A Higher Education
Needing a bigger tent, and what it takes now to get it. With Wanda Ward ‘72
“The guiding principle that drives this work is that it is critically important to work ‘with’ the community rather than ‘on’ the community, whether you're talking about innovation, research, education, economic development, or whatever.” — Wanda Ward, PhD (Westminster ‘72)
FROM THE BEGINNING
Malcolm: Corliss has not just her favorite question, but one that we all kind of built the magazine around, which is about what, if anything, at Westminster you would, with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, see as having a strong relationship to what you care about now or what you do or how you do it or how you got here. Did it launch you down the long and winding road and here you are?
Wanda: Yes. It's very interesting. I very much see some of the early experiences and educational exposures that I received at Westminster as very much shaping or contributing to many areas of interest and priority for me. And, to some extent I would even say my career pursuit. Notably, and I think I share this in the book that Michelle Purdy wrote, I always consider myself to be extremely fortunate because at the neighborhood elementary school that I went to, they were looking for boys in this educational experiment at Westminster. That is, the Stouffer Foundation.
I can understand the reason for that. And I have to admit that it was years, literally decades, before I knew that was the origin of any of us having that opportunity. But my favorite sixth grade teacher, as it's told in the book, contacted my mother and said, look, whatever you do, you’ve got to try, you've got to try to get Wanda in. So that's how I essentially wound up at Westminster. And it turns out, the boy who was accepted, of course, was Jannard Wade. And we were in the same elementary classes throughout. So we knew one another already. And it was sort of comforting feeling like we knew someone.
I attribute much of my, I guess if you want to say achievement or success at Westminster, both to the social integration, is what the scholarly literature refers to this as, of having been a basketball player. It just sort of created avenues for people. And that certainly worked to my good, and the other factor to some extent was the academic preparation. I went to a neighborhood public school and that education and strong family support and upbringing contributed to my achievement.
One of the critical indicators of later interest and expertise was having been selected for the American Field Service exchange, AFS. Susan Timberlake and I were selected in our junior year, and I spent the summer in Switzerland. And, in hindsight, I realized that it was that international exposure that just made me an international bug as it were. I've traveled quite extensively as a part of my work, at the National Science Foundation, in particular. But I just attribute my appreciation and gravitation towards a global view, on the various things that we pursue and are interested in, to that AFS experience. And then of course, as we all know, Westminster being such a feeder linkage into the Ivies is how you and I, I think, wound up, on that path. And as they say, the rest is history.
I remember, Peaches and I being on that panel at Westminster in 2019, and the Purdy book captured, I think accurately, some of the experiences that various ones of us had, particularly Mike, I mean, you know, that stands out.
But I recall Peaches saying at that event that she had a great time at Westminster and I did too, but unlike folks like her, you, Eddie and others, I wasn't a resident student. So I had not a clue, the things that you all were being subjected to, and yet you rose above it, you know.
Malcolm: Yes, I guess two or three times we've been just talking amongst ourselves, and imagining as much as remembering, differences, you know, like, well, what, so what happened after class? You know, we were dormies, some of us. Michael (Slade) was not, he was an honorary dormie, but you know, I would say maybe four o'clock, four o'clock Monday through Friday. If you weren't at practice for something, then the school day was over and the nightlife, whatever that could be, was there. And, but, you know, most obviously, our friends who lived in town were gone. And, you know, whether they love their parents, hated their parents, whatever was going on, we weren't a part of that.
Wanda: Yes, yes.
Malcolm: So we've thought about how we could just have people reflect on the difference between going home, so to speak, at the end of the day and not going home at the end of the day. We don't have anything specific in mind, except that we know that you and Jannard went home. So, we're interested in how you compare your day life at Westminster to your nightlife, in your neighborhood.
Wanda: Yes. It's interesting, and I think if I'm not mistaken, Michael and Ron went home as well; Michael might've hung around for a long time. Michael was a free spirit for sure. But I sort of came from a family and neighborhood where education was highly valued, you know? And so you're going about the business of doing what you do. One key distinction, however, was that we had some predominantly black, large high schools, within our community radius, as it were. And most all of my cousins and relatives and parents and aunts and uncles had gone to that public high school.
