Monday, January 14, 2019

JOANNE V. CREIGHTON SPEAKS OF THE CHALLENGES OF LEADING A WOMAN'S COLLEGE IN HER RICHLY NUANCED MEMOIR!



During the Summer 2018, I had the opportunity to visit Mt. Holyoke College not long after my 40th reunion.  While there I dropped by the College bookstore, i.e. The Odyssey Bookstore. In doing so, I ran into a display of Joanne V. Creighton’s book, “The Educational Odyssey of Woman College President". For those who are interested, Joanne V. Creighton (the V stands for “Vanish”) was the 17th President of Mt. Holyoke college from 1996 - 2010, a crucial 15 year period in the history of the College. 

During her tenure at Mt. Holyoke College, Joanne Creighton initiated the Plans For Mt. Holyoke for 2003 and 2010 which led to the creation of three new interdisciplinary centers: the Weissman Center for Leadership and the Liberal Arts, the McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives, and the Center for the Environment.” Upon stepping down from this position, Ms. Creighton continued on to become Interim President of Haverford College.

Joanne V. Creighton's journey took her from the small town of Pound, Wisconsin to Wayne State University in Detroit, UNC-Greensboro, Wesleyan University, to Mt. Holyoke College, and then, as I have said, To Haverford.

During the start of her tenure at the Mt. Holyoke College, President Creighton led Mt. Holyoke through a period of turbulence. When she began as President, Mt. Holyoke was in severe economic distress.  This required that the school switch from a needs blind to a needs sensitive public policy. Ms. Creighton provides a detailed explanation of how this issue developed not only for Mt. Holyoke College, but for institutions of higher learning all over the country.  Students protested this change because they were concerned about the College’s commitment to low cost and accessible education for its students.

During this confrontation between administrators and students, President Creighton led the way to finding a reasonable compromise with student leaders so that the school could continue its mission to educate students from all economic backgrounds, while maintaining its financial stability. Although this incident must have been really frustrating for President Creighton, I was actually encouraged to hear of how socially active students were about this issue.  Too often, in the late 70s, I recall Mt. Holyoke students being disengaged and disinterested in social injustice. I'm glad to know students are now speaking up and speaking out.  We want graduates of Mt. Holyoke to be movers and shakers and leaders.  It seems that Creighton was able to interact with the protesters in a way that led to a positive outcome, without unnecessarily squashing the spark of revolutionary spirit among students.

Another challenge Joanne Creighton faced was the widely publicized suspension of Prof. Joseph Ellis, a historian who admitted he lied to students about having served in Vietnam. He was suspended from the college for a year. She talks about both of these crises in a very crisp, precise, and absorbing narrative in successive chapters of the book.

As an initial comment, I will say that I was disappointed at the production quality of this book. The delightful cover photo of President Creighton is a tad fuzzy, and there were some other difficulties in the book which I felt should have been addressed, given the stature of the subject. I think the book would have benefited from an index, and I don’t think it would have been that hard to create one. I am surprised that a more prestigious publishing company with greater resources could not have taken on this book in order to enhance the work itself, its look and access to marketing and distribution.

I did see that the University of Massachusetts Press has been listed as a distributor of the book—perhaps all this press does is distribution. However, as I say, I was disappointed and I felt that the book should have gotten much more care in terms of the quality of the production of the book. I was also rather dissatisfied that the Odyssey Bookstore had an author reading and bookstore signing with Joanne V. Creighton for this book, yet it was not filmed and posted on Youtube. Overall, I felt like Mt. Holyoke could treat its own a little better in regard to this book.

I’m not the kind of person who would ordinarily read such an autobiography which I usually associate with Mt. Holyoke College advertising campaigns and with pleas for additional contributions. In fact, this book wasn’t anything of the kind and I am really happy that I picked up the book, despite initial misgivings.

I have never understood colleges and universities from the perspective of a leader managing large and complex institutions, marshaling diverse and often mutually hostile faculty, attempting to find a common vision, and then encouraging a broadly diverse group of students, administrators and faculty to follow it. I was impressed with Joanne Creighton's description of her leadership style as one of "orchestrating shared governance" and she described many critical incidences of this approach throughout her book. So much of it involved identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the colleges and universities where she served, and exploiting those qualities for the benefit of those institutions themselves.  Doing so ensured the survival of these institutions into the future and enhanced their performance in order to achieve the goal of educating America’s young people effectively. I found Joanne Creighton's detailed descriptions of how this is done, the struggles academic leadership have behind closed doors, quite revelatory and insightful.

I particularly found Joanne Creighton's early exploration of the interaction between women and girls in Chapter 2 of the book--“Sisters”--extremely interesting. For me, the discussion established an understanding of the gender dynamics that uniquely impact women in positions of leadership.  Creighton displays considerable wisdom in her discussion of the way in which relationships between sisters can be complicated by destructive competition, power imbalances, family dysfunction, and other powerful forces. No matter how much you may love and share so much with an older or younger sister in terms of what you have grown up with, you can still experience major divisions in your relationship due to misunderstandings, jealousy of the other sister’s achievements, as well as other issues. Joanne Creighton richly explores not only sisterhood between real sisters, but also in terms of women’s relationships with other women, their friendships and their professional relationships with other successful women.

As examples, she uses her relationship with her own sister, also highly successful in her own right. Further, she explores the relationship of the two sisters Margaret Drabble and A.S. Byatt, and her own relationship intellectual and social with the writer Joyce Carol Oates. In this core chapter, Joanne Creighton looks at the complex and ambivalent manner in which women of achievement relate to other women who are similarly achieving.  She looks at the issue within the context of family, friendships, and career.  She then develops the subject further in subsequent chapters and most particularly in her discussion of her experiences as President of Mt. Holyoke College. For all women, most particularly graduates of women’s colleges, this issue of women’s relationships with other women has particular relevance to our lives, and this makes the book’s focus extremely valuable reading.

As I read this book, I began to understand exactly why President Creighton ended up as President of Mt. Holyoke. Here is a quite delightful individual, charming, modest, committed in every way to higher education and the liberal arts. At the same time, she is well able to state her truths and articulate tough realities in such a disarming manner that it is extremely difficult to find her offensive. I give her a lot of credit for having such a balanced view of the institutions she served, for seeing where she could take their strengths, and use them to mitigate their weaknesses.

Finally, she has some very interesting comments to make regarding the future of women’s education overall.  This might make people uncomfortable, but she does challenge us to consider whether it remains relevant or viable in the modern world.  These thoughts and ideas are a quite valuable source of discussion as well. Again, for any graduate of a woman’s college, for anyone considering the future of women’s education and leadership, this is a really outstanding book.

No comments:

Post a Comment