Running to the Noise, Episode 8

Why We Gather: How Black Women College Presidents Are Blazing the Trail for Future Generations

Cover art of Running to the Noise featuring Joanne Berger-Sweeney, Danielle Holley, and Lori White

In this month’s special episode of Running to the Noise, host and president Carmen Twillie Ambar, the first Black chief executive in Oberlin’s nearly two-century history, talks with three other trailblazers about the challenges and the joys of being the first Black women to lead their long-standing institutions. Joining her are Joanne Berger-Sweeney of Trinity College, Lori White of DePauw University, and Danielle Holley of Mount Holyoke College.

They are members of a small, proud group: Black women presidents make up 1.6 percent of the leadership of predominantly white four-year colleges and universities in this country. The inauguration of Claudine Gay, the first Black president of Harvard University in the institution's 388-year history, was a cause for celebration. Her resignation six months later, in January of this year, marked a painful end to a historic appointment. 

President Ambar and her guests explore the implications of Gay’s departure; why it's more important than ever to lean into diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts on campus; the many things to love about their groundbreaking roles; and how their tenures can serve as inspiration to future generations of young women of color.

And they might even sing a little Aretha while they’re at it.

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[00:00:00] Carmen: I'm Carmen Twillie Ambar, president of Oberlin College and Conservatory. And welcome to Running to the Noise, where I speak with all sorts of folks who are taking on some of our toughest problems and working to spark positive change around the world and on our campus. Because here at Oberlin, we don't shy away from the challenging situations that threaten to divide us. We run towards them.

Last night, I gathered with six Black women college presidents at the White House Correspondents’ dinner. It was an evening filled with laughter and camaraderie. The former vice chair of Oberlin's Board of Trustees and I had invited them to Washington D.C. as a way to celebrate each other and our accomplishments. Most of us are the first Black women to lead our longstanding institution.

We belong to a small, proud group. There are nearly 3,000 predominantly White four-year colleges and universities in this country. And Black women presidents make up 1.6% of that leadership. I thought it was important for us to come together because we all witnessed the resignation of Claudine Gay, the first Black woman president of Harvard in the university's 388-year history, a painful end to a historic appointment.

As trailblazers ourselves, we know the pride and the joy and the promise that her image demonstrated, not only to students of color, to absolutely everyone. It was an example of barriers breaking and, thus, the opening of new possibilities. And we found ourselves asking, what does this mean when that image disappears in a short six months so unceremoniously? That couldn't be the last sentence of the story. It seemed to us, there was something more to say.

I asked three of the women who joined me last night at the dinner to stay a little while longer before heading back to their campuses for a special episode of Running to the Noise, so we could continue our conversation. We talked about the challenges and the joys of our roles as the first Black women to lead our institutions and about what the future holds to those who come after us in these complicated times. 

Joining us today are Joanne Berger-Sweeney, president of Trinity College. Joanne is what I call a double first. She's the first African American and first woman to serve as president of her college. It was founded in 1823. My next guest is Lori White. She's president of DePauw University. She's also a double first. That university was founded in 1837. And then we have my colleague, Danielle Holley, of Mount Holyoke. She's the first Black woman in the college's 186-year history. She's also only the fourth Black woman in history to lead one of the original Seven Sisters.

So, I'm so excited to have my colleagues here today. I'm Carmen Twillie Ambar, host of Running to the Noise. I'm the first Black woman to lead Oberlin College in its founding in 1833.

So, my friends, welcome!

[00:03:15] Guests: Thank you!

[00:03:15] Carmen: So, last night, we were at the White House Correspondents’ dinner all together, with several of our colleagues who are also Black women leading institutions. So, tell me what that gathering meant to you and what it felt like to be together last night.

[00:03:31] Joanne: Yeah. Well, I'm going to start because it actually started much earlier than that. It started when I got the letter, the invitation from you to join the group and the fact that it was going to be Black women presidents together. And last fall was a pretty hard semester, because of what we saw happening to women presidents. Everyone was talking about what happened in Congress. And it truly brought a tear to my eye to even think I'd be invited. And that was short of what it was going to feel like to be in the room with these women. It really was a high that I don't think I will forget for a long time.

[00:04:19] Carmen: Yes, yes. I totally felt the same way. What about you, Lori? What did it feel like last night? 

[00:04:24] Lori: It felt great to be at a table with my sisters. And as we saw celebrities, the fact that, when we introduced ourselves as Black woman presidents, everybody saw us as the celebrities.

[00:04:38] Carmen: Right. That’s right.

[00:04:39] Lori: And we forget that, for so many, we represent so much joy, so much hope, so much possibility. And so, it was wonderful to be with my sisters.

[00:04:52] Danielle: It really was, absolutely. I mean, we stood out, right? So, I think that was, you know, one of my first impressions is a group of us together really stood out. But for me, as a first-year president — so, I'm only 10 months on the job — and to see all of you and to see, you know, the many years that you've served, collectively, just really lifted me up a lot. I think, you know, I absolutely… it's, it's been a, you know, it's been a challenging 10 months. And I think, for all women presidents, there are very few women presidents, especially, of predominantly White institutions, so, it… you know, it was really a cheer up for my spirit to really see all of us together and to have a chance to meet all of you. So, it was a really exciting time.

It was also interesting how many people came over to our table to say “hi.” So, like, Al Roker came over. Reverend Al came over. And I loved meeting Billy Porter. He’s one of my favorites. Yeah, it was really fun. No one was as excited about the Bravo-leberties that I was. I think I was the only person watching Bravo.

[00:05:56] Lori: That was… as you were all struggling, who is she taking here to the…

[00:05:57] Joanne: Sorry, I didn’t… I, I wasn’t part of that.

[00:05:59] Danielle: I’ve been excited to see everybody at Bravo, but yes.

[00:06:02] Carmen: Well, you know, speaking of the numbers, so, there's about 2,900 four-year institutions, and only 1.6% of them are led by Black women, so, the fact that it felt like rare pioneer, the fact that it felt like there were only a few of us, I think that's the truth. So, that's the reason why I felt that way.

So, let's talk a little bit about your beginnings, just because I think, when we have these historic firsts, and we'll talk about this a little bit later about how campuses should prepare for trailblazers, because I think, maybe, some campuses need some help about knowing how to prepare, let's talk about what your appointment was like. Like, what did people say? What were people's reactions to this first on their campus?

