The alumna and president of Hamline University emphasizes action over good intentions and owning up to whatever results may come.
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Topics: College of Science & Engineering, What I Learned Since Graduation
In 2015, Fayneese Miller became president of Hamline University – becoming the first African-American and the second woman president since the St. Paul, Minnesota, university was founded in 1854. Photo by David J. Turner
A lot has changed since Fayneese Miller ’79 MS (PhD ’81) was growing up in Danville, Virginia, where she couldn’t visit the local library because of the color of her skin. Later, she was among the first African-American students to attend a desegregated high school.
She had a bit of culture shock when she came to TCU as the first African-American student in the psychology doctoral program. But her professors empowered her to succeed, she said.
“They were always encouraging me. There was a lot of, ‘Don’t be afraid to put yourself in unknown situations. If you don’t, you will never know what is possible for you.’ ”
That encouragement inspired Miller to apply for a postdoctoral fellowship at Yale University and a National Science Foundation fellowship. She got both.
“There are a lot of things that I did that I’m not so sure I would have done if I hadn’t had that kind of support and belief in my ability to succeed from the faculty.”
Miller served on Brown University’s faculty for 20 years and later as professor and dean of the University of Vermont’s College of Education and Social Services.
In 2015, Miller became president of Hamline University — becoming the first African-American and the second woman president since the St. Paul, Minnesota, university was founded in 1854.
“My career has been absolutely extraordinary since leaving TCU,” Miller said. “I don’t think any of this is an accident. It’s what I learned and how those lessons have served me well over the years.”
During more than 30 years in higher education, Miller has amassed a wealth of knowledge:
I am a black woman. Being a black woman comes with all kinds of lessons. Being in a leadership role as a black woman comes with all kinds of lessons. So a hard lesson to learn — but an important lesson to have learned — is that what I look like, what I sound like and how I present myself on a day-to-day basis matters. If I want people to take me seriously, I must also take myself seriously and do the work that needs to be done to be able to function with and navigate in any environment in which I find myself — and be able to do it with positive outcomes.
I was the first black student admitted to the psychology Ph.D. program at TCU. I learned there, and I learned since leaving, that I didn’t have the luxury of trying to get by. I had to make sure that I was more than capable of doing the work that needed to be done without any excuses and without any unnecessary explanations. I needed to be ready. I needed to know what I was doing and do it well.
If you have a point you want to make, know what data you need to make it, gather that information and then use that information to make thoughtful, informed and useful decisions. Make sure you can support what you say. Make sure you’ve got the data to back you up. Make sure you know what questions you need to ask.
What I think sometimes matters, but what I do always matters. My professors at TCU drilled that home. Selby Evans, Francis Terrell, Steven Cole, Don Dansereau and Reba Bell, who was in education — they all drilled that into my head, and that’s a lesson that stayed with me. And Selby Evans was a master at it. He didn’t care what I thought unless what I thought led to some outcomes.
Change is what you need if you’re going to have growth.
You can’t keep complaining and think things are going to change. If you want things to change, you’ve got to be actively engaged in the change process. That’s how I became an administrator and that’s how I became a president. It’s wanting to be actively engaged in the process and not just on the sidelines talking about what I’d like to see, but being a part of making what I’d like to see possible.
Everyone wants change until it affects them. People say they want change — and they do — but they often want that change to impact others and not them. So you have to figure out how to help them see how the change will be positive for them even if it’s something that’s going to change the quality of their life or their job at that particular time. Change is what you need if you’re going to have growth. If you’re nimble, you allow for change, you welcome change. But you always understand and appreciate that change is complex and change is hard.
I say to my female students all the time: Don’t be afraid to speak up. Speaking up means that you have a voice, and you’re not allowing yourself to be shut down. When you’re the only woman in the room or one of the few and you say something, there might be silence. But if you allow that silence to stand, then you are allowing someone else to own your voice. When I say something and there’s no response and then a male comes behind me and says the same thing or rewords it, I don’t let it stand. I reclaim my voice. To every woman out there: Don’t allow others to take your voice from you. Don’t allow others to own the ideas unless there’s a reason that they should. Give yourself credit. Give yourself the right to speak up and have ideas without being afraid.
There will always be challenges. It’s how you respond to those challenges that matters. I’ve never responded to the challenges in a disrespectful way. I have responded — but in a thoughtful way.
You learn from others. You reflect. You observe. And you act. That’s an effective leader.
It’s important to be thoughtful and strategic. Have a plan. Know where you want to go. And understand and appreciate what you need in order to get there. Impulsiveness works sometimes and it can be good. But good impulsiveness comes about as a result of all this other work that’s occurred. So even if you make a snap decision, that snap decision isn’t really snap. A lot of other thinking has gone on up to that point.
Good ideas are not the purview of one person. Bring many perspectives to the table. Give people the opportunity to be a part of the process. What comes out of that is something good. It’s really important to include many different voices. I will have done a lot of work before I make a decision that’s going to have long-term consequences. I will have talked to people. I will have done a lot of reading. I will have listened as much as I can and observed as much as I can.
You learn from others. You reflect. You observe. And you act. That’s an effective leader. You’re not indecisive.
Leaders should know and understand that at the end of the day, the decision that is made is theirs, and they’re going to have to own that decision. You can’t pass it off as “A committee thought of that.” As a leader, you have to own it. That’s why it’s so important to be as inclusive and thoughtful and strategic as you can before making a decision that is going to impact many people.
The best gift we have in higher education is our students. When our students go out and do amazing things, that speaks very highly of the work that we have done in our profession. We are preparing people who understand and appreciate what it means to be part of a civil society. We have an opportunity to help them figure out how to do the things they will want to do later. To me, that’s a gift we should never squander because it has economic and social implications that impact this nation and the world as a whole. If it sounds like I love what I do, I do.
I’ve never forgotten TCU and the lessons I learned there. I learned a lot. I learned a lot about myself and the fact that I would be OK when I left. It’s an honor to be a university president, and it’s something I don’t take for granted. Every single day I feel as though I’m blessed to be around such incredible minds and a future that looks bright because of these incredible minds.
— As told to Rachel Stowe Master
Edited for clarity and length.
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