Factory Worker to President

In debut of new column, an interview about career paths, work-family balance and leadership.

August 8, 2011

Lynn Pasquerella is president at Mount Holyoke College, in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Mount Holyoke is a highly selective liberal arts college for women, renowned for educating women leaders. Prior to becoming president on July 1, 2010, Pasquerella was provost at the University of Hartford. She holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Brown University and is married, with twin college-aged sons.

I met President Pasquerella in Toronto this past June at the Worldviews Conference on Media and Higher Education. We immediately launched into a lively conversation about University of Venus and Mount Holyoke and our respective work on promoting new leadership in higher education. In reflecting on that conversation, I realized that it needed to go public. I was inspired by my conversation with Lynn and I knew that others would find it equally inspiring. [A spin-off from University of Venus, She’s Got It! is a newly launched career column at Inside Higher Ed featuring interviews with executive level women and men in the education sector. Read more about it here.]

Can you tell us a little about your story and what you think have been the keys to your success?

When I was 16, I began working alongside my mother during the summer, doing piece work at Arrow Hart, a local light switch factory in Danielson, Connecticut. It was my first real exposure to being part of a community of women. Many of the women with whom I worked, like my own mother, were extraordinarily bright and talented, but, through the circumstances of their lives, unable to finish high school. I learned a great deal from my work with them. Perhaps most importantly, I came to understand the effect of gendered power structures and how institutional and organizational cultures legitimize and perpetuate sexism and classism. Yet, observing my mother in her role as shop steward, I also learned how women’s leadership can uniquely transform institutional cultures and empower even the most vulnerable and invisible members of a community.

The following fall, I continued working 35 hours a week while attending Quinebaug Valley Community College in order to pursue a college degree and at the same time meet caregiving responsibilities at home for my mother, who had become chronically ill. Two years later, I transferred to Mount Holyoke College as a junior and learned that the passionate quest of its founder, Mary Lyon, to offer education to women from all socioeconomic backgrounds represents freedom from economic oppression.

Within another two years, as I was heading off to Brown University under a full fellowship, I resolved that I would never forget the lessons I learned about access and opportunity in my transition from the factory floor to community college to Mount Holyoke. As a result, throughout my career, I have been engaged in outreach. When working as a philosophy professor at University of Rhode Island, I did whatever I could to promote student access and advocacy and professional development for faculty and staff. In the process, I was asked to take on various administrative roles, first as department chair, then as graduate dean, and vice provost for academic affairs. I moved to the University of Hartford to serve as provost because I was attracted to its mission as a "private university with a public purpose." When I was called by the search firm representing Mount Holyoke and asked if I would consider applying, I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to give back in such a significant way to an institution that transformed my life.

One of the biggest challenges that many of us face is maintaining healthy work/life integration. You are married and have two children. What steps have you taken to protect your quality of life as you have moved forward in your career?

My husband and I are fortunate that we are both in academia. [Lynn’s husband is biologist John Kuchle.] This has provided a level of flexibility that allowed us to go to every soccer and hockey practice and game, along with sitting in the karate dojo five days a week. Family time was built into our schedule through the boys' activities. Of course, that often meant late nights doing e-mail, writing papers and preparing for classes, but we have managed to maintain a balance. Now that my sons are in college, we schedule time together to play Rock Band or go to the movies. My husband, John, travels with me whenever possible, and we take time to maintain our friendships made at previous institutions.

Were there opportunities you passed up to maintain this quality of life?

I didn’t turn down specific opportunities, but my husband is 16 years older than I am, and for 23 years my career moves revolved around where my husband’s job was located. I did a long commute during that time -- 1.5 hours each way -- to make sure that we lived together because that was important to us.

It wasn’t until our boys went off to college that I thought I could pursue a provost position. While they were growing up, I wanted to make sure I had the kind of life that would allow me to volunteer in my sons’ schools and in my community. To be that engaged in my local community would have been difficult as a provost.