Because many of our institutions have been around for many, many years, 180-plus years. So, it's challenging sometimes when you're the first. Tell me how your campus reacted. What feelings did you have?

[00:07:01] Joanne: Well, you are the most recent. I mean, I have to think, ten years back, what did it feel like?

[00:07:07] Danielle: It's interesting because I'm the first permanent Black president of Mount Holyoke. But I succeeded Beverly Daniel Tatum, the legendary president of Spelman College, who before she was at Spelman, she was the dean of the college at Mount Holyoke.

And so, when Mount Holyoke had a president who left, a little surprisingly, Beverly came last year as the interim president. And so, that was incredible. She's one of my, you know, one of my sheroes, one of the people I've always looked up to, like Ruth Simmons and Johnnetta Cole.

[00:07:39] Joanne: Absolutely.

[00:07:39] Carmen: Yes, that’s right.

[00:07:41] Danielle: You know, that kind of generation of Black women presidents who I've always looked up to. 

[00:07:46] Carmen: Let's just tell the audience. So, Ruth Simmons was the first Black woman president of an Ivy League institution.

[00:07:51] Joanne: Correct.

[00:07:52] Danielle: And the first of the Seven Sisters.

[00:07:53] Carmen: The Seven Sisters. And then Johnnetta Cole was the first Black woman president of Spelman, which is always shocking to me when I say that.

[00:08:00] Danielle: I know. That’s right.

[00:08:00] Carmen: She was the first.

[00:08:02Danielle: That’s true. That’s true.

[00:08:02] Carmen: Because the presidents before here were either white women, I think there was a man. So, the fact that she was the first Black woman always jars me a little bit. She's an Oberlin graduate.

[00:08:10] Danielle: That's right. And so, those were the group of women presidents, Black women presidents, I looked up to. So, to be able to as president elect to, you know, really be at the elbow of Beverly was incredible all last spring. So, I really had the benefit of having her with me from February to May.

[00:08:26] Carmen: Great mentorship, yeah.

[00:08:27] Danielle: And she treated it like that. I mean, she invited me on campus a lot. So, that was an incredible thing. But when I walked out for the announcement, there was definitely a lot of excitement. I've been extremely welcomed into the Mount Holyoke community, everyone, you know, talking about the fact that it gives them hope. Because Mount Holyoke has changed a lot, obviously, as a Seven Sisters, as the first one. It was really designed for White women who were very much from the upper class elite families of society. And now, we're a place that we're a social mobility school. We have, you know, 37% of our students are Pell Grant students. We have a huge international population. So, I think, seeing me, a lot of the students and faculty and staff and alums, said, “wow, she's from a group that hasn't traditionally been represented as presidents. And now here she is.” So, it was an exciting time.

[00:09:20] Carmen: You know, I think it's always these important moments because all of us need images to look to, to know that what we want to achieve is possible. And so, when you have these historic firsts, it's not only the opening of possibilities for students of color, in our case, it's for Black students, but it's for everyone. Everyone, sort of, feels like, “Oh, things have changed. Something has changed here, and so maybe things can change.” And that's what I think our appointments mean. What about you, Lori, when you first came on campus, what did people say?

[00:09:47] Lori: Well, that's absolutely the reason why I said yes to the dress, the dress of the four stripes that presidents wear on their academic gowns. I never imagined I would be a college president. And it was not something that I organized my professional career to do. And when I went through the interview process for the DePauw presidency and it started looking like I was going to get the job, I still wasn't sure.

And I went into the room where the portraits of the previous presidents hang. And as I looked around the room, while I'm still in that discernment phase, am I going to say “yes” if they offer me the job, I got to that place where one day they will hang a portrait of me. And there was a blank space. I'm president number 21. And literally, when I looked at that space, a voice from above said, “They're going to offer you that job. And when they offer it to you, you need to say, yes.” The voice said, “It's not about you, Lori. It's about what you represent for future generations. Future generations need to know that it's possible for somebody who looks like you to be president of DePauw University.”

So, your point is well-taken that we accept the call to serve, not for ourselves, but because we hope that we are creating a pathway for the next generation.

[00:11:06] Carmen: Yeah, I know it's true. How about you, Joanne?

[00:11:08] Joanne: So, what I will share is that context matters. So, I was appointed in 2014. Obama was president in 2014. So, people saw this as just the arc of what was happening in the United States. I mean, that's how I felt, you know. It was on the tails of an Obama. And people just felt as though the entire country was progressing towards more people of color.

You know, it just, in some ways, seemed natural, even though it certainly had not happened for over 190 years at Trinity College, and I was the 22nd president in the college's history, the college, unlike yours, started as an all-male college until 1969. So, it really was significant, the double first.

The first woman, I think, may have been more significant than being the first, you know, person of color because of how it started. And I think people perceived Trinity College as one of the New England colleges that was more on the conservative side. So, it felt, for me, very hopeful. But what I like to say to people is, you're about a year or two into the job and you say, “I think I know why there were no Black women presidents.” (laughter) This is hard, you know. And I'm not perceived exactly the same way, you know. And I just kept saying to people, my predecessor was a 6’2” male. So, I just kept joking, “Well, look down.” (laughter)

[00:13:19] Carmen: For those of you who don't know Joanne, she is statuesque but not tall. 

[00:13:26] Joanne: Exactly. So, I don't know. It felt, at the beginning, it felt really, really good. And then with a lot of changes in the country in 2016, then it became harder to be a Black female president.

[00:13:43] Carmen: You know, these are not, not easy jobs. They just aren't. And maybe they've gotten a little bit harder over the last several years. Let's talk a little bit about the challenges. We'll talk about the joys, because there are plenty of joys in these jobs, but talk a little bit about the challenges from the lens of the first. Because I think, you know, we all have these experiences at our institutions, but just being Black women in America, that there are some additional challenges that come along with just wearing the skin that we wear and the gender we wear. So, what do you want people to know about what it means to be in these jobs and what the challenges are?