And it took me a while to learn that various friends, many friends, particularly at church and in our immediate community, were thrilled, for the opportunity that it created, if you will, for us and what it represented for our community. There were others for whom it was sort of like, “Why’re they sending that girl to this school?” Right. You know, what's wrong with our public high school, sort of who do they think they are kind of thing. But I was kind of impervious to it because the family support system was so strong, and so many relatives had taught at or attended the Atlanta University complex. So we were overall kind of integrated within that system. And this was sort of divergent or another path that opened up for one of us.
Malcolm: I think I have pretty similar experience in my family as well. Both parents were performing artists, but they were both full-time university people as well.
Wanda: And Michael's and Ron's as well, because both of their parents were college professors and/or administrators.
Malcolm: Well, I guess that, not to presume too much, but it does sort of make sense that the Stouffer network would prosper, you know, by word of mouth. I mean, I know that my mom got a call from one of her best friends whose son was already a Stouffer student. And it wasn't even so much about qualifying for it. By the time my mom started talking to me about it, it was pretty much like, well, you're going to do this. So, not in a bad way. I was definitely ready to make a change. But I guess coming out of the, well, no, I won't say coming out of anything, coming into Westminster institutionally was, it was simplified for me before I got there. And then, certainly for the first year, here are your roommates, here's your room, these are your classes. Here's where the food is. Here are the rules; here's the map; knock yourself out.
And, I guess, coming in as a freshman, and you're already there and Jannard was already there, I know, just being honest with myself, that when I saw you all, it was like, Oh, whatever they're doing, that's how you do it. So then it was kind of disturbing that you weren't around at night when I really needed you.
Wanda: That's something. Yeah, I hear you. I hear you.
Suzy: And Wanda, you studied psychology?
Wanda: That's right. That's absolutely right, Suzy.
Malcolm: I've been dying to ask you about sports, for a bunch of reasons, but one of them was that, I remember seeing you, and I guess I knew that you didn't, well, I don't know what you wanted to do or what you felt about sports at Princeton.
Wanda: Right. I didn't go out for any teams or anything. So any sports were strictly informal, and I don't really know why I didn't go out for sports at Princeton. It may have been different for you. I most definitely felt academically prepared.
It was the first time I lived in the North, and the social norms and expectations really impacted me, though I wasn't very conscious of it at the time. You know the saying in the South is, you know very well where you stand; people don't hide anything. Right. This wasn't the case in the North. So I had to adjust to that. And I think even having gone to Westminster and socialized fairly well and having made good lifelong friends, there was still a need for the cultural affinity at Princeton. I think this was the first time I'd been away from home that long, unlike you, having spent those years at Westminster; but I felt the need for a cultural affinity, and the racial dynamics were different. And clearly the economic dynamics were exacerbated even more than having been a black middle-class student at Westminster. I mean, just the world exploded in wealth, though there was a mix of students from different backgrounds.
Malcolm: I think I remember that the difference between people there who had money and people who didn't, was to me, it was a lot more explicit and decisive than even, you know, the gender or racial.
Wanda: I would have to agree with that. So, for example, a clear social distinction for me was that the clubs were paramount at Princeton. And I did not have the remotest interest in participating in that world. But in, for example, HBCUs and other schools, it was the Greek world, right. And the sororities, and that was something that was completely foreign to my experience also. And it wasn't that I missed it. Let me put it this way, my friendships, some that are decades long, were not grounded in being a member of a kind of club, if you will.
Malcolm: Okay. Yeah. Right. I was too small to play, even if I wanted to.
Wanda: Definitely in the arts and performing world. I mean, you seem to have thrived in that environment.
Malcolm: Yeah. And, to some extent that felt like home for me because of growing up in a family full of artists. But, also I think the, and this is going to lead me to my next question. I actually originally wanted to go to NYU. We were already living in New York. And so I had already decided that I was going to NYU. So when I found out that I wasn't, I was pretty irritated. But then as it turned out, I spent so much time in New York anyway, because it was 90 minutes away. And I think that, you know, still being basically a teenager and not knowing enough to make really sophisticated comparisons, New York was so kaleidoscopic. And so cosmopolitan, that when I wasn't there, any place I was, whether that was Westminster before or Princeton after was the "other" place to me.
