UPenn Graduate Women's Leadership Conference

University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA

Friday, October 21, 2016


I’d like to thank President Gutmann for that kind and gracious introduction and Anita Mastroieni for inviting me to speak at such an important gathering. This conference provides women graduate and professional students the types of personal and professional information and advice you will need as you launch your careers. I know that I would have benefited from a forum like this one had such gatherings existed when I was a graduate student, so I commend you for creating and institutionalizing this type of event.

I’ve organized my remarks into 3 sections.  Each begins with a sentence or two that has resonated for me during the last five years, as I transitioned from faculty member, to dean, to president.  I quote some of the sentences verbatim; in other cases, the sentences are meant to capture the spirit of a comment someone made to me.   I then use that remark or observation to reflect upon the assumptions they contain.

But before I leap into the body of my talk, let me begin with a bit of background about myself and my professional journey.

Prologue. A bit of background

I grew up in Brooklyn – in Bedford-Stuyvesant and in Williamsburg – in the late ‘50s and ‘60s.   Like many people of my generation, I am a product of the activism and the dramatic social transformations of that period.  Although I did not grow up in the South, and thus did not come to political and cultural consciousness in the crucible of the Jim Crow South, I was very much aware of the upheaval that was going on there and across the country.  My parents were part of the wave of migrants who moved to the north – in their case from Charleston, SC – in search of greater opportunities for themselves and their children.   Because of the conversations we either overheard or participated in, my siblings and I were aware of the Civil Rights struggle and Black Nationalist activism that were playing out in our city and in other parts of the country. 

As you know, Williamsburg and Bedford-Stuyvesant are Brooklyn neighborhoods that have developed an extraordinary cache due both to the popular cultural figures they’ve spawned, and to the waves of gentrification that transformed them over the course of the last couple of decades.  Clearly, I knew these neighborhoods before they were hip.  But even back then, I loved my neighborhood and I loved growing up in an urban environment – the visual and auditory stimulation that surround you as you walk through diverse communities; the pleasure of long bus and subway rides, sometimes for the convenience of getting to one’s destination, sometimes to see what was at the other end of the line, and sometimes just for the journey itself.  I took for granted the cacophony of varied languages, vernaculars and accents that one encountered wherever one went; the discovery of new and different worlds through gustatory experiment.

My parents were career educators.  My mother is a retired elementary school teacher, and my father is a retired biology professor.   We are a family of readers; my parents set high academic standards for my siblings and me.  Although they wouldn’t have put it in quite these terms, education had been a tool of social mobility for my parents, and they assumed that it would be one for us as well.  Even as they championed formal education, they also wanted to make sure that we had the opportunity to learn from the rich cultural offerings the city had to offer.  I’m sure that my love of the arts (especially the theatre), of museums and libraries, comes from the fact that these cultural institutions introduced me to new worlds as a child and adolescent.

I went to a terrific public high school in Brooklyn, Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, and then the University of Virginia for graduate school.  I taught at Princeton for a total of 24 years broken up into 2 stints.  I began my career there and taught there for 9 years.  I left to teach at UCLA for 11 years and then returned to Princeton as a faculty member in 2000.  From 2011-15 I served as Dean of the College, and I began my tenure as president of Swarthmore in July 2015.  Up until that time, I had spent my career as a black feminist scholar and teacher of African American literature and visual culture.  In my scholarship, I have been especially interested in the politics of intersectionality – the mutually constitutive relationship between race, gender, class and sexuality.  And I have also been interested in the ways in which processes of historical and cultural change shape and are shaped by works of cultural production.  Looking back on it now, it isn’t surprising that given my background, I would be interested in a field that allowed me to think and write about the relationship between the arts and politics, history and literature, urban space and social change.  All of these issues were woven together in my consciousness before I had a language for them.

I. “How do you know you don’t want to be an administrator?  or how I became one.  This section is about the value of good mentorship

Prior to my becoming dean, most of my administrative experience had been in the form of directorships of African American Studies Programs at both UCLA and Princeton.  I developed some skill at building these programs by negotiating with administrators for faculty lines; collaborating with colleagues in other departments on joint searches; and working with faculty colleagues to recruit the successful candidates.  During my third year as director of AAS at Princeton, the former president of the university, Shirley Tilghman, and the former provost, Amy Gutmann, committed to expanding the study of race on campus and provided us with the resources to grow from a Program to a Center.  We moved into a new, centrally-located building, received a larger operating budget and additional faculty lines, were authorized to make 100% appointments, began fellowship programs for postdocs and distinguished visitors and an established endowed lecture series, and were assigned a development officer who supported our fundraising efforts. 