[00:14:20] Joanne: Right, that's a great question. And, you know, I want to speak a little bit about what prejudice is. And to break down the word, right, it's prejudging someone. And what's challenging in our society is people are just so used to seeing a particular kind of image as a college president, that I'm not sure that everyone is aware of what they're doing or how they're doing it. Some people are intentional, but that I found to be a much smaller percentage of people. But it would be faculty members coming up to me after a faculty meeting, saying, “They never demanded that kind of response from the previous president. Like, why would they be asking you if you understand the budget of the college?”

It's some subtle questions that come to you, that you just have to recognize, you know, you have to stop, take a breath. And I always thought, kill them with kindness. And let them underestimate you, because that's a strategic advantage, to actually be infinitely more confident and competent than anyone expected you to be.

[00:15:56] Carmen: So, I really appreciate that comment you made about people challenging you in different ways that they don't perceive, and I'm really interested in hearing what you all say about that. But I will remind you of something that was so unique for me. I don't know if you all saw this, but at Ithaca College, several years ago, there was… the president was Latinx, the provost, I think, La Jerne Terry Cornish, who's now the president, and they were facing some pressures of the landscape of higher education, financial challenges, all those things that lots of us have had to deal with. And they wrote this article at Inside Higher Education

And they were talking about the strategies that they were using to address this issue. It had become controversial the way these things do on our campuses. So, they were writing the article to talk about the strategies that they were using to approach this challenge.

At the end of the article, they had a heading called “Race and Power.” I'm like, what? What are you getting ready to write here? And I was shocked by their decision to publicly talk about how race and power dynamics were impacting people's response to their strategies. And I experienced that myself. And they talked about people questioning their intellect, questioning their credibility, questioning their qualifications in the context of just the typical strategies that we all know we have to employ when they're difficult, challenging times. And for them, it had some race and power dynamics as a part of it. I think that's what you're referring to, Joanne, when you talk about those challenges. 

[00:17:37] Joanne: Exactly, you’re absolutely right.

[00:17:39] Carmen: So, I don't know, Lori, Danielle, whether you have anything to add to this, to this space of, of what it means to be a first and some of the challenges that come with that.

[00:17:47] Danielle: I think the only other thing I would add beyond that, I agree with everything that was said, you're pulled in a lot of different directions. Everyone wants you everywhere, right? So, I think, for many presidents, you know, are they expected to go to every ceremony? No, because there are a lot of ceremonies where students or faculty or staff would say, “We don't maybe need that president there.” For us, everyone wants us there at all times. And the… and also, outside of the college, outside of the university, the idea of us serving on boards and giving speeches and all of the things that, you know, when there's so few of us, we're needed in so many places.

So, I think our time is very pressured. I've been, you know, reading a lot about, you know, Black women academics who've had major health problems. A lot of them seem to be caused by stress and overwork. So, I think that, kind of, being pulled in different directions.

And the other thing is just the expectation that your decision-making will be different because you are Black or because you are a woman. Or, because, particularly, you're a Black woman, you should take certain kinds of stances. You should say certain things. And I think it was Toni Morrison who said, racism is a distraction, right? It distracts us from the work that we need to do.

And so, when I find myself thinking, “Is this person talking to me this way because I'm a woman or because I'm Black or because both?” And I think before I came to Mount Holyoke, I was at Howard University for a little over nine years. And so, I had put down a lot of that.

There were lots of dynamics still, right? But it wasn't race. And so, you could put that down, which I had never really been able to do in my career or even when I was in school. I'd always attended PWIs and I had taught at PWIs. So, for the very first time, I was able to put that down. And it created a huge amount of focus that now the distraction is back and I have to be careful about how much time and energy I spend. I try to spend as little time as possible on it. Because I recognize what a distraction it can be.

[00:19:44] Carmen: You recognize the burden of it and what the distraction is. That's interesting. I want to give you another, sort of, piece of information that I think might help our audience understand what this feels like. So, some of you know that Sean Decatur used to be the president of Kenyon. 

[00:20:02] Danielle: Mount Holyoke College faculty member, yes.

[00:20:05] Carmen: That’s right!

[00:20:06] Lori: And fellow Stanford alum!

[00:20:10] Carmen: So, everyone knows Sean. And Sean used to be dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Oberlin. So, we all have some connection to Sean. So, Sean, a couple of years ago, before he left Kenyon, wrote this article. I think it was in The Chronicle. He said, if you're a Black leader in higher education, you can measure with an egg timer how long it takes for an intense policy disagreement to lead to the invocation of racist tropes.

And I've experienced that in my time at Oberlin: typical policy issue, doesn't have anything to do with race or gender. And yet, people from the outside, and maybe some people internally, starting to use these racist tropes. And I love his phrase, “egg timer,” because to me it invokes this notion that it is coming, it is inevitable, it will show up, and it will go off. And that's just a part of the burden.

So, as we talk a little bit about the challenges, does that resonate with you, Lori, this, sort of, notion of an egg timer?

[00:21:18] Lori: It absolutely resonates with me. One is the response that people have first when they figure out that we're president of our universities. I had someone say to me, “You're president of the whole university?” I said, “Yes, of the whole university, not just a part of it.”

[00:21:35] Carmen: Yes, that's right. Since we're talking about this issue, I don't think that we can miss talking about what happened to Claudine Gay at Harvard. We don't need to go into all the details of what happened there, but I wanted to know, first, what you felt, you know, what was in your head, and maybe in your heart, when you were watching her. And I'll get the conversation started. That was painful. And it was painful for lots of reasons, but not the least of which was that I felt like I was her.

[00:22:08] Lori: We are her.

[00:22:09] Joanne:Yes, we are.

[00:22:09] Carmen: We are her. You know, we're these firsts, and we're watching this happen. And I guess part of it was knowing that I could appreciate that she was carrying some burdens that no one else could see, but maybe us sitting around this table. We know what those burdens were. We know what the egg timer was. We know what was being said. We know what was being imagined. And so, I felt for her. And I felt for us, because I think this is a sisterhood and a community. So, that was my first feeling. I don't know what you all felt, but tell me what you were experiencing, kind of, personally, as you watched what happened to her.

[00:22:58] Joanne: So, what was interesting to me, I kept harkening back to having been at her inauguration. It felt like just a few weeks before. And the joy. It was raining, you know. So, we were all wet.

[00:23:16] Carmen: We were all wet.

[00:23:17] Joanne: We were all wet in the rain. But the joy of watching her as the first president of Harvard University.