Wanda: Yes. Yes.
Malcolm: And, you know, I saw school, I felt school in terms of how does this compare to New York. And so I wasn't looking for clubs. I was looking for the kaleidoscope. What kept the place interesting to me was every now and then meeting somebody who was completely unlike anybody I had met before. The more often that happened, the more I liked it.
Wanda: That's interesting. Yeah.
WHAT MATTERS NOW
Malcolm: You've spent just tons and tons of time traveling now around the world and I've been telling Michael and Suzy that one of the things I hope we'll do with the magazine is get a grip on international alumni and start asking them questions, like, what is the U S look like, you know, from over there? But tell us about what you're doing now, and, because you have seen so much of the world, and you've seen such differences from place to place. How does that work?
Wanda: Part of my passion now, and it has been, I would say, for about the past decade, easily about the past decade, has been in what's called community or public engagement. And I actually have collaborated with close colleagues in South Africa most particularly because they have a robust public engagement infrastructure across all of their institutions of higher education. But also some work in Europe and in China, but most deeply, in South Africa.
And this whole notion of community engagement, and there's a large literature, they call it participatory action research, basically assumes a responsibility for institutions of higher education to significantly serve the public good and make considerable public impact in the communities in which they live. And quite often, many of these bastions of ivory tower and intellectual leadership reside in under-resourced, underserved communities, right. For Princeton, it was Trenton. For Stanford, it was East Palo Alto. When you cross the bridge, bam, a whole 'nother world, right.
Suzy: Same with Yale in New Haven.
Wanda: That's exactly right. The University of Pennsylvania and Philly. And so, you know, there's been a movement afoot for the past few decades, and there really is greater appreciation now for what's called anchor institutions. Like institutions of higher education, medical facilities, faith-based organizations, etc., anchor a community. And they provide the vibrancy that it is mutually advantageous, though anchor institutions don't always look at it that way. But when you realize that there are some deep cultural assets in these communities, though people often just sort of pass through or kind of look down at, then it really does become mutually beneficial to engage in significant, higher education community-based partnerships and collaborations. And so, even when I was at NSF, a lot of the work that I did was funding large scale projects that really pursued significant campus-community partnerships, or compacts, as we call them.
The guiding principle that drives this work is that it is critically important to work “with” the community rather than “on” the community, whether you're talking about innovation, research, education, economic development, or whatever. The point is to avoid the Guinea pigs syndrome. One of the casualties of some people going into the community to do action research is they don't even bother to tell the people who participated in the studies, what the results of the study were. They don't get community members’ insights or allow them to help shape the design or develop what the important questions being researched are. And we're now making a lot of progress on the community engagement front. We see the value of community or public engagement now as increasingly important. And that's really manifested by the twin crises of COVID-19 and systemic racism. I mean, these crises are unmasking the systemic disparities that have existed forever, whether you're talking about the education gap, law enforcement and policing issues, economic disparity, health needs, or the technological, the digital divide – disparities across the board.
Wanda: So all of this is being unmasked. And we're hearing about that quite a bit, locally, nationally and beyond. But rhetoric is one thing; really doing something significant is the real issue. So the task for higher education is not only to generate new knowledge, but to contribute to the public good and make societal impact. These are some of the kinds of things that I've been spending most of my time on.
We were fortunate enough a few weeks ago, as a part of our local MLK event, to have Reverend Dr. William Barber deliver the keynote address. Oh my God. It was just so powerful and motivating to be there.
Malcolm: Standing room.
Wanda: Yes, in the virtual setting. His message was “Normalcy, Never Again.” He explained that that was the original title of King's “I Have a Dream” message. That title of course got completely flipped, but Barber’s whole message was normalcy, never again; we can't go back to how things were. Barber talks about his fusion coalitions, the notion of working hand in hand with the community, from all walks of life, rather than on the community.
