The Fine Art of Finding Conference Colleagues


March 27, 2014

Occasionally, conferences take on a more personal theme, once you are fully immersed within them and caught up in the activity.

Although the official theme of the American Council of Education (A.C.E.) 96th Annual Meeting was “Seizing Opportunity,” I couldn’t help but experience and interpret the idea of seizing opportunity through my own lens, as someone who is both a woman and a senior leader in higher education.

I guess it started at the San Diego airport when I ended up on the same Super Saver shuttle with Judith White, President and Executive Director of HERS (home of many things, but most importantly, a fabulous leadership advancement program for women in higher ed - more on HERS here). I am a graduate of the 2008-2009 HERS Wellesley Institute and have remained in touch with Judith ever since. It was great to chat and catch up, and we ended our ride by realizing that we were both staying at the Embassy Suites.

Of course, I saw Judith later that night at the A.C.E. Women’s Leadership Dinner, keynoted by Paula Kerger, President and CEO of PBS. Kerger was fantastic and urged us to serve a purpose greater than ourselves, a call that seems so obvious but that many find challenging, particularly as they rise up in the ranks at their institutions. I was lucky enough to be seated with some amazing women, many from the A.C.E. Massachusetts Women’s Network, and they became my conference colleagues throughout my time in San Diego.

Conferences geared towards administrators - such as AAC&U and A.C.E. - seem to differ radically from those hosted by scholarly associations such as the MLA or, the one my fellow sociologists and I usually attend - ASA. First, the events begin as early as 7am with networking breakfasts, and the official program often runs until 10pm when the networking dinners and receptions begin to wind down. These types of networking marathons really call for conference colleagues to facilitate introductions, share knowledge and best practices, and fill you on in what you missed in the other sessions. Second, there is no down time. I used to experience conferences as a time to catch up - exchanging family time for work time - but no more. These leave me mentally energized but physically exhausted. Third, these new colleagues become your go-to people when you are back on your home campus. Instead of re-inventing the wheel when building a new program or dealing with a challenging issue, they can point you in the direction of best practice model that works on the ground, not just in theory.

The irony of ACE 2014 was that the overwhelming majority of my newly found conference colleagues were women. I spent 90% of my time in the company of brilliant women who are making a difference on their campuses, AND, like myself, most of them have children under the age of 18! This is a new trend! In the past, senior women leaders were often parents of adult children - they had waited to become a dean/vp/president until AFTER their kids had gone away to college. It was exhilarating to meet so many women who have also created a way to successfully move forward with both career and family. Our conversations moved fluidly from institutional challenges to family issues and back again - such a joy!

I found most of my conference colleagues in attendance at the jointly sponsored HERS and ACE Women’s Network session on Understanding the Language of Power: Advancing Women Leaders. The panelists offered fantastic advice and I’m just going to share some of the highlights below:

  • Requests for help are not a sign of weakness.

  • Language that assumes positive intent on the part of the listener is more often heard.

  • Expressions of appreciation are priceless.

  • There are some people you will never persuade to behave differently.

  • Create an atmosphere of trust. Study your environment with a positive attitude.

  • Be bold. Be self-confident

  • Find your own voice. Be authentic.

  • Don’t get stuck in the past.

  • Respect a diversity of opinions - call on those who are clearly engaged but are not speaking up.

This last point is worth taking time with - I think of our thousands of readers here at University of Venus and I often struggle with finding ways to “call on” those readers to speak up.

From now on, let’s imagine we are conference colleagues here at University of Venus and let’s find new ways to continue to share challenges and best practices, to create a space where we can ask for help and express our appreciation. I’d like to begin by calling on those of you who are reading but not “speaking up.” Drop by in the comments below to say ‘hello’ or give me a shout on Twitter @mary_churchill.

Mary Churchill is Associate Provost and Dean at Salem State University in Salem, MA on Boston’s North Shore. 


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