I was thrilled to have been able to play a central role in these efforts because they heightened the visibility of African American Studies at Princeton.  These efforts also heightened my visibility as an administrator.  Midway through my tenure as director of the Center of African American Studies, I began to receive overtures from other institutions and from executive search firms inviting me into searches for positions as dean, Provost, or the occasional college presidency.  The first couple of times I received one of these I was taken aback.  I had never imagined myself in a central administrative role.  Then one day, almost by accident, I found myself in a conversation with someone who had once worked for one of the leading executive search firms.  I told him that I had been getting these inquiries, but I didn’t know what to make of them, since I had no interest in being an administrator.   His response was this: “How do you know whether you want to be an administrator or not. Do you really know what a dean/provost /president does?  You might want to learn a bit more before you reject these queries out of hand.”  I was immediately struck by the fact that although I had regularly given other people a version of that piece of advice—undergrads, grad students, junior colleagues -- it hadn’t occurred to me that I might benefit from it myself.

At my colleague’s suggestion, I began to talk with a couple of the headhunters who had reached out to me both to learn more about these types of positions and to learn more about how faculty members who had made this transition did so. The headhunters helped me see that I had thought of the dean’s role in somewhat monolithic terms, but that not surprisingly, the nature of these positions varied quite a bit depending on the nature of the institution, and the configuration of the rest of the administrative structure.  The more I learned, the more interested I became in these types of positions. 

When I checked back in with my acquaintance a few months later, he gave me another great piece of advice.  He suggested that I consider applying for a position that interested me even if I wasn’t sure I was ready to make the move.   As he put it, you don’t want the ideal job to pop up and you have no idea how to interview for it.  Once again I followed his advice; as a result, when the deanship at Princeton became available, I had done my homework, I had a pretty clear sense of what the search committee would be looking for, and I had some idea of how to interview for the job.

I share this story for a couple of reasons.  First, it is a story about the value of being open to suggestion and new ideas.  My colleague did me a great service that day by pushing me out of a smug complacency born of ignorance.  Essentially, he was telling me that while there is nothing wrong with not wanting to do administration, it would behoove me to have some solid knowledge or information on which to base that decision.

In most professions, you’ll find people who have always known where they were headed, what they wanted to be when they grew up.  You’ll also find others who will attest to the power of serendipity in shaping their future.  I fall into that latter camp, although in retrospect, I think I can own up to more intentionality that I realized.  If you ask me whether I always knew I wanted to be a dean or a president, I can tell you in all honesty that that had never been my goal.  But even though I hadn’t knowingly headed down this path, I can say that I tend to seize opportunities when they present themselves.  Sometimes those opportunities were professional, sometimes they were opportunities for service that seemed to take me far afield.  But I think that that openness to opportunity has played a significant role in my career trajectory.

Even more importantly, this is a story about the value of mentorship.  Like many women and men in the academy, I’ve been blessed by the presence of mentors in my life; some of them have been with me for decades, others have crossed my path briefly but have had a profound impact on me.  These people have been women and men of all races; some have been younger than I; others have been older.  But they have a couple of things in common.  First, they are fundamentally generous people who possess wide knowledge and experience and they are happy to share it.  And secondly, they have an eye for talent, for diamonds in the rough, and they trust their intuitive wisdom.  Inevitably, these are the people who have suggested that I try something I had never thought of pursuing and who have been willing to advise me as I explore this new path.  I know that I would never have achieved whatever professional success I enjoy were it not for the mentorship of teachers from elementary school all the way through graduate school who encouraged me to seek out opportunities I might have thought were beyond my grasp.

Because I recognize the difference that this support made in my life, it has been important to me to honor it by mentoring others.  Throughout most of my career, that has taken the form of cultivating the talents of students who might have seemed invisible to other faculty members; encouraging some to consider graduate school; supporting their job searches; helping them find publishers for academic books; supporting them through the tenure and promotion process.

As a dean, and now as a president, I’ve had other kinds of mentorship opportunities. Colleagues around the country, generally women of all races and African American men, have begun to reach out to me for advice about how to think about moving into administration.  As some of them have put it, it’s as if these jobs seem more possible or intelligible to them now that people they know, people who look like them or whose career trajectories and intellectual interests mirror their own, now hold them.  I am always happy to share my experiences with them.

I believe that it is in the nature of mentorship that one can rarely repay mentors for the difference they’ve made in one’s life.  Of course we should always explicitly acknowledge the impact a person has had on our lives, but the only true way to honor their gift is to carry that spirit forward whenever one is in the position to do so – to pay it forward.  In that way we help to expand exponentially what began as a gesture of graciousness extended from one individual to another.   By extending those gestures across the generations, we will have a hand in transforming our institutions and the way power is organized and exerted within them.