Another real-life community engagement example. Our campus (University of Illinois Urbana Champaign) stood up our whole saliva-based testing program, what we call our testing ecosystem, and it worked phenomenally well on our campus. And for the most part, there have been some spikes, , we're less than 0.5% in the positivity rate.
And now we're just at the point of expanding our collaboration into the community. So we're working with faith-based organizations; Parks and Recreations, the K-12 school systems, elected officials, et cetera, to collaboratively decide how we're going to move forward to address this COVID testing and vaccination issue – in full alignment with our local and state public health departments. And we're deliberately keeping on the table, not just first responders and public works officials, but again, the underserved and under-resourced parts of the community, including the public school systems where large proportions of students receive free or reduced-price lunches.
INCLUSION & COLLABORATION
Malcolm: Other institutions in the community, to some extent, you know, they'll look at a university and they'll assume, okay, there's some money there. There's a lot of smart people there. There's some political influence. There's a network of individuals that we might not otherwise have access to, but in the collaboration, what's the decision making like, as far as, well we can do this and you guys can do that and we'll do this part together. Or we'll be the support and you lead.
Wanda: Yeah, it's a really important question, because again, with this notion of authentic co-equal partnership, it requires a lot of sitting around the table in regards to decision-making. And interestingly enough, our university is located in what some call a micro-urban setting, in the middle of central Illinois. The university is the predominant employer in the community. And a very significant proportion of all of the community members -- whether elected officials, school teachers and administrators, ministers, performing artists, you name it -- are alums of the university. It is the most university-focused community I've ever lived in.
Michael: Well, isn't there a student population of something like 40,000?
Wanda: About 53,000. You're totally close, Michael.
Michael: I visited there briefly and I was just astounded at how large it was compared to Northwestern.
Wanda: It is huge. I don't know how many hundreds of acres. The College of Engineering is always the dominant one, but the Information Sciences, College of Medicine, Agriculture, are also huge. With our current chancellor in place, who's deeply committed to public engagement, we have the strongest working, trusted relationship with our immediate community than people can remember. So we're rolling up our sleeves together, working with the city, for example, for business ordinances, or to close (and re-open) the businesses, because they're so reliant on the student population and the school population. And we're in a hybrid, largely online education mode currently, with several thousand students living on campus but even more in the local community.
SHOWING THE WAY
Malcolm: I can see that the authenticity is huge. Maybe the central feature there. And so that's going to be tested, but also it's a huge attractor. When you decided to go there, did they find you, or did you find them?
Wanda: [Laughter] Well, it was actually kind of mutual. When I was at NSF -- the federal government has all of these national advisory committees -- the current chancellor participated on a number of our national advisory committees at NSF and I had interacted with him on public engagement and diversity/equity/inclusion issues. So I was aware that he was here and believe it or not, literally about 30 years ago, I was here at UIUC as a visiting scholar. It was so cold then that I'd never envisioned, not in my wildest imagination, that I would come back.
Malcolm: I'm really intrigued that -- it's not a program you're running. What do you call it? I mean, you've created this position for you.
Wanda: My portfolio consists of a number of campus-wide priority areas on the current chancellor's agenda. So while my position was a first in that I was primarily hired to be chief of staff, a suite of other university relations priorities were also built in, such as public engagement.
Malcolm: So I imagine already that you wake up and you already have instinctively a grip on what belongs in my field of view, who needs to talk to me, who do I need to talk to.
Wanda: Yes. It requires flexibility. Like my experiences at NSF on the administrative side, on the chief of staff side, especially in a time of COVID, in a time of manifest systemic racism, anything can happen at any time. So it doesn't matter what's on your checklist, anything can happen. We just have to respond with agility. And then on the public engagement side, it really is building out and developing something that's rigorous and authentic both within the academic community and in the participating community. That's been a big build up, and we believe that we're really turning a significant corner now, partly influenced by these crises like COVID and social injustice issues that help crystallize and demonstrate the significance of a major publicly-engaged university for all participants.
You know, when wondering whether there's anything meaningful to it, the diehard fundamental researchers may not naturally gravitate to public engagement. But with COVID, it was some of our physicists and chemists who developed the saliva-based test. And the societal impact has just been really profound, really profound and self-evident.
