her degree living in graduate housing with her children. I cannot imagine how difficult or scary this must have been.

Dene did collect a teaching certificate to teach high school English (just in case) but pursued her dream. After earning tenure in her department, she applied for (and won) a position as an Associate Dean. She later transitioned to a vice-Provost position. When the President’s position was advertised at a nearby school she went for it. Dene told us that she followed a failed president and stressed that it is much better to follow someone who failed.

Pamela Shockley-Zalabak

Pam is the chancellor of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Her appointment as the interim chancellor coincided with the September 11 attacks on the USA so she was faced with sudden and draconian cuts to her budget due to state shortfalls. She obviously did a great job as she was appointed to serve as chancellor in 2002. Pam’s path was perhaps the most traditional of these incredible women. She has served in just about every academic position in her long career from Instructor to Professor. Unlike the others, she still finds time to teach, run a consulting business, conduct research and oversee a farm.

Her presentation to us was less about herself and more about leading organizational change and serving during times of change. She will be working with us again in September as we prepare our personal Change Challenges for her and our classmates to review. She stressed that leading change required less management and more leadership. It is critical to see what is needed and to help facilitate that. In her opinion, managing a stable situation is simple. She also stressed patience.

Leading change can take a very long time. We all remember Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. What most of us did not know was that he first had this idea to march on Washington DC more than 14 years earlier. It can take decades for our dreams to be realized.

Pam raised and reminded us of number of other compelling ideas:

  • It’s all the people
  • We much change the teaching and learning paradigms to reach the “my space” generation
  • To stay the same, sometimes you must change to stay true to your core values –she repeated this one frequently
  • Methods must evolve
  • Anyone can create a train wreck

Two of these women, like me, are INTJ personality types erasing some doubt I had about being an introvert in a leadership position. I asked one how she survived all of the required social engagements. Did it not wear her down? How did she balance it with her need for some time alone? I learned that she does not shirk these duties and yes, it tires her out rather than energizes her (were she an extroverted type) but yet she finds the energy because of the value she places in what she is doing. She could not do this for another school. But she believes in hers and the mission and goals for which she is fund raising. That belief and surety make all of the difference. She also rises very early to get in some time alone.

None of these women admitted to finding "work-life balance." Indeed, most admitted to working far too much. More importantly, they were able to admit their priorities. Some of this imbalance stemmed from life changes: widowed, children grown…why not focus primarily on work at this time? For others, they seem to have put the more personal on the back burner while pursuing professional goals. These are the paths they have chosen. Others may have chosen differently, with a different balance.

Adrian has now moved to Denver. Pam will be working with us again on our personal change challenges in September. I feel so lucky to have met these women, to have heard their stories, and to have the opportunity to ask them for advice now and in the future.