So, but I'll tell you, my, my gut feelings when I was watching it was, how is she going to share this with her children. That's what hit me. People can say and do a lot to me, but I do care how my children perceive what's being said about me and the hurt that they take away. So, and I remember, you know, just the opposite feeling when Ketanji Brown was being inaugurated. And do you remember that picture of her daughter looking at her with pride-

[00:24:16] Carmen: And joy.

[00:24:16] Joanne: … as she was navigating questions that felt utterly unfair. So, to me, it was that juxtaposition in my mind, of having that picture in my mind and thinking, “Oh, my goodness, how is she going to discuss this with her child after and unpack this for someone who…” that's your mom.

How does your family take it? How do they react when they hear some of these comments or questions, not just about what you're doing, but about who you are fundamentally?

[00:24:58] Carmen: Most of the audience who watches this and listens to this podcast knows that I have triplets. And I think that, oftentimes, when we're in our spaces, if you have children, you're imagining what they're feeling when they see these things. So, I appreciate that you wanted to think about how her children were feeling. 

[00:25:14] Joanne: Yeah.

[00:25:15] Danielle: I think, for me, it was her devotion to the institution and the way the institution just abandoned her after all that time. She went to graduate school at Harvard. We were there at the same time. She started there in her career. She rose up through the ranks, tenured professor. Then, she was dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. Then, she becomes president of the university, a university she's devoted her entire career to. 

[00:25:43] Carmen: She is Harvard.

[00:25:44] Danielle: She is.

[00:25:44] Carmen: Right.

[00:25:45] Danielle: And so, she was homegrown. She was not someone from the outside. This was one of their own people. And she was gone in less than six months. And so, it was a really important lesson that we spend a lot of time and energy devoting ourselves, pouring ourselves into places. Will that place pour itself into you when you need them the most? And the answer for her was no. And so, that felt very personally hurtful as a Harvard alum to know that our board did not support her, did not champion her in the way that they should have.

[00:26:19] Carmen: We'll get back to how boards should prepare for trailblazers, because I think that's a very important point. And we've seen, kind of, the difference in what happened to the president of MIT. She was there at the same hearing, right?

[00:26:30] Danielle: Oh, yes. Because they… 

[00:26:32] Carmen: But they issued a statement.

[00:26:33] Lori: Right away.

[00:26:34] Danielle: They were clear.

[00:26:34] Carmen: They were clear. And that's just how it went. 

[00:26:38] Danielle: And it died down because the board was like, “Whatever you say about her, she will be here. She is our president.” And I wanted that for Claudine.

[00:26:46] Joanne: And, you know, the, the other fact that we haven't spoken about yet is what a new president she was. And I don't know if you all would use the same terms, but I felt as a new president, I was hazed. (laughter)

[00:27:12] Danielle: There’s the element of that, yes.

[00:27:12] Joanne: You know, that basically, I mean they want to see, are you really with us? Are you part of the organization? Are you worthy of our support? I would say I felt that more in the beginning of my presidency. But once I got past my second contract, once people said, “She's actually staying with us. She, kind of, gets us and supports us,” some of what felt like racism actually went away among the people that knew me because they started to see my successes.

[00:27:53] Carmen: That’s right. That she was-

[00:27:54] Joanne: And I think that she was so new.

[00:27:57] Carmen: … so new, yeah.

[00:27:59] Joanne: And all of those presidents that were invited were quite new.

[00:28:05] Carmen: That’s right.

[00:28:05] Danielle: Yes. And we’re being held responsible for things on their campus. I mean, I… the comments that I read sometimes: “she is responsible for anti-semitism at Harvard.” Okay, she's been there for four months. How could that… that could not be true in any way, shape, or form. And Liz Magill at Penn got the same thing. 

[00:28:24] Joanne: Exactly. 

[00:28:24] Danielle: And she had only been on the job a year and a few months. 

[00:28:27] Joanne: Exactly. 

[00:28:28] Danielle: And of course, the president of Columbia is brand new, too. 

[00:28:30] Joanne: Exactly. 

[00:28:32] Danielle: Started in July. And so, I think the notion that, somehow, these new women presidents are responsible for everything negative on campus and that they almost created it themselves, even if they've only been there five minutes, is, you know, is something that is very hard to accept. That criticism, it can't be fair. It's not fair.

[00:28:53] Lori: You know, flipping the script a bit, you talked about context. I started my presidency during COVID. And I remember I was announced as the president of DePauw, I think, March 7th. And then a week later, the entire world turned upside down.

[00:29:05] Joanne: Oh, my goodness. 

[00:29:09] Lori: However, the opportunity was I had to demonstrate leadership right away, making really tough decisions, of course, about what we were going to do as a university to stay open during COVID. And as a result of that, it allowed my community — both faculty, staff, students, and the board — to see me leading right away, which I think has really helped how people have perceived my leadership as a result of that.

[00:29:36] Carmen: Yes, that’s right. Strong leadership in a crisis, success. People, sort of, buy in and have a commitment with you. Well, I keep promising joys. We're going to get to it. I don’t want people to think these are not joyous jobs. I do think that we have something to offer to boards who I know will be selecting lots and lots of firsts, right? These positions are coming open. What would you say to boards of trustees, to campuses, about how to prepare for trailblazers? You know, we watched what happened with some of these women who were all new. Some of them were trailblazers. How can we help boards prepare for trailblazers? You know, one for me would be that the board is more diverse and, and has… we have a very diverse board at Oberlin.

One of the ways they were able to be prepared for me is because the board looked like the world. And so, therefore, there were lots of people who could come with different perspectives and different viewpoints that added breadth and depth to my time there, but also they could understand, I think, some of these things that we understand because we are trailblazers. What other things would you say to boards about how to prepare for y'all? 

[00:30:47] Lori: I think it starts with the search committee that is selecting the president. My search committee was chaired by an African American and the board chair at the time was a woman. 

[00:30:58] Carmen: Me, too. The chair of the search committee was African American.

[00:31:01] Joanne: Oh, interesting.