SETTING THE EXAMPLE
Malcolm: So think about how each of us talking with each other now, we've had multiple versions of ourselves over the years. One of my favorite things to talk about comes right out of, to some extent, worrying for my kids. They're both going to graduate within the next 12 to 18 months, one way or another.
Suzy: That's Malcolm's mom speaking through him.
Malcolm: They started out with conventional expectations. You know, I'm going to pick a path. I'm going to go down that path. And when I get to the end of it, somebody better be waiting for me. And now, for so many reasons, it's just an idea. It's not out of the question, but it's certainly about as far from being probable or given, as you can get. So I keep giving them the same advice over and over again. It's kind of a two-parter. One is, don't be obsessing about your job at this point. I believe that the first job that you have that you want doesn't even exist yet.
Wanda: Wow. That's very true in many, many ways. Wow.
Malcolm: But then I flip the coin over and I say, guess what, if you don't create it, it may not ever show up. So I'm giving you guys carte blanche to make something. It doesn't have to be perfect. It doesn't even have to succeed, but the burden is on you.
Wanda: How are they responding to that?
Malcolm: Well, it's very interesting, because I think that another piece of this puzzle for us is -- and I was talking to my daughter last night about this. I was trying to make her fully appreciate that her access to information when she was 14 was an order of magnitude greater than my access to information when I was 14.
Wanda: Yes, that's so true.
Malcolm: So I was saying to her, if I'm honest with myself, I feel completely clueless about how you make decisions. Where your influences are the most strong. Your exposure is just so dramatically wide. I feel like a small boat in a big ocean. I can give you rides, and I can tell you where I've been, but I'm not quite sure that I can tell you where you need to go next.
Wanda: Yes. How does she respond to that?
Malcolm: I think there's a -- I'm saying this with a little bit of comedy mixed in. We're still, as adults, you know, we still have some responsibility to role model. And whether that's because you're a teacher or a boss or a parent, whatever, you can either take that seriously or you can run away from it. I think now because we're in crisis mode in so many profound ways, the one thing that I didn't anticipate spending 2020 and 2021 doing, was role-modeling a lot for my kids. And I kind of had to remember how to do it.
Malcolm: And I look at people who are amazing peers of ours, in particular people who are now in lines of business that are squarely targeting social justice, corporate social responsibility, the remaking of the world. And you've got to know that young people are watching. They're not believing yet.
THE AGE OF ANXIETY
Wanda: That's an excellent point, Malcolm. I have a 23-year-old niece that I've been raising for the past 17, 18 years. My younger sister died many years ago of breast cancer leaving two kids at the time. My niece was five and my nephew was 16, 17. And so I essentially raised them since that time. Fortunately, coming from the South, extended family is natural, right -- relatives on the same street and the whole nine yards. And essentially my mother and I raised them. We were their family. And I often wondered because there were times when we all went into our different corners, you know, to find our way through our grief. And it has often struck me, what do children who lose their parents do, those who have to go live with relatives that they never knew or go to social services.
It must be utterly devastating, right? 'Cause for folks who knew each other and loved each other, it was devastating. Long story short, she's now 23, and we talk, we're very close. She's been up here to Illinois a couple of times to visit. And she really communicates a lot; she tells me often, Auntie, you all have no idea what it's like to live in the world that we've grown up in. She said, we grew up with 9-11 and it's been one traumatic catastrophe after the other; and that is so fundamentally compounded by social media and the increased inhumanity that many young people experience. They can be cruel – bullying et cetera.
And so I learn a lot from her. I get glimpses into their world in our many conversations. And your point is, well, on the one hand, they have the opportunity to create the world of the future; but in many ways, and it doesn't matter what walk of life they come from, they have been bombarded by unprecedented challenges that they're expected to work out and navigate themselves through.
But this whole issue of isolation, profound depression -- again, it doesn't matter how well off they are. It doesn't matter how well they may be performing, but this depression is highest in this generation of young people than it's been in decades. Colleges and universities are overflooded by the demand for mental health assistance. And it has just been exacerbated during this past year with COVID. They're lonely. I mean, at times everybody feels lonely and isolated, but they're really impacted in some profound ways.
