Perspectives on Leadership

March 8, 2011
Perspectives in Leadership

LEADING LADIES: (standing, left to right) Dr. Karla Leeper, Chief of Staff; Dr. Elizabeth Davis, BBA '84,Executive Vice President and Provost; Kathy Wills Wright, BSED '85, MSED '88, Senior Vice President for Strategic Initiatives and Partnerships; Pattie Orr, Vice President for Information Technology and Dean of University Libraries; (seated left to right) Dr. Diana Garland, Dean of Baylor University School of Social Work; Tommye Lou Davis, BA '66, MS '68, Vice President for Constituent Engagement

At its founding in 1845, Baylor is believed to have been the first co-educational institution west of the Mississippi River. Since that time, Baylor has benefitted from the contributions of countless women. But when Dr. Elizabeth Davis, BBA '84, was appointed executive vice president and provost last July, it marked the first time in Baylor's 165-year history that a woman had ever held the university's top academic post. Known as a collaborative leader, Baylor President Ken Starr has made a point of surrounding himself with the most varied assortment of advisors any Baylor president has ever had. The university's Executive Council includes Baylor graduates and individuals with degrees from other institutions; longtime professors and experienced professionals; and most notably, more women than ever before.

'The best minds Baylor has to offer'

Functioning like a cabinet for President Starr, the 11-member Executive Council includes five women: Provost Davis, Vice President for Constituent Engagement Tommye Lou Davis, Chief of Staff Karla Leeper, Vice President for Information Technology and Dean of University Libraries Pattie Orr, and Senior Vice President for Strategic Initiatives & Partnerships Kathy Wills Wright. Dr. Diana Garland, dean of Baylor's School of Social Work, is also among the university's top leaders.

Elizabeth Davis

"When we gather at the Round Table in Pat Neff Hall -- and it really is a round table -- I am confident that I am surrounded by some of the best minds Baylor has to offer," says Starr. "And while I certainly see the historic nature of having Baylor's first female provost and so many women at the university's highest levels, I'm more excited knowing that we have the best people possible guiding this institution." The six women listed above come from a variety of backgrounds and bring very different experiences to their roles, providing a wide range of approaches for Starr to draw upon in leading the university. 

Baylor's chief academic officer

One of five Baylor graduates on the Executive Council, Davis spent seven years in the business world before earning her doctorate at Duke. But she says she always planned on coming back to Baylor, eventually returning as a professor in 1992 and moving into the provost's office in 2004. "When I was working at Arthur Andersen, I saw new hires coming in straight from college, and I can remember saying, 'Didn't anyone explain this to you?'" she says. "I felt like my preparation at Baylor was outstanding, but the mentoring I received at Baylor far surpassed anything that it would appear my colleagues got from other institutions. It was those connections that made me want to be a part of what Baylor's been about forever."

To put her role in business terms, Davis as provost is really Baylor's chief academic officer, responsible for the oversight of all of Baylor's academic enterprises, including 11 schools and colleges and more than two dozen research centers and institutes.

"As the university has gotten more and more complex and academics have broadened in terms of the things we do -- teaching undergraduates, teaching graduate students, professional students, the research we engage in, the funding necessary to support our programs -- it requires somebody who's willing to think about how all of this works together," says Davis. "And not just with academics, but also with enrollment management, with finance and administration. And I really enjoy doing that kind of thing. It allows me to help establish a vision and then work with others to implement that vision."

Like many of the other women on the Executive Council, Davis says she has never seen her gender as a hindrance or obstacle. "There are things in my life that I've done just because of the circumstances I was in, and it never dawned on me that they were perhaps more male-dominated fields. For instance, I went to a public all-girls high school outside of New Orleans, where if you were going to have a band, girls were going to play. I played the trombone, which would normally be an instrument a male would play. When I got to Baylor and played intramurals, somebody had to be the quarterback, so I was the quarterback. It just didn't ever strike me that I was a female in a man's world.

"I think in academics, you find a lot of instances where women haven't risen through the ranks because there aren't many women who are willing to push through, to work hard and get tenure while also raising children and having a more traditional family life. Baylor has been extremely supportive. As a young professor, our department chair worked it out such that my husband [Dr. Charles Davis] and I could teach on opposite days, so that one of us was always available to take care of any need that arose with a child."

