I spent last week in Washington, D.C., and witnessed the dumpster fire that is the Supreme Court confirmation process. As a U.S. citizen, Utahn and woman, I welcomed the chance to return to the Beehive State where civility still means something, and reasonable people can disagree, while still building a great community together.
My enthusiasm deepened this week as I had the opportunity to moderate a panel of Utah’s new mighty five — the female college presidents in Utah. Their leadership inspires me and stands in stark contrast to the venomous and divisive leadership we see in our nation’s capital. I think we can learn a lot from Utah’s remarkable female college presidents.
The panel discussion took place on center stage of the beautiful Hale Centre Theatre. The backdrop for the conversation was the living room of the 1960s thriller film “Wait Until Dark,” which is currently being performed there. There was nothing frightening, however, about this gathering. Instead attendees were nourished and inspired by the ever-graceful University of Utah president, Ruth Watkins; the down-to-earth and approachable Utah State University president, Noelle Cockett; the newly appointed and lightening-in-a-bottle Utah Valley University president, Astrid Tuminez; the gracious and immensely capable Salt Lake Community College president, Deneece Huftalin; and the liberal-arts-minded and insightful Westminster College president, Beth Dobkin.
I asked each of them about their path to the president’s office. I didn’t want their academic journey, but their personal journey — the story they would share with a granddaughter, grandniece or someone important in their life.
One president said, “I was counseled early to live up to my ability.” That is sage wisdom for all people, but especially for women who hold back in some way.
Another simply answered, “I said yes,” referring to her willingness to step into ever-increasing roles of responsibility. Her answer reminded me of the quote often attributed to Woody Allen that 80 percent of life is showing up.
Two presidents shared that their success followed an “unconventional” or “zig-zag” path. I liked being reminded that dreams are personal, happen in their own way, and are rarely a straight line. Do your path, not someone else’s. Don’t worry if your path is different.
One president commented on the importance of a work ethic. She said, “I learned to work until the job is done.” I take that to mean many late nights and early mornings.
I asked each president to offer advice to the men in the audience who would like to elevate female leadership. I felt this was important because of frequent negative news stories about Utah’s wage gap, sexism and other gender discrimination.
One president reflected on how a male mentor gave voice to her talent. She said, “He made it a point to provide a stage for my ideas.” This is an important reminder that elevating female leadership is a team sport.
Another president switched the question and shared advice from her husband. He told her, “You are responsible for your own happiness” — a not so subtle reminder that we own our destiny.
My favorite part of the discussion was advice offered to the young women in the audience. One president emphasized the importance of listening and communicating. Another sang the praises of “tempered radicalism” — the concept of changing the culture, but doing it in a constructive way. Still another encouraged young women to “get comfortable in your skin early in life.”
We ended the dialogue by discussing how to make a better and more prosperous community. The presidents encouraged attendees to take risks and stoke the spirit of entrepreneurship, show more empathy, be kind, seek fairness, value diversity and make education a lifelong pursuit.
I left feeling inspired by these mighty five female presidents, just like I am when I leave one of Utah’s mighty five national parks. I also left asking the question, “How can we share their grace and intelligence with our leaders in Washington, D.C.?”
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