Suzy: I've also found in these younger generations a profound skepticism about, pretty much about everything, but especially anything related to government. Their expectations are very different.
Wanda: That's right, Suzy. You just really hit the nail on the head and government for sure. But I would say leadership in general.
Suzy: Exactly. It goes way beyond government. It's all the institutions.
Wanda: Yeah. It really is. And the way they were bombarded through social media, with the entertainment industry of what constitutes success and the over material emphasis. And what's beautiful. It's almost like we're living in parallel universes sometimes, you know?
Wanda: How old are your children now, Malcolm?
Malcolm: 20 and 24. They've had very different school careers. But what's similar is that they've both been to, not together, but they've both been to public and private schools. Neither has been away to school. My daughter is at San Jose State, but that's so close to here. If anything, it just makes it more obvious that just what you were saying, these are parallel worlds. And I think that, being a university brat, myself, I think, alright, so that worked for me and it worked for my neighborhood for my community. It worked for pretty much everybody I know or knew, for the first twenty-five years of my life, does it still work? Is it gonna work?
Wanda: Excellent question.
Malcolm: Do you have to take something, we're going to keep calling it a university, but do you have to like grab the whole thing and just turn it completely inside out and figure out, what is it really for now?
Wanda: That's the big question that everybody is facing right now -- what constitutes the college experience; what is the purpose, role, and way of teaching, learning and discovery. And nobody has a roadmap, we’re navigating through this. But across the country and world, we're all being zoomed to death and nobody knows yet what the cognitive impact of all of this is going to be on us.
Malcolm: Yeah. It's embarrassing. You know, what we probably do know is that some people are going to get incredibly rich off of this.
Wanda: I hear there are a hundred billionaires that have been made during this COVID. And yet, poverty is at an all-time high.
Suzy: And especially among women. The impact among women has been just extreme, because they've taken over the duties of having their kids at home, and they've left the workforce in much greater numbers even than men.
Wanda: Correct. And the disparity was already great.
Suzy: Exactly. It just exacerbated it.
Wanda: You're totally right, Suzy.
Malcolm: I don't remember what school it was, but earlier today I saw a TV commercial, and their punch line was 18 months for $18,000, and you have your degree. I've spent enough time in marketing to appreciate what they went through to decide that that's the message that they were going to put out, and who might respond to that. But then, how do you reality check that? What does it really mean? You know, when people try to do it. And $18,000, all of a sudden, that's an enormous amount of money when maybe you don't have that job anymore, you don't know when the next job's coming.
Wanda: Exactly right. Malcolm. No, this is very, very serious. And it’s not for wimps; it's a matter of literally holding on, having the volition to hope, when you see no reason whatsoever to hope. There's a lot of uncertainty and ambiguity now. And to your whole point regarding your kids, what worked for us may not be remotely relevant to what they're going through, and we don't know how to help in some regards. But you're also very correct, I believe in role modeling. We might not have all the right answers, but we're there with them. We're supporting them and we're helping guide the decisions and the choices that they make based on, literally based on belief in them and unconditional love. That's become really, really important in my recent experiences.
Malcolm: Wow, those are really powerful words you just used. I was thinking right before you said those words that maybe the next thing that must happen is that some institutions which are really, really good at creating communities will teach all the others how to create communities. Maybe that's the goal.
LEADING IN A POST-COVID WORLD
Wanda: You've put your finger on it. In trying to think about what we might be talking about tonight, given my work in community and public engagement, I literally was thinking about community building in a post COVID-19 world. What is that going to look like? And who will be co-equal partners?
Malcolm: Well, you know, it occurred to me that if, because of collaboration and coordination, you're sitting at the table with faith leaders, finance leaders, whoever. And if everybody is converging on a problem. And then if one of the next thoughts is, and you kind of said this earlier, we're not going to do it to them, we're going to do it with them.
Wanda: That's right.
