ELATES Graduation Ceremony

ELATES Annual Leaders Forum
March 20, 2019

Welcome women of ELATES!

First, let me take a moment to thank our incredible Dr. Koren Bedeau, Vice Provost and Executive Director of ELATES at Drexel University. If you want to have the full measure of your accomplishments, Koren, just take a look at the 18 fellows here who will be joining the over-100 women already graduated!

I’d also like to recognize Dr. Michele Marcolongo, a member of ELAM ’12 (I’ll get to that program in a moment), department head of Materials Science and Engineering at Drexel’s College of Engineering, and one of the original program organizers of ELATES. Michele conducted 31 interviews with leaders across the nation when she helped lay the bedrock of the ELATES program six years ago. She is also a valued member of my leadership team.  Her contributions to ELATES and to Drexel have been invaluable. Thank you, Michele.

Looking out on this wonderful group of academic women, I mean this in the most respectful and collegial of terms when I say … I am proud of all of you.

Dean Walker at ELATE 2019 Leaders Forum and Graduation

You’ve been working towards this moment for the past eight months. You’ve done self-assessments and career counseling. You’ve cemented your Learning Communities. You’ve been Myers-Briggs’ed! (I’m an ENTJ myself.) You’ve had lessons in change management, conflict resolution, and strategic planning. You’ve done your year-long Institutional Action Projects. And you’ve completed all that while holding down full-time jobs and running your own lives, what we have become accustomed to calling the work-life balance!

The ELATES program must have looked like a formidable challenge when you started last August. And it was. But here you are on the brink of your graduation. All of us in this room today—your deans, your mentors, your support teams … we offer you our warmest congratulations. Please give yourselves a round of applause.

I always like to open these conversations with a look around the room. Let’s take a quick geographical snapshot. So … are there any women here from my former home state of California or from the West Coast? The Midwest? The East Coast? The South? It’s brilliant, how thoroughly we’re blanketing the country with ELATES women!

After today, there will be some 122 ELATES fellows nationwide—peers in achievement and sisters in a continuing and noble task. We are represented at 56 universities and colleges across the country with deans, chairs, associate deans, vice provosts, and directors of major academic centers among ELATES fellows. Nearly a quarter of us are from diverse populations. We hold positions of leadership at such institutions as the University of Michigan, at Villanova, at the University of Chicago, Ohio State, and Case Western Reserve, among so many others.

You are becoming part of a singular group of women.

As I join you today to celebrate your achievements, I'd like to take a moment to share the impact ELATES has had on my own professional life. In fact, since I graduated from ELATES in the spring of 2016, it has proven to be the single most impactful program of my career. It’s customary for people in a position like mine to say that I never expected I would be standing in front of you as Drexel University’s first woman dean of engineering.

But the fact is, I certainly did expect this. Or something like it. I knew from the time I was a young girl that I wanted to be in a position of leadership. Remember how in elementary school the boys and the girls never played together? I was the one who brought them together. People saw me as the social catalyst in the group, as an includer. I never let kids sit by themselves and I never put up with bullying. I was that kid who would not tolerate the behavior of exclusivity. I liked working things out among my peers. I just knew I was wired for this.

I was also self-directed towards science. For my whole life, I’ve been a natural systems thinker. I’ve always understood the interconnectivity of people, things, institutions—all those organizational pieces that made me a good engineer and that I bring to bear today on my position at Drexel.

But it was also very difficult to know exactly how to funnel my ambition into a clear path of advancement. Prior to ELATE, I felt such a sense of isolation. Because we are usually the only women in our academic worlds of engineering and sciences. But then you add in the fact that I was also interested in leadership.

Nobody ever wants to admit it, but for women it’s almost like uttering a bad word, leadership. You say that you’d love to be a department chair. People would scoff at that and tell you you’re going to the dark side. So, to be a woman in engineering who was also interested in leadership, it was like being a unicorn. It was hard to find role models who I could talk with personally, who I could call up and say, hey, how did this work for you or how did you manage that?

When I got to ELATES and met women like myself who are hardworking, dedicated, motivated, successful academics who also were interested in leadership—well, when you’re a unicorn and you suddenly walk into a herd of unicorns, it’s magic. For me, this was transformative.

ELATES provides you with a great toolkit. I certainly have used all the leadership skills -- the negotiation skills, the strategic planning skills, the financial skills …. Every single thing we covered in ELATES, I have used multiple times. But the thing about ELATES that is different from other leadership programs is the incredible community opened up to me through the ELATES Learning Community.

I had the great fortune of having two Learning Communities. I started ELATES in August of 2014, but was pregnant and due just after my March 2015 graduation, so I had to delay and rejoin ELATES for the final week and graduation in the spring of 2016.  I was assigned an additional Learning Community. They adopted me wholesale and for that I’m exceedingly grateful.