Numerous studies have suggested that women lead differently. Do you think that’s true? How would you describe your leadership style? What makes you unique?

I think it is more common for women to approach leadership in ways that are collaborative and cooperative and less authoritarian and autocratic. Recent data suggests that groups demonstrating greater "social sensitivity" performed better than other groups, especially those that were dominated by a single individual. The determining factor happened to be the percentage of women in the groups.

I am committed to participatory, agile leadership that is transparent, collaborative and dedicated to shared governance.

Agile leadership harnesses emotional intelligence to reform cultures, recognizing the extent to which we as persons in relation can impact culture. Women engaged in grassroots work in our communities are doing the real work of social transformation; they are agile leaders.

My background in philosophy has been a wonderful preparation for this type of leadership since the discipline encourages comfort with ambiguity, as well as the ability to listen critically and to evaluate complex arguments with respect to a broad range of issues.

Many of our readers are Ph.D. students, recent Ph.D.s, and junior faculty members. They want to know how senior leaders go about identifying future leaders. What do you look for when hiring and promoting people into leadership positions?

I look for individuals who are catalysts for change. There has been a good deal of discussion about jettisoning the ladder and pipeline metaphors in academia, which disadvantages women who have not had traditional paths. I don’t necessarily look toward the individual who has had the most administrative experience, but instead toward those who are change agents at any level.

I think it is important to look at what people have done and at the impact they have had on their communities. When I meet with potential candidates, I ask them to tell me how they have worked with people to overcome challenges in their communities and their institutions. I want to know that they can communicate effectively and make an impact.

Mentoring and networking are crucial components of promotion and career mobility. Do you have specific recommendations for women who struggle with making the right connections and leveraging those connections?

My advice would be to reach out to people you work with and let them know of your interest in leadership. In addition, establish opportunities for peer mentoring. Before saying "yes" to service opportunities and committee assignments, consult a trusted friend about the likely impact of any particular commitment on your career objectives and your ability to establish a healthy work/life integration.

I think that folks are hesitant to take on additional responsibilities without knowing the impact it will have on their personal lives.

This is why a network of peers is important. When you get an offer, tell them you will think about it and then run it by a good friend. Early on in my career, some friends and I created a team of women who would do that for one another. We were honest with one another about whether we thought they should take advantage of an opportunity or pass on it.

The education sector is rapidly changing. As the next generation of leadership tries to prepare for those changes, what transferable skills should we cultivate now in anticipating the future of education?

Adaptability, cultural competence, the capacity to think critically and to use the new social media to tell our story is the most compelling way to reach the broadest audience.

Do you think the ability to tell a good story is key to leadership?

Absolutely. I spend a good deal of my time telling the story of the importance of women’s education and the difference it can make. Leadership in a classroom is about telling compelling stories that resonate.

What do you see as the biggest challenge and greatest opportunity facing those of us in the education sector in the next 10-15 years?

The biggest challenge for higher education will be to identify a sustainable model for providing access to excellence in higher education.

There are opportunities to partner with K-12, business, industry and governmental agencies in creating programs that both will enable students to attend the college of their choice without being burdened by enormous debt and allow educational institutions to attract and retain the most talented faculty and staff.

When I talked with Lynn, she was in the middle of gearing up to go to Kenya for a couple of weeks; she and colleagues are in their fourth year of a five-year project with the African Center for Engineering Social Solutions (ACESS). While at the University of Rhode Island, Lynn was approached by alumna Clarice Odhiambo, who was interested in providing simple engineering solutions to the problems faced by fellow Kenyans. The two women worked with colleagues and interested partners to help create interdisciplinary, inter-institutional research teams focused on providing clean water, sustainable agriculture and entrepreneurship for women in Kenya's West Lake District.

Lynn Pasquerella’s life story is one of access and excellence and she is on a mission to tell that story, to give back, and to make an impact.

Thank you for joining us in the launch of She’s Got It! We would love to get your recommendations for future interviews. Whose story do you want to read?


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top