Malcolm: So people who go to church, they already know a little bit about how to do this. Whether they were leading the church or not, right. People who were activists at schools, they know a little bit about how to do this. That could be like the core competency that now becomes the focus of short-term education.
Wanda: Isn't that something, yes. We just started a new initiative last year. It's called, WeCU (We Champaign Urbana). It is designed by young professionals on campus that match students who are interested in community engagement with organizations that need the service or the skills or the expertise that these young people can bring. And because of COVID, we had to start it virtually. But these young people racked up over 15,000 hours of community service. And from our vantage point, we're facilitating the production of the next generation of engaged community leaders.
And we're fascinated to see how this goes. It's taken off like gangbusters. The student body is huge, but we've had almost a thousand students start up since last summer, from last August to now. And there's a lot of interest by the organizations and the communities in which they serve. So the students do this service learning as a part of their democratic civic education, if you will.
Malcolm: Well, leadership is certainly a good handle on it. I mean, my clients, past and hopefully future, hear a lot from me and my partners about the difference between hierarchical leadership and organic leadership. And sometimes the only way to promote some tolerance of that conversation is humor. We'll have to go into a meeting with some people who at least believe that they're very serious, and often they're right. But I'll take advantage of being either the new guy or the outsider. And I'll walk into the meeting, and I'll say, so who's in charge today. And if they don't throw me out right away, then... but my point is, you can always find somebody who's in charge, but that doesn't mean that they're leading.
Wanda: That's right. That's right.
Malcolm: And there's a guy down the hall who nobody ever thought of as a leader, and he's crushing it every day and people just start paying attention.
Wanda: That's right. That's right.
Malcolm: Don't you want to go down there and have a conversation with that person and find out, you know, how do you do this? Can you get other people to do this too? Right. So I'm kind of reading into some of what you've been describing and thinking that you're navigating as well. You're sitting with a diverse work group already, and you're seeing things, different things from different people. When I'm doing that, I'm composing, and I'm like, well, how can I use this? Does that kind of describe what you're doing?
Wanda: Absolutely. And to your point, authenticity and trust are simply the foundational glue. You won't get anywhere; you won't get to first base without them. But leadership roles are played by multiple members at different times. And you have to be comfortable with that, top-down is not a way to go. Folks will put you in your place in a minute.
Malcolm: That's one of the terrors of social media, too.
Wanda: But valuing the voices and the perspectives of everybody at the table helps ensure a better solution. As you know very well, many consultancies and research firms have shown that intellectual diversity of thought yields a better product, a better outcome.
Malcolm: So let's talk about women making decisions. My father was gone when I was quite young. So my household was my mom and two sisters, and I was the middle child. So for me, what's normal is women rule the world, and men get away with a lot of stuff. So it's always been the inside out and upside down in the business world. And in some of the other parts of life. You were the first class of women at Princeton. I bet you've been the first or the first and only, many times over the years.
WOMEN LEADING THE WAY
Malcolm: Crisis management and the ability to invent and nurture is not optional anymore. Do you feel like this is a moment when women are going to come even more strongly into the foreground?
Wanda: It certainly can be. To Suzy's point a moment ago, we have yet to see the full impact of the forced exodus out of the workplace for many women last year because of childcare or elder care obligations, in terms of disparity in salary, salary inequity in general, and family-friendly workplaces. However, I think we are seeing a unique moment for women to acquire and adeptly use power. I think for the most part, women aren't fully accustomed to using power and also have different leadership styles from men. But, you hear Nancy Pelosi say all the time, I have five grandchildren or five children, so I learned all I needed to know to be Speaker of the House. [laughter]
There's a lot of truth in that. But it is a unique opportunity. It will not be without challenges, for example, just as we are seeing the insidious backlash by white supremacists -- to what they see as their last opportunity, their last chance to get life back the way it was and should be. And I could be wrong. It's not an expert opinion, but one of the starkest realities for me in the 2016 election was that we've had a woman Prime Minister for the UK, India; I think seven female presidents in Africa; Pakistan; New Zealand. It is unbelievable, but in the United States of America, they'd rather break the whole system than to let a woman assume the highest leadership role, including a white woman.