[00:31:01] Lori: I think that makes a difference. I think that it enabled the committee to surface my application. I'm a non-traditional candidate for the presidency. I was not an academic. I previously was a vice president for student affairs. And while there are more vice presidents for student affairs who are becoming presidents, that is not a typical path forward. And so, I believe that having an African American chair, a woman chair of the board, enabled them to have conversations with the search committee about broadening their idea of what a college president looks like.

[00:31:25] Danielle: That's so interesting that one of the co-chairs of my search was also a Black woman, yes. So, I think that is, clearly, a commonality that the search committees were diverse and leadership of the search committees were diverse.

I think the other thing is it's hard to promote that you have a historic first without being willing to talk about what the implications of that are. The board needs to get comfortable with, what does it mean in real life to have a leader of your college who's a historic first and, sometimes, a double first?

So, for example, for my inauguration, we kept talking about, how will we talk about the fact that I'm the first Black permanent president of Mount Holyoke? And eventually, I said, for me, it's important that that not be taken as tokenism or as an exception. The truth is I'm just the next person in the line of Black women who've been leaders at Mount Holyoke College. So, let's not make it seem like I popped up out of nowhere.

[00:32:32] Joanne: That’s right, yes.

[00:32:32] Danielle: For example, Beverly had been around for a long time. We'd had Sean Decatur who’d been in leadership. So, I wanted to situate myself. I told the board really clearly, I do not want to celebrate this as somehow I'm somehow special and that I've come along out of nowhere. This is… Mount Holyoke proudly has a history of Black leadership inside the college. We need to make sure that people understand.

So, as part of my inauguration, we had a whole exhibit on the history of Black women in leadership at Mount Holyoke, where I was just one of all of the people who were featured, because I think it's really critical that the boards understand that you have to be willing to engage with the real meaning of having this person in leadership. Because if you're not willing to talk about it, the good and the bad, and really wrestle with those implications, then it is window dressing, unless you're willing to talk about it underneath the surface.

And I understood. I think my board understood, I'm not going to shy away from talking about race and gender with them. I can't do that. To be successful in my job, we have to be open and honest with each other when those issues are impacting my presidency. 

[00:33:41] Joanne: Right. So, I'm going to take a slightly different approach. So, there was no co-chair who was an African American woman on my, you know, search committee. I can assure you of that. There was a woman who was going to become the chair of the board. And for me, it was that partnership between the chair of the board and myself. Because quite honestly, one, she helped me navigate quite a bit at the beginning. There is so much you don't know as a president. I mean, I thought I was so well-prepared for the job, but to be a president is really quite different, I found, from being a dean.

[00:34:31] Carmen: To sit in the seat is different; yes, it is.

[00:34:32] Joanne: To sit in the seat is really quite different. And you need someone who is going to mentor and navigate that with you. So, I found that it was having a partner that helped me navigate at the beginning and was absolutely running interference. And almost board-member-by-board-member convincing them that I should be there and deserved a chance.

It takes, you know, I say, somebody out there whipping the vote behind the scenes. And that's what I think is missing in a lot of places.

[00:35:18] Carmen: Yeah. You know, I would say that, I think all of these points are really salient. And I would just say that, I think, what we're really saying is that there has to be some intentionality, that when the board and the campus community is dealing with the joys of this historic first, that's not enough in order to ensure the success. And nothing, you all have seen this across campuses, nothing is more, sort of, difficult for a campus than to have a president that's only there for a short period of time. And that's just not good for anyone.

[00:35:48] Joanne: Absolutely. That's not good for anyone.

That's not good for anyone. And so, you know, what we are suggesting, I think, for boards and for campus communities, as they are thinking about bringing on these new leaders who are first, in some way, that someone better think a little bit about it.

[00:36:00] Danielle: Exactly.

[00:36:02] Lori: That’s right. Me, too.

[00:36:07] Joanne: It’s so true. It’s so true.

[00:36:09] Carmen: So, just a couple more questions before I let you all go. We probably can't get together without talking about DEI a little bit. So, Oberlin is launching a new Center for Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. We just hired a new executive director a couple of weeks ago. And, you know, DEI went out of vogue here. You know, it went quick. It was one of those fads, like, those dresses that were in season only one season. So, first of all, maybe I should ask this: Can we use DEI anymore? Is that a phrase you can use?

[00:36:43] Joanne: I do

[00:36:43] Carmen: Okay.

[00:36:44] Joanne: I still do.

[00:36:45] Danielle: I think the reality is I, you know, I taught at a public, big public in the South. We have 13 states in the country that have completely banned DEI. I think we have to be realistic. Those of us who live in states like Massachusetts-

[00:36:59] Joanne: Connecticut.

[00:36:59] Danielle: … and work in places like that, we are very lucky. We can say DEI, you know, very loud and proud. 

[00:37:04] Carmen: Well, I'm in Ohio. You’re in Ohio.

[00:37:07] Danielle: Indiana, Florida, Texas, Georgia, we have to really be realistic about the fact that we are going to have to start to push back very clearly and loudly about why we value DEI. And I think what was the old case for diversity, which is basically that it's a business proposition, that it's good for everyone, people seem to have lost sight of that in higher ed at a time when our country is becoming more and more racially and ethnically diverse.

The truth is the future, the existence of many of our colleges, rest on DEI. If you aren’t…

[00:37:43] Joanne: Absolutely.

[00:37:43] Danielle: Yes, if you aren’t able to recruit and retain a racially and ethnically diverse student body, your college or university might close. And the fact that, kind of, the principle of turning against DEI is so important that people are willing to risk the existence of their colleges and universities.

I mean, look what's happening in Mississippi. They've turned against, you know, DEI and all these other things. They may have to close half of their colleges. They've become so hostile to higher education that, if you become hostile to higher education, your higher ed institutions might close. If you become hostile to DEI, so, it's going to be a long, hard lesson for a lot of the states and institutions that have turned against DEI because it is not going to go well for them. But I think, yes…

[00:38:23] Carmen: Some of those institutions are the anchor employees for the local communities.

[00:38:28] Danielle: Yes, absolutely.

[00:38:28] Carmen: Certainly, are part of the, sort of, business of that municipality. Like, this is just not, you know, a flippant decision.