II.  “What kind of President do you want to be?  -- Trust the light within

At the start of my presidency, I often felt that I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing or what people expected of me.  When I found myself in an unfamiliar situation, I would wonder what a president does under such circumstances.  One moment stands out for me in particular.  It was the day of my inauguration, just over a year ago, in early October 2015.  Although hurricane force winds drove the celebration indoors and prevented some of the guests from attending, many others braved the elements to be there.   I was delighted to see so many friends and colleagues from different stages in my life there to cheer me on.  As I prepared for the ceremony I looked forward to being able to greet my people and thank them for coming to campus to celebrate with me.

But instead, as soon as the ceremony ended, one of the vice presidents pulled me into a private room to tell me that the body of a student had been found during the ceremony.  So there it was, life in all of its complexity, joy and profound grief twinned in the same moment.  And in that moment, my focus had to be on how the leadership of the college and I would guide the community through this moment of crisis.  As I worked with colleagues to prepare our response and lead the campus during this period of mourning I found myself asking yet again what a president does at times like these.  The best advice I received, advice to which I have returned repeatedly, is that I was asking the wrong question.  I shouldn’t be asking what a president does, but rather, what kind of president I wanted to be.  So now when I find myself facing an unfamiliar situation, I am reminded of this question.  It reminds me of the value of reflection and contemplation in a job that so often seems to require a swift response or plan of action.  At these moments I still ask many questions.  But by asking what kind of president I want to be, I am reassured that I already have the answers, and that I can trust my instincts to lead me in the right direction.

III. “A standing meeting is not a meeting in which everyone stands up” – but it should be  --  Collaboration and Balance

I often get asked what the hardest part of being a president is.  I say the same thing I used to say when I was a dean – that there is simply not enough time in the day to get everything done.  Like many academics, when I was a full-time faculty member I enjoyed feeling that I had some control over my time – that I could protect the better part of a day, sometimes two, per week, for writing, preparing for class, etc.  First as a dean and now as a president, my time is committed generally from 8 or 8:30 am until anywhere from 5 until 9:30 at evening, mostly in meetings.  I find time to think, time for myself, time to write in the early mornings, sometimes on the weekend, and occasionally in the evening if I’m not too tired. But even as I’ve lamented the extent to which meetings consume my days, I also appreciate that a certain number of regular meetings are crucial to my ability to be the kind of leader who values collaboration and the professional development of those who report to me.

Of course I’m being somewhat self-mocking when I suggest that a standing meeting is one in which everyone is standing, but I make that statement only partially in jest.  I do believe that we must develop the habit of maintaining balance in our lives and of encouraging those who work with and for us to do the same.   Days filled with meetings may be productive in some ways, but if we believe the burgeoning literature on the long term deleterious effects of a sedentary workplace, we would do well to consider alternatives to meetings in which we are all seated around a conference table or across from each other. 

As I’ve read the narratives of women in academic leadership and spoken with others who occupy these roles across the country, they all emphasize the importance of balance as a way to gain perspective, to nurture relationships, to ensure greater mental clarity and to protect one’s physical health.  Increasingly I hear people mock the idea of balance in life, as if it is so elusive that we delude ourselves if we think that this is a goal to which we should aspire.  Perhaps work-life integration is a preferable term.  But our jobs can be all-consuming, and that narrow focus can cloud our judgment and damage our health and relationships.  I’ve valued the example of mentors and colleagues who have modeled the significance of insisting on time for family and friends, rest and exercise, spiritual or religious commitments, and regular if not frequent vacations.


My greatest fear in moving into administration is that my life would be consumed with bureaucratic details and that I would lose the intellectual engagement that had enlivened my teaching and scholarship for so many years. (From my conversations with friends and colleagues, I think many faculty members share that concern.)   That apprehension flows from a flawed opposition between service or administrative work and intellectual work.  I feel fortunate that I’ve landed in a job that offers opportunities to engage my political commitments and intellectual passions.  Literary critic Cheryl Wall addressed this issue in an essay called “Faculty as Change Agents – Reflections on My Academic Life.”  She is writing here about “diversity work,” I want to quote from that essay in closing and suggest that her remarks have the potential to apply to administrative work as well, especially if we view “diversity work” not as an add-on to our professional responsibilities, but as labor that is woven into the very fabric of our commitments:

Diversity work is too often seen as ‘service’ that is totally unrelated to the teaching and research that are at the core of the faculty role.  This service is sometimes dismissed as ‘institutional housekeeping,’ a phrase that further diminishes work that is more often than not performed by women and people of color.  The truth is that diversity work is intellectual work.  It requires imaginative thought, critical analysis, and careful study.  It has the potential to transform not only the institutions of higher learning in which we work but the society that these institutions serve.