Dr. Pamela Gunter-Smith: Career Path of An Administrative Leader

Scientists who are still at the bench may not ever think much about administration or, if they do, their thoughts may be markedly negative. And yet administrative work can be both important and personally rewarding and fulfilling, just as much so as bench research. I know, that sounds like sacrilege, but I've done both, so I think I know what I'm talking about. So for my contribution (as terribly late as it is) to the Diversity in Science blog carnival, I want to talk about African-American women in higher education administration.

In 2001 I had the good fortune to attend the HERS Bryn Mawr Summer Institute for Women in Higher Education Administration. In those four weeks I met and got to know a group of fascinating, intelligent, talented women from a wide variety of institutions.

Since 1976 nearly 4,000 women have attended the HERS Institutes at Bryn Mawr College and Wellesley College. They represent at least 200 institutions in the United States, Canada, South Africa and many other countries. Alumnae hold positions of leadership in higher education and include presidents, chancellors, vice presidents and deans. All HERS graduates are making important contributions to support equity and excellence in higher education.

HERS exists to groom women leaders and help them move up the ladder in higher ed administration. You may just happen into a career in academic administration - as did many of us who were in my class - but you will get a lot further, a lot quicker, with less wasted energy, if you have some strategic knowledge, some training, and a network you can tap into.

Many women who were in my class have since moved from faculty to administrative positions, or have moved up within the administrative ranks, directly as a result of their experiences and contacts developed at the HERS institute. I'd like to tell you a little about one of them.

When I met Pamela Gunter-Smith at the HERS Institute at Bryn Mawr, she was a professor at Spelman College, where she had already had a very distinguished career. She held a named chair, the Porter Professor of Physiology, and was serving as department chair. For ten years she had directed Spelman's Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Biomedical Program, working on development of undergraduate science curricula. She had begun her career at the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. The year after HERS, Dr. Gunter-Smith held two hats: associate provost for science and mathematics, and program director for Spelman's Center for Biomedical and Behavioral Research.

The following year she held an ACE (American Council on Education) Fellowship, at the University of Miami. These prestigious fellowships allow the fellow to work extensively with the president at another institution. At the University of Miami the president was, of course, Dr. Donna E. Shalala, so what a wonderful opportunity that was for Dr. Gunter-Smith! If you have any ambitions to ever becoming a president, provost, or vice-president of something-or-other in higher ed, you'd want to do an ACE fellowship. ACE fellowships do not happen by accident, and participation in a HERS institute is a great first networking step to getting one.

In 2006, Dr Gunter-Smith became the Provost and Academic Vice-President of Drew University. I am sure this is not the last stop of her amazing academic career. Any university would be lucky to have her working for them. She is brilliant, and a true leader, and a great human being.

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Dr. Gunter-Smith is an inspiring person. But I think it is really important to take note, in this story, of how her career has been carefully nurtured. I don't know about the earlier steps, but to attend HERS, you essentially have to be sponsored by your institution, if only because of the cost of attendance. Some institutions have an internal application process and select only one participant per year. An institution has to invest in you, knowing that that investment is going to pay off in the long run not necessary for them, but most likely for some other institution. Institutions therefore have to make these investments collectively, for the good of all. The people who run HERS and teach at its sessions devote a great amount of time and energy to training future leaders. The ACE fellowship is a carefully thought out executive development program.

In short, future leaders don't just happen. They don't just come out of nowhere. If you, at your institute, are bemoaning how difficult it is to hire a minority this or that - you'd love to do it, there just aren't any out there! - then maybe you need to get off your ass and start mentoring and growing some. You have to realize that you aren't mentoring for yourself, for today. You are mentoring for the good of the educational enterprise as a whole, for the future. And also, maybe you just need to look around a little more. There were sooooo many talented women in my HERS class, many many of whom were minority women. And that was just one of the classes they've been forming since 1976. The talent is out there. Maybe just not in the places you are used to looking.

As budgets shrink and funding for everything gets tighter in our looming economic crisis, I hope our current academic leader will still see their way clear to putting a little funding aside to nurture the next crop of leaders, especially those from underrepresented groups. We really can't afford to do otherwise.

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Great post and there is no other about Administration. Thanks Zuska.