[00:38:35] Danielle: No. And they think that it's, it's something that's anti-Black or anti-brown or anti-Latino. So, that's the intention behind this, is a hateful intention. But it really is hurting the institutions themselves. We look at the brain drain, as they call it, that's happening in places like Texas and Florida, unable to recruit faculty, unable to recruit academic leaders. So, all of that hostility is counterproductive to higher ed in itself, but think how few voices there are out there who are willing to be explicit about the fact that DEI is not just important — it's a foundational principle. It should be of our higher ed institutions. And you can't be afraid to talk about that in Iowa and Indiana, wherever we are, but it's amazing how many people have run away and abandoned what was years of building.

[00:39:22] Carmen: Yeah. This is why I thought it was, and we had launched the center conceptually before this kind of backlash to DEI, kind of, took root. But I thought it was really important to stick with it, because I think that it is a foundational look at how our institutions are not just going to thrive, but what's valuable to everyone.

I'll tell you one thing that, that happened at Oberlin and that I just found so compelling. You know, we did this survey during a campus climate survey. And one of the most compelling parts of the survey to me was, students talking about feeling affirmed and mattering, right? We do that. So, it made sense that students of color taught by faculty of color would say that they felt like they were affirmed more and they mattered more.

But the one that shocked me, in some ways, was that white students felt the same way.

[00:40:12] Joanne: Exactly.

[00:40:12] Carmen: That they were affirmed and mattered more in classes taught by faculty of color. And I think that's not because faculty of color have some special magic, I think it's because they have to practice it more. They have to do that work more.

And so, this diversity piece is about something that's beneficial for everyone. Everyone gets value out of this different perspective because people bring different viewpoints and educate and teach and inform our campus in ways from their learned experience. And that is valuable for everyone.

And somehow, in this sort of thing of DEI, it seemed like it's a zero sum game, that somehow focusing on that means somebody doesn't get something. And we haven't maybe done as good a job, and certainly the political fray has made it seem like that this is not of value to everyone.

So, I think it's an important way for us to think about what's happening on our campuses. To lose sight of it, I think, is to lose sight of one of our core values, to lose sight of something that's valuable for everyone on our campus.

What's happening for you, Lori?

[00:41:08] Lori: Well, and I agree with you, Carmen and Danielle. It's really part of preparing our young folks to thrive in our democracy.

I think about my own background. I grew up in San Francisco, California in this wonderfully multi-ethnic, multicultural, multi-religious neighborhood. I thought the whole world was like my neighborhood of San Francisco until I grew up and moved away.

[00:41:30] Carmen: What a rude awakening, Lori!

[00:41:33] Lori: A very rude awakening. But what I learned from being exposed to people who were different from me, who worshiped in different traditions, whose parents had a different, you know, economic standing than mine, I just really grew up to appreciate and value all of those differences. And we think about the fact that our neighborhoods are now resegregated by color, by religion, by income, by ideology. Our colleges, particularly those of us who lead residential colleges, that is the only place left in America where people who are different live together and have to wrestle with the messiness of forming community.

So, how can we expect our country to be able to really come together if we can't create a place and space for different voices and different perspectives? And so, at DePauw, you know, I always talk about DEI as being a critical value to a liberal arts education, along with a commitment to freedom of expression. And I think you can't have freedom of expression and a commitment to that if you don't have a diverse community, because otherwise, what are you expressing about, right? And conflict is a natural part of bringing different people together.

And so, I think we've lost sight of the value that higher ed plays in preparing students and young people to take their place as leaders in our democracy.

[00:43:00] Carmen: I say all the time that we believe Oberlin graduates go out and change the world for good. But you can't go out and change if you don't understand the world. You can't understand the world if you've never met anybody who's unlike you or has a different perspective from you.

[00:43:11] Joanne: Exactly, who is so different.

[00:43:12] Danielle: But again, this… think about, over the last year, because the attacks on DEI ramped up after the affirmative action decision last June. Since then, how many times have you heard a group of university leaders sit together and champion the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion publicly?  We're doing it right here, in a way that is...

[00:43:36] Carmen: I was going to say crickets.

[00:43:36] Danielle: It's crickets. And it's, that's been so disappointing to me that we have poured time, effort, resources into DEI and no one is standing up for… I mean, you said it so beautifully, the building of community that helps us support democracy by really exposing it. And that has been, in some ways, astounding. I guess I shouldn't be surprised by anything anymore. I should stop being shocked. I've been shocked at how people have literally abandoned DEI after we spent over a decade building the infrastructure for DEI and giving it so many resources. In days, University of Texas dismantles its entire office and fires everyone or reassigns them. I mean, it's happening overnight. 

[00:44:18] Joanne: It is. But, you know, I agree with everything you've said. I take a slightly different approach. Maybe, it's my background. So, I'm a neuroscientist by training. So, I ask people, do you not believe in biodiversity? So, I try and just, sometimes, reframe and shift the subject to say, maybe, there are a few farmers who only want to, you know, put one particular crop on their land. But how often do we talk about the value of biodiversity? So, it's just a reminder that this is, in fact, a broader fundamental principle.

So, I approach it sometimes that way. But what I did literally at Trinity College was to hire a vice president for diversity and equity and inclusion and make her co-supervisor of human resources.

[00:45:18] Danielle: Oh, interesting.

[00:45:19] Joanne: So, what I wanted to do when I created the position was to make sure it was a real position that had substance at the institution, no matter what the tide was for, you know, do we like the word “diversity?” Do we like the word, “equity?” You know, “inclusion,” is that a good word or not? But this person co-supervised all of human resources, along with our chief financial officer. They're the co-heads.

So, if you want those principles infused in your organization, create the kind of position in which they have the power to do so.

[00:46:09] Carmen: It's the same thing we did, too. So, we have this center, but we also hired a staff member, a more senior staff member, in human resources that's focused on it, because it has to be someone with position and power.

We're going to talk about joys. This is the time to talk about joys. But I want you to do it from the context of this next generation of women leaders. So, I said to you that one of the reasons why I wanted to gather, we talked a little bit about Ruth Simmons and about Johnnetta Cole. Those were the women that I saw when I was, sort of, cutting my teeth and thinking about higher ed. And I saw those women and aspired to be them. And I want to make sure that, despite what young women, young Black women, may be seeing, I want them to know that these jobs have joy to them, that there's power to them in all of these wonderful ways.

So, talk a little bit about the joys and what you want this next generation of young Black women leaders to know about being a college president. So, Lori, what would you say to that question?