And we aren't even talking about the intersectionality between gender and race. So the recent election of Kamala Harris as vice-president is quite significant, influenced by the diversity of life and professional experiences that she brings to the table, including her multi-racial makeup, et cetera. But we’ve still got a long way to go.
Michael: The other message that seems to come out from COVID is that countries with female leaders tended to do better than countries without. New Zealand, Germany.
Wanda: Yeah, that's very interesting. It is definitely a moment of profound opportunity, both in terms of just flat out raw technical capability, but I think also significantly to leadership style. Style and how to get things done.
Malcolm: So we got a note from Corliss about putting the “A” in STEAM.
Wanda: Yes, yes, yes, yes. Art.
Malcolm: I have too much to say about that. So I'm not gonna talk about it. I want you to talk about it.
Wanda: There's been a great appreciation over the past several years and increasingly for STEM, STEM, STEM, (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). And as we all know, in elementary and high schools and even in colleges, the bulk of the resources were focused on STEM as the big driver of economic prosperity and success. And people began to recall the importance and the criticality of the arts and the humanities interwoven into this world. And that's how you got to STEAM. And now people also have multiple “M”s: Science, technology, engineering, arts, math, medicine, manufacturing (STEAMMM)! The list goes on. But the A in STEAM is extremely important and people have greater appreciation and acknowledgement, and resources are being balanced a little bit more towards the inclusion of those areas, arts and humanities.
Malcolm: One thing that's got my attention these days, because I'm trying to figure out if my view is to limit it or whether I'm seeing something that's just never... Over the decades, of course, it's not unusual to hear of or discover a young math genius or certainly the Silicon Valley mythology of young tech lions and so on. And it's also not surprising, in a sad way, that most of those individuals, the ones that were discovered and continued to be supported, were male. And because of that kind of weirdness, when it's not a male, it's even more exciting. And maybe that in turn inspires special support, people who stand up and say, we have to make sure that that keeps happening that it can't just be the exception.
But it's not uncommon or unusual at all for young artists to come out of nowhere with just mind-blowing levels of talent. And, I'm going to just say at the university level, how do you put that into a curriculum, as opposed to telling those young people, Oh, you've got to go to art school, you have to go to a dance school or you have to go to conservatory. You're different, you have to go someplace different.
Wanda: My relatively limited experience on that point, and this for me is another example of the parallel universes in which we are living, is the area called human-centered design. These young people are rocking it. I mean, they're just off the radar in their creativity and innovativeness. And you have to be open enough to hear and to listen to the ideas that they express, because sometimes they don't seem to make a bit of sense.
But if you realize they're bringing their creativity to bear-- having been raised in a world of social media, entertainment-- just different influences onto their perspectives, that shaped their perspectives. So they may come up with something that we don't have a clue about. But it's a big, innovative solution. You certainly see that in the computer science areas, in entrepreneurship. If you help nourish and not squelch that talent, then the things that the youth are coming up with, and it not only comes out of their creativity; I would say sometimes it also comes out of their pain -- to the point that we were talking about earlier. But I'm yet flabbergasted by the unanticipated rays of light that give us enormous hope. It was like, yeah, it's worth holding on when we heard that Amanda Gorman at the Inauguration!
Malcolm: Oh, my God. Yeah. She was amazing. Yeah.
Wanda: There is hope. And her poetry made sense to me. Her poetic message was crystal clear, and it spoke to the moment of what we're facing in the most eloquent way. There was a softness about her delivery. It was powerful and soft at the same time. And the way she used her hands, I thought, my Lord, this is art in the making. It honestly gave me hope. So we can't write it all off. Yes, they'll come through.
Malcolm: I guess it makes me think of my favorite sort of fantasy scenario of what universities become, which is that basically they become incubators.
Wanda: Yes, well, yes. That's what they're supposed to be. Except in those instances where they stifle everything; but they are supposed to be incubators of the yet unanticipated.
Malcolm Ryder (West ‘72) Contributor
Suzy Goldberg (West '72) Contributor
Michael Slade (West '73) Contributor
Corliss Denman (West '73) Contributor