So now, I have these two groups. We’re both still doing monthly phone calls. And we have a policy of, “make a call/take a call.” Meaning, if any one of my Learning Community friends says they’d like to talk, we drop everything and make the time. And that has been staggeringly helpful as I’ve gone through a series of leadership transitions since then. Whenever I wanted to ask questions about an institution, about a kind of job, about how to negotiate, about how to prepare for an interview… I have this group of women that I can rely on to advise me confidentially. And it’s been amazing.

I actually credit my trajectory of becoming an interim dean and then becoming dean here because of that work. Because of the women at ELATES coaching me through these steps and offering me the support and giving me the critiques when I needed them. It’s a very safe space.

Drexel University has been a center for women in leadership training for well over two decades now. The ELATES program was hammered out of the success of the ELAM program nearly 25 years ago, which has trained over 1,000 women for leadership roles in the academic medical profession. That early program was designed at a time when women were just entering the medical fields. There were almost no women in those ranks. Now, half of the MDs practicing in the United States today are women and we have ELAM alumnae in leadership positions at over 257 institutions around the world. ELAM trained women to move that needle forward, and it has worked.

With your class, ELATES has graduated a total of six classes of women bound for academic leadership roles across the country. And you see in the hands raised today the kind of geographic diversity that we look for. That was always part of the founding mission of ELATES—that graduates would fan out in all directions and lay down tracks for others to follow.

The ELATES program helped me clarify and strengthen my sense of what leadership really is. I think of a leader as the person who exemplifies qualities that people follow because there is a desire and an understanding of what that person’s vision is, and it’s so well-articulated that you can’t imagine not following them. And when I say follow, I mean following their example, supporting their vision. It might be a vision for an engineering department. It might be a vision for an entire school or college. But it’s that kind of long-term vision that has a more substantial impact.

This kind of leader is a servant leader, and I really believe in this concept: people who take themselves out of the equation of self-interest. These leaders may have a good strong ego, and they have to have a sound sense of self. But they’re people who are motivated beyond their own outcomes. They’re motivated because of a broader good.

The leaders I admire most and try to emulate always talk about themes of service, human decency, and respect that just resonated with me. That’s the best kind of leadership. That’s foundational leadership.

So when I say you’re a singular group of women, I’m not saying it lightly. You are a singular group because you want to lead and you sought out the opportunity to learn how to do it. There are not many people—men or women -- who truly look at leadership and say, that’s what I want. Maybe in the corporate world they want it because they want the money. But leading in academe takes a special soul, not motivated by the returns the corporate world offers, rather by the outcomes and impact possible.  However, these roles come with an enormous and weighty ethical and human burden that most people just don’t appreciate.

So it’s very important for you to decide what kind of leader you want to be. Not everyone is comfortable in high visibility positions. I like that about ELATES—that leadership is not defined only in the most traditional ways. ELATES helps you be the best leader you can be on the trajectory you want to be on. That’s so important.

There are lots of leaders who set examples by the way they live. It takes a certain level of moral courage to do really good work and to call people out when necessary. Being a leader sometimes is about setting an example of hard work, competency, and ethical behavior. Sometimes those are the least glamorous people in the team -- but they are your doers. They’re the brick-and-mortar of any organization. All organizations need that. To me, that is every bit as much a definition of leadership as someone who has the title “department head” or “dean” or “president.”

On this, the day of your ELATES graduates, I also want to stress the idea of intentionality. I love the idea of being intentional and being resolved: have a resolution and intentionally plan where you want to be. You have to map it in a way that makes sense for you, even if the map doesn’t have a timeline affixed to it. You need to give yourself some framework, because in our academic world there’s often no positive feedback and no one who is going to say, this is your next step.

Just keeping your toolkit fresh is also terribly important. I have done two leadership programs since ELATES —CORO and HERS. They have both been useful and helped me maintain my momentum. I challenge you to keep your skills current. That’s part of the intentionality.

And that Learning Community! Do not let go of that network! In a world where we don’t otherwise have peers, that’s one of your greatest assets. That’s really something to think about when you’ve been isolated for so long. It’s unlike any of the other networks. It’s the biggest gift I’ve had. 

Finally, for those of us who are in positions of influence or who will be, I would urge you to use your influence to oversee the kinds of changes that will one day make training programs like ELATES obsolete. It is imperative that we advocate for those coming up behind us—for women and for all those who have historically been underrepresented in the STEM fields.

I’m doing a lot of this advocating myself. I’m currently mentoring four women and I admit, it’s a burden. It’s not part of my job description. It’s not what I’m being compensated for. But I do it because it’s what I believe in and it’s the right thing to do. And so I do it on Saturdays and on weeknights and at nighttime because it’s the right thing to do. That is one of your most important charges going forward as ELATES graduates.  Support and elevate those around you.

I know you will acquit yourselves well as academic leaders in any of the positions you aspire to. And remember that you will always have this circle of women to turn to. Women are really good at that. When we’re truly a part of a sisterhood, we bring out the best in each other. And in that mode, we’re unstoppable. I wish you the best of success!!