[00:47:07] Lori: So, my joy are the students. I do not have my own biological children, and so every young person on my campus I see as my daughter or my son. And the joy of being able to lead an institution that helps them achieve their hopes and their dreams, that is what fuels me every single day.

And then, my other joy is making my parents proud. My mother passed away a year ago. However, she was able to be there at my inauguration. And when I finished my inauguration address, I ran off the stage. I hugged my mom. And the tears in her eyes of pride. And so, being able to feel like all of us are carrying the hopes and dreams of our ancestors forward into the next generation, that fills me with joy.

[00:47:59] Joanne: That's a wonderful story. Mine is a little bit different. My mother passed away when I was 17 years old, a first-year student at Wellesley College. So, she never got to see me, you know, get a bachelor's, master's, PhD, or any of that. However, at my inauguration, just about ten and a half years ago, my mother's best friend came. And she had, kind of, served as a surrogate mother after my mother passed away. And she said, “You know, your mother said to me, ‘I hope one of my children grows up to be a college president’.”

[00:48:49] Carmen: Whoa! Wow.

[00:48:50] Joanne: I'd never heard it. I could not believe it. What did my mother know about college presidencies? I have no idea. But that was her aspiration and dream. So, kind of, you know, being able to carry on for your ancestors, that really resonates with me, even though she wasn't there for me to give a hug.

[00:49:16] Danielle: You know, the reason that I got into academic leadership, I think, in the first place, was to make more of a difference for students outside of the students who were just in my classroom. I wanted to have an impact on more students and then eventually became faculty and staff, too, that I began to say, you know, I'm one member of the community who has an opportunity to lead, typically, for a short amount of time. And I hope to be someone who helps to make things easier for people, for students, faculty, and staff, as they continue their journey.

So, to me, the greatest joy, typically, especially when I've had a hard week, is going to something that's student-related. So, two weeks ago, I went to our senior symposium, where our students present their year-long independent research papers, everything from landscape architecture to, you know, the effects of climate change on a crab that goes to Maine.

I was astounded by the level of work that our students are doing. It makes me, you know, really understand why we get up and do this every day. And to see their faculty members sitting in the classrooms with them so proud, you realize, higher education is something really special.

[00:50:25] Joanne: It is.

[00:50:26] Danielle: It's one of the few places where you can see people, out of a pot in the ground, they start to grow and grow and grow. And it can give life to, I mean, all of you incredible women who are sitting here, right? So, you know that one of, you know, one of our students could be Carmen. One of our students could be Lori. They could be Joanne. And that, to me, is, you know, the incredible joy of just watching our students. It's one of the reasons I've taught every semester since I was a dean. And I'm teaching this semester. And I do it selfishly.

[00:50:56] Carmen: Let's get back to her five years from now and see what she's like. 

[00:50:58] Danielle: And I do it totally selfishly, just because I need something every week, like, just a shot of joy. It's like, going into, like, you know, people take little, like, herbal shots. So, that's my shot of the week, is when I teach. I can be with students in a concentrated way for about three hours a week. And it really lifts my spirits.

[00:51:18] Carmen: So, this… every comment that you all made resonates with me, the joy, obviously, the students. I oftentimes say to my leadership team, if you're ever feeling down, you need to get out of your office and go walk around campus. Because when you talk to some students, you'll feel better about the world.

But it just dawned on me as you all were talking, that some of the reasons why we are connecting to our ancestors and our history is because we are these historic firsts. And so, you know, one of the joys for me has been, every time I get up and speak, I talk about my parents. And for most of my life, they've been able to be at my inaugurations. I’m a second time president, so they've had a couple of inaugurations. And, you know, I tell my parents’ story, right? My mom, you know, grew up in a small town in Searcy, Arkansas, and decided… you know, she's 83 years old. She would be really upset, I'm telling her age. But somehow, she got her mind wrapped around getting a PhD in dance, right? This Black girl, how could she even have thought about that, right? And she was this image that let me know that academia and the life of a man and a woman can exist in the same human being.

And then I have my dad who grew up in this really small town that, that was called Colt, Arkansas, but they referred to it as Dark Corner, this pejorative way that you refer to African American communities. And he was six years old, plowing the field and picking cotton. And my dad grew up picking cotton for all of his formative years. And so, I oftentime say to people that I'm five generations removed from slavery, but I'm one generation removed from picking cotton.

And so, you know, that ability to stand on the shoulders of your ancestors who you know just could not have imagined. It just wasn't possible for them to think that this was an opportunity. And so, every day I, kind of, carry around that sense of pride and the sense of wanting to make them proud. And one of the joys of this job has been to make them proud. 

So, let's talk a little bit about what you imagine these students who are seeing you, historic first, that will be trustees for somebody soon, what do you think your impact will be on them and what they might do and believe as trustees now that they've seen you in leadership?

[00:53:40] Danielle: I hope that, when my students see me, I hope that they see that it is possible to live a very full life and have a very demanding job. I think, so often, we give the impression that, if you are the top leader, if you're the president, if you're the CEO, you must, you have to walk around just, you know, looking very serious and all of those things. (laughter) And I like to show that I love the university. I love having fun. I like learning. I like learning from other people. I find, you know, being… my parents were both academics, and so I grew up on the campus of a university. And so, for me, I always say the university is my natural habitat. This is where I feel most comfortable.

And so, I hope that when… I hope that one of my legacies is that students and faculty and staff look at me and say, “You know what? It is possible to really love this, to not see it as a burden, to not see it as, you know, the thing that's hanging around your neck and you're only doing it.” Because people have lots of weird ideas about why people want to be college and university presidents. I think they think we're in it for the money, etc. I told a student, I had a student who said that to me. I said, trust me, I was an antitrust and securities lawyer before I became an academic. If I had stayed that course, I would make 10 times the amount of money I make right now.

[00:54:57] Joanne: Right. Exactly.

[00:54:59] Danielle: So, I definitely don't do this because of money. I do it because I have a real love and joy. And that's what I want for all of my students, is to find something that brings them as much joy as my job brings me.

[00:55:11] Carmen: Yes. You know, I think sometimes people don't know how much you get a chance to be innovative and creative in these roles. It's actually an innovative and creative space, right, sometimes, in the most minute administrative things, sometimes, in these broad new programs and initiatives that we get a chance to develop. And we are trying to imagine the future and help our students be prepared for this future that we believe will be there for them.

