If you’re going to graduate school to be a dean, you’re on the wrong path, agreed seven of Duke’s female deans Monday.
Seven of the University’s female deans—Dean of Students Sue Wasiolek not included—talked with an audience in Gross Hall Monday about the path to obtaining such prestigious positions in academia. Although the panelists’ experiences differed, they all noted that becoming a dean is not something to aim for as a career. Rather, it should stem naturally from scholarly pursuits and service.
“You don’t get here by trying to get here,” said Valerie Ashby, who was appointed dean of the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences in 2015. “You get here by being the best scholar in your field you can possibly be, and at some point people will decide you are a leader and you will too. Don’t walk toward this.”
Several deans said that stepping into leadership was a natural result of the causes they championed as scholars. For Nancy Andrews, dean of the School of Medicine since 2007, it was an MD-Ph.D. program at Harvard. For Ashby, a chemist by training, it was getting more minorities involved in STEM fields. For Elaine Heath, dean of the Divinity School who began this year, it was bringing her theological work to disadvantaged communities.
“It’s something that chooses you,” said Linda Burton, dean of social sciences since 2014. “People watch how you move through the world, they watch how you deal with conflict, how high your temperature goes up or down, how you go about decision-making, but most importantly they watch your scholarship.”
The deans agreed that being female in positions typically occupied by men complicates that journey in several respects. Johnna Frierson, director of diversity and inclusion at the Pratt School of Engineering and an attendee, asked the deans how to combat negative stereotypes of women in leadership.
The answer: ignore it, and don’t change yourself to avoid others’ perceptions.
“It either works, or it doesn’t,” Ashby said.
Although other areas of academics have seen more female deans in recent years, Andrews noted the same cannot be said for medicine. She said that she is often the only woman or one of few in meetings, but that she has learned to just be herself in such situations.
Speaking after the event to The Chronicle, Heath said she faced considerable opposition coming out of a conservative theological background, where “women are suppressed.” Pushing ahead, she said, depended on her saying “'I’m going to answer God’s call, whether you like it not,' and doing it.”
Dean of Humanities Gennifer Weisenfeld said the company you keep is also critical not only to advancement but also to overcoming the doubts that arise when you do try to push forward. She advised those in attendance to pursue their “weak ties"—the people met in passing who might be incredibly valuable down the road.
Ashby added that the importance of mentoring is what kept her going when she was discouraged. She shared a story about her time as a graduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where the only African-American member of the chemistry department told her “you should be a high school teacher” instead. Eventually, her mentor—chemist Joe Desimone, who will speak at Duke Tuesday—decided to invest in her success, which propelled her.
“Each one of my mentors is there to make sure I’m not comfortable,” Ashby said. “They’re right there to make me jump off the next cliff.”
Several female undergraduates in the audience said the talk was inspiring, especially in trying to find their own paths to become academics.
“It was very uplifting for me,” junior Rhajaa Wright said. “I’m a first-generation student, and I’m kind of interested in academia, but I’m not entirely sure where I want to go. Just them speaking let me know there isn’t a path I have to follow but that I just have to be a leader and be confident in what I do.”
The Faculty Women’s Network and Caucus—which sponsored the event—will be continuing a series on women in leadership at Duke. In October, the organization will host a panel on “Women Faculty Trailblazers.”