How did you end up at Williams?
When I was in high school in North Carolina, I went to see the guidance counselor about going to college. This was the mid-80s. The guidance counselor told me that I shouldn’t really be thinking about going to college and that as a black woman my only option would be the military and that I shouldn’t come back and ask her about going to college. I went home and told my family. My mother worked for a family who told me that I needed to get out of the town. They agreed to pay my tuition to a private boarding school – we could not have afforded it otherwise.
My sister had gotten out of the town by participating in the ABC program and spending her high school years in Minnesota before going to Dartmouth so I knew there was another path than the one my guidance counselor told me about.
I wanted to go to Williams to major in art history. It was my favorite class in high school. Right before I got to Williams, I had a conversation with one of my mother’s cousins who gave me what she thought was really good advice. She said, “don’t major in art history, you’ll never get a job. We’ve all struggled to hard to watch you go to college and not get a job.” I don’t think she meant to give me bad advice – that’s what she knew.
So I went into the very lucrative field of psychology. Part of my love of the liberal arts and why I’m at Saint Benedict’s now is that I believe you should never tell a young person that they shouldn’t major in something because they won’t get a job. You should major in what you love, and you’re going to get a job especially coming out of a place like Williams.
Psychology is not a major that you graduate with and have a pre-set job. I too put on a suit in January of my senior year and didn’t find a job. I went to a number of teaching fairs. I took a job at a private school in Potomac, MD. This was an area of enormous wealth, but I began to realize that many of the challenges of my friends who were living with no economic resources were the same as these kids. They had serious lack of interest from their parents. When you don’t have money, you think that money can solve all of your problems, but really those problems just manifest themselves in different ways.
I taught for a year and really disliked it. I was also pretty bad at it. I applied to psychology graduate school and decided to go to the University of Kansas. Pretty quickly I realized that I didn’t have much life experience to offer. You start doing clinical work right away, and you’d hear these stories that were just heartbreaking. I didn’t have very good non-theoretical advice, which was frustrating. I didn’t feel like I had enough life experience on my own to direct someone else’s life.
I had never quit at something in my life, but it became pretty clear that I really didn’t like the program. I decided to finish the Master’s and then I got connected with a policy organization in New York. I knew I wanted to impact the lives of the kids I’d interacted with through teaching and clinical psychology but direct service was not going to be the way, but I thought that policy might be.
I remember my first day in New York clear as a bell. I finally felt like I had some peace. I was in a place that I really liked, with a job that I really loved. I did policy work for a while. The bulk of my job was developing educational programs that would go into schools. We would have an idea and test it at schools around the US. I would go around and set up the test programs at cities all around the US and Canada. I got to have an impact in an area that I wanted to be in without having to be in front of a classroom.
I got recruited to the Deutsche Bank foundation where I had a portfolio of $9 million that I gave away to education programs each year. That’s where I met my husband – a Williams alum. He applied for a grant, and I turned him down. I decided that was a bit too far from the classroom. I realized that my sweet spot was in the policy / program development area.
I met a guy who had this idea that you should go to highly successful schools and replicate that. He got a grant to support the two of us and we built an organization called Replications. We would go to high performing urban schools and figure out what they were doing. Then we would take a team of a principal and a few teachers and they would spend a year at that school and then go open their own school the next year. During my time, I helped open 22 schools in New York and Baltimore.
I wasn’t teaching but I was close enough to see why my work mattered. For me, that was important – that I could go to a school and see kids faces and know that if it wasn’t for my work, they wouldn’t be there.
Midway through that I decided that I wanted to go back to school to study something for the sake of studying it – I wanted to do what I went to Williams for in the first place. I wanted to study art history just to study art history. I wasn’t looking for a job – I was happy where I was, making more money than I thought I would make, had flexible hours. I wanted to study something personally meaningful.
So I decided to study religion – it was purely an academic exercise – I just wanted to take some classes. After a few classes, I decided that I was going to get my PhD. Right before I finished the dissertation, I stumbled upon an ad for job as a professor who was also expected to work with multicultural population. I thought, ‘I’ll apply for this just to see what happens.’
I got the job. I called my boss and said that I wanted to step out and try teaching for a year. I said I would keep doing the consulting work that I’d been doing.
So I went to Misrecordia to teach two classes, and I absolutely loved it. I was as good a college professor as I was bad an elementary school teacher. They offered me the opportunity to switch from visiting professor to tenure track. My salary decreased by more than half.
It’s with big financial risk that one makes some of these moves. At this point, I had 3 kids, a mortgage, and I decided to give up financial security to pursue what I loved.
Midway through the year, they were looking for someone to manage the general education program and the next thing I know, I’m the core curriculum director. It was sort of like doing the policy work but on a college campus. A few years later, the Associate VP for Academic Affairs left, and I ended up getting that job.
One day, there was an unfortunate meeting where I felt like I had been beating my head against a wall. I was in hotel room when I drafted my cover letter for VP at Mount St. Mary’s. I spent a few years there and then ended up as VP for Academic Affairs. I loved the job, but then last year, the President announced that he had cancer and was going to be retiring at the end of the year. I was in a new role and the guy who had shepherded me through the process says he’s leaving.
The President at Mount St. Mary’s encouraged me to look at Presidencies. But I had 3 kids and a husband who had a big job. I needed to find the right fit. I was very clear about what my skills were and it needed to be the right fit. He told me to look at St. Ben’s. I studied the college and thought that it was interesting. It’s like Williams in that it’s committed to the liberal arts but it’s in central Minnesota and it’s all women. I got a first round interview and flew to Minneapolis, and it seemed almost too good to be true. It was like I had found family and friends in Minnesota that I didn’t know I had. I didn’t apply to other presidencies – this was it.