It's actually the most faith-filled job you can have, right? Because you have to have some real belief in the future, and some belief that these students are going to go out and not only shape it in really wonderful ways, but mitigate against those things that are challenging. So, it's actually an investment in possibilities and investment in joy. You have to have faith and belief to do these jobs.

[00:56:00] Joanne: Absolutely. Optimist.

[00:56:02] Carmen: Optimist! 

[00:56:04] Joanne: You have to be optimistic, absolutely.

[00:56:07] Carmen: You have to be optimistic. And so, you're right, it's challenging. We've already discussed that.

[00:56:12] Joanne: Right.

[00:56:13] Carmen: But it's also hopeful. It is. It's also hopeful.

[00:56:16] Joanne: Exactly. And I think that's particularly important for this younger generation to understand. I was listening to an NPR piece, saying that so much of young adult literature focuses on a future of dystopia.

[00:56:34] Danielle: Yes, I saw that.

[00:56:36] Joanne: And so, is it any surprise that they are not optimistic and looking forward to the future? So, what we have to do is actually instill in people an idea that the future does have possibilities.

[00:56:52] Carmen: Absolutely. 

[00:56:53] Joanne: The future can be great. And we can be a part of being and creating… like, what's the best way to predict the future? To create the future that you want. And we have to envision it. And so many people are losing that ability because they think it will all be like the Hunger Games.

[00:57:14] Carmen: Yes. But you know what? That's the joy of being on a college campus.

[00:57:17] Joanne: It is.

[00:57:19] Carmen: Because there's nothing more hopeful than 18, 19, and 20 and 21-year-olds.

[00:57:25] Joanne: Absolutely.

[00:57:25] Carmen: They just know, “You know what? This is going to work.”

[00:57:29] Lori: “I got this idea.”

[00:57:29] Carmen: “I got this idea.”

[00:57:34] Danielle: “I’m an influencer. I'm the first one to ever have this idea. I'm going to do this!”

[00:57:36] Carmen: That's right. There's nothing more joyful than being in the room with them. And as you all know, I'm sure you feel this way. And lots of times, they convince me, you know that will work! I think you're right.!

[00:57:49] Joanne: I will also share that the ability to interact with some of our major donors and people who probably never imagined that they would be talking to, negotiating with, talking about the future of their institution with a Black woman, and you can see that you have changed their minds, their attitudes, and how they are likely to interact with other people, I mean, we can't forget that, too, that, that kind of influence and the ability to interact with people of a very different mindset and strata was not something I had the opportunity to do as a faculty member. As much as I loved what I was doing as a faculty member, being a president has given me access to different kinds of people and be in a different kind of world. And it's not all frustrating. Sometimes, it's just super fun, super exciting. And bringing it full circle, sometimes, you get to do amazing things like go to the White House Correspondents’ dinner. 

[00:59:11] Carmen: Absolutely. 

[00:59:13] Lori: Or, can I say, or announce a $200 million gift, a little Black girl magic, right?

[00:59:19] Joanne: Exactly. Wow.

[00:59:21] Danielle: That’s right.

[00:59:20] Lori: So, I was able to announce that we received a $200 million gift to DePauw University.

[00:59:24] Joanne: Oh, my goodness.

[00:59:25] Lori: So, to your point, we get to meet these incredible people. We get to get people excited about the transformative nature of higher ed. And many will invest in our institution. 

[00:59:36] Carmen: So, let's talk legacies. We're in a room of historic firsts. And I think it's appropriate to talk about what you want your legacy to be.

[00:59:47] Joanne: So, I guess we're starting with me because I've already announced my retirement in June 2025 from the Trinity College presidency. And, you know, I think back to when Kamala Harris was asked about being the first woman of color vice president of the United States. And she said, “Well, I just don't want to be the last.”

And I think I feel the same way. Maybe, I was the first, you know, African American, the first female president. But maybe it won't happen as my immediate successor, but I certainly hope I will not be the last.

[01:00:27] Carmen: Yes. Here-here to that. Lori?

[01:00:30] Lori: I grew up in the United Methodist Church. And DePauw University was founded by the United Methodist. And so, I want my legacy to be that somebody says, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Well done.” Because we're doing these jobs because we're called to serve. And I hope that my legacy is a life of service to DePauw University.

[01:00:56] Danielle: You know, I hope my legacy is just one where, you know, people understood that I had a deep love for the institution and that I wanted to put the institution in a place where it will be just as strong 186 years from now. But just a real love and devotion to the institution and to the people who make up the institution.

[01:01:16] Carmen: Oh, gosh, so many things. You know, Oberlin, because of its historic nature, has always been a thought leader in higher education. And so, I hope that my legacy is that we continue to lead higher education in issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion, of course, issues around how we talk across differences and how we have conversations with people with whom we disagree.

And then, I think our commitment to broaden the view of what liberal arts colleges do, I think it's really a creative time. And then, one legacy that’s really personal but it doesn't have so much to do with Oberlin, so I have these three precious kids who have grown up, you know, the triplets were one when I became a college president.

[01:02:02] Joanne: Wow. That’s amazing. 

[01:02:03] Carmen: And so, they only know what it means for a mom to be a college president. And I hope that my legacy for them is that, that, despite the demands of this job, that I was there for them, and that they saw me both do this kind of challenging job, but also with complete love and devotion and commitment to them. And I hope that, at the end, that that's, that's my legacy. 

[01:02:29] Joanne: That’s beautiful.

[01:02:41] Carmen: Thanks for listening to Running to the Noise, a podcast produced by Oberlin College and Conservatory and University FM, with music composed by Oberlin professor of Jazz Guitar, Bobby Ferrazza, and performed by the Oberlin Sonny Rollins Jazz Ensemble, a student group created to the support of the legendary jazz musician.

If you enjoyed the show, be sure to hit that Subscribe button, leave us a review, and share this episode online so Obies and other folks around the world can find this. I'm Carmen Twillie Ambar, and I'll be back soon with more innovative thinking for members of the Oberlin community on and off our campus.

Running to the Noise is a production of Oberlin College and Conservatory and is produced by University FM.