I flew out for my final interview on Wednesday. They said there might be a little snow. By 2 the next day, they were talking about shutting down the school. I wasn’t even halfway through my interview – and it’s a two-day interview. I thought, ‘there goes my chances.’ My open talk, which should have involved a couple hundred people, was given to six people.
The themes of my path were: a willingness to take chances – to walk away from a well-paying job to make half of what you’re making is not a wise decision when you’ve just had a third child, but sometimes you have to take risks. At some point, I stopped looking for the ladder. I never dreamed about being a college president. If I ultimately have success at being a college president it will be because I have always wanted to have an impact on other people in the ways that I could. I just wanted to be here and support the young women. I found the place where I could do what I most wanted to do.
What are some of the initiatives that you’re most excited about?
I always say that it’s not about my vision. It’s about the vision of the collective. I’ve been listening a lot to what people say matters here. I will articulate those voices and then get the resources to go do it. Those things include: maintaining our commitment to the liberal arts – I have to justify to parents why they should send their child here where the tuition is $50,000 instead of going to St. Cloud State where the cost is less than a third of what we charge. I have to be able to articulate the value of the liberal arts to a parent from Brooklyn who may be taking out huge loans to send their daughter halfway across the country. We have to continue to articulate why the liberal arts matter, particularly for places like us. We also need to figure out how to attract kids to campus who may never have heard of the liberal arts and get them hear despite the financial realities.
Continuing to articulate the value of women’s education. The pay gap is one thing, but also the fact that many women feel like they have to work twice as hard as their male counterparts for half the pay or the fact that women are constantly asked how they’re going to balance their family lives when men never get that question.
The final piece is maintaining the Benedictine tradition here. The school was founded by sisters who overcame obstacle after obstacle in doing so. As a non-Catholic, I think embedding the Benedictine values into the education is hugely important.
You have open office hours with students. Is the student interaction a big priority for you?
It’s easy to forget why you’re on a college campus when you’re in an administrative role. You can think you’re there to do the planning. Really at the end of the day, you’re there to support the students. I exist because of 18 and 19 year olds who chose to come here. So I do things like make crazy youtube videos and the illuminated run because they give me a chance to engage with the students. They’re why I’m here so I need to know what they’re thinking about and what’s important to them.
When you were at Williams, you applied for investment banking jobs even though you weren’t interested in finance. What drove you to submit those applications?
I don’t know what I was thinking. I think the fact that I didn’t get an offer made me want the jobs even more. It was a classic relationship type thing. Even if you didn’t want the person before, as soon as they reject you, you feel like you’ve got to be with them.
I don’t even know what investment bankers do so I’m not sure why I thought I had a shot – although the people who got the jobs didn’t seem to know either. The lesson I took from that is, ‘don’t go after things you don’t want in part because you might get them.’ What if I had gotten the job? Not only would I have been bad at it, but would I have found myself working so hard to be good at it that I would have felt the pull and not been able to get out. I’m always going to give 100% to whatever I do. It’s a great thing that they didn’t call me back. I think that’s what gave me a bit of courage to walk away from my PhD in psychology.
You’ve got to know when to walkaway.
Did the idea of walking away get easier over time?
It was really hard to leave Misrecordia and the Mount because I cared so much about the people there. I would like to think that if I had it to do all over again, I wouldn’t have gone to graduate school. I would have gotten a different job. I went to graduate school because I wasn’t sure what else to do. I’d like to think that now I would realize that I didn’t see my ladder going to graduate school.
How do you describe the value of the liberal arts?
To me, it’s about educating people so they can be free. Education is supposed to equip you so that you can be free and have self-determination. When my guidance counselor looked at me and said that I couldn’t go to college, essentially what she was saying that because of my race I was not entitled to the opportunity to be educated and be fully free. A liberal arts education does not train you for a specific job – it equips you to be able to do any job. People often say that you should major in something so that you can get a job right away, but we don’t know what the jobs are going to be in ten years. If you’d have asked me 10 years ago if we’d have iPhones, I’d say you were crazy. We don’t know what the exact jobs will be, but we do know that if you can write well and think critically and that you’re somewhat creative and can problem solve, you’ll probably be ok. And if you’re really interested in the freedom of another human being, that’s how you educated them – so that no matter what comes along, they’ll be ok.
How have you come to define success?
I have learned that success can’t be defined by anyone else and that’s a tough lesson to learn. If you look at my family origin, I wasn’t a traditional Williams kid. Once you’re there, you pick up on the fact that there are pretty high expectations set for you. Sometimes that pressure can be pretty crushing. Maybe part of my reaction to not getting the investment banking job was this fear that I wasn’t a good enough Williams person.
I struggle with this a lot, but you’ve got to do you – you can’t let other people define it. I’d be lying if I told you that I don’t wrestle with this to this day. There’s this image that I have in my mind of what a college president should look like, and even in my mind, it doesn’t look like me. I have the choice to try and be that person and just travel around and do fundraising or I could do me even if it’s not “presidential enough.”
At some point I’ve consciously decided to let go of what other people think of as success, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy – it’s something I still struggle with.
Williams puts you on a course, but when you educate someone for freedom and self determination, you have to be ok with people going and doing other things.
What advice would you give to Williams students who are preparing for the working world?
Major in what you love. You’re going to get a job. I get that I’m saying that from a position from privilege, and I don’t know if 21-year-old me could have heard that. Going back home was not an option for me. That being said, you get one life. You get do-overs, but if you know you love something, and you deny yourself what you love, that’s a mistake. Particularly for students at Williams, you’re going to get a job.