Today, one of Davis' top priorities is overseeing the university's strategic planning process as Baylor looks to envision where it will go over the next decade.

"The strategic planning process is not an exercise where we are rethinking who we are. We know very clearly who we are. This is more about knowing what we are called to do and establishing priorities, given that we could do a lot of things," she explains. "Recognizing that our primary source of funding comes from undergraduate tuition dollars, we've got to be sure that we are prioritizing university actions that honor our students, honor our donors, and honor the good thinking that we have among our faculty and staff and other constituents that really care about Baylor."

The President's Point Guard

When the president has set a course and plans are established, it often falls on Chief of Staff Dr. Karla Leeper to see that the president's directives are carried out.

"I'm like the point guard," she explains. "I'm not Brittney Griner, blocking shots in the middle. I'm not the power forward, scoring all the points. I have to understand what the president's priorities are, and I have to help communicate and implement those, making sure the right information is going to the right people. Then if I see gaps, issues or problems that don't belong to any one person, then I take those on."

Having served as chief of staff for three Baylor presidents (Starr, David Garland and John Lilley), Leeper has found her niche after teaching in Baylor's communication studies department for 15 years, where she headed Baylor's renowned debate program.

"I've always been interested in policy questions," she says, "and I've always viewed administration as a way to build something. If you don't view administration as building or improving your institution, then you're doing administration for the wrong reason."

In addition to her day-to-day work, Leeper -- a true administrator at heart -- has also taken on two special projects.

"One is a policy on policies, which sounds ridiculous. But it's a policy that will establish how the university will go forward in organizing its policies. Being a former department chair and having had to surf all over the website looking for the right policy, I know how important it is to make that easier.

"The other issue, which is more fun, is taking on the question of what we can do on the campus to promote a climate that's welcoming of diversity. And so I've been engaged in some activities with a lot of groups to try to help further diversity on our campus." Leeper says that diversity starts at the top, with her associates in administration.

"The group that I've worked with on the Executive Council cares about Baylor," she continues.

"We all have our own journey, we came up in different backgrounds, and so you have a broader diversity of leadership styles which can enrich the conversation at the table, because we've come from such different places in our careers. It's an exciting opportunity to hear people with different voices and different experiences.

"We're not afraid to argue with each other, or to have good disagreements. And I don't think anybody gives a second thought to the fact that I'm a woman, or [director of internal audit] Juan Alejandro is Hispanic, or that Reagan [Ramsower, vice president for finance and administration] is from West Texas, or that our provost is a woman. We're too focused on the task at hand. Baylor understands that we need the best people to lead the university, and I think we have a Board and an administration who are very open to finding the right people for that right places."

VP, Dean -- and Mom

Among the women on the Executive Council, Pattie Orr is the newest to Baylor. She was hired four years ago as vice president for information technology and dean of libraries after spending the previous 15 years at Wellesley College outside Boston.

When Orr came to Baylor, she and Leeper were the only two women on the Executive Council.

"The staff and faculty that I met expressed a lot of pleasure at seeing another woman vice president," she says. "I think it is important to have women as role models and in positions up and down the organization.

"But also, when you cast a wider net, you're going to have more ways to look at things. When you bring an issue to the table, you can turn it over in a lot of different ways and have the best thinking come forward."

As vice president for information technologies, Orr oversees everything at Baylor related to technology -- "anything that whirrs and clicks," she says. As dean of libraries, she heads the libraries in the center of campus, Moody and Jones, as well as special collections such as the Armstrong Browning Library, the Texas Collection and the Poage Legislative Library. But it wasn't her role as an academician that first connected her to Baylor; it was her role as a mom.

"I saw something describing Baylor 2012, and I read that and thought, 'What a wonderful vision, to really combine the excellence of faith, excellence of learning and excellence of research, all in a Christian community, and to be the most excellent example of that.' My son-in-law was on the job market, and I suggested he look at Baylor. He interviewed many places, but ultimately decided he wanted to come to Baylor. So he and my daughter were here a few years before I came, and I had a positive impression of Baylor through their eyes.

"When I was first contacted about this job, my first thought was, 'That can't possibly be the same Baylor,' because my daughter and son-in-law were here and my family lives in Dallas. But one thing led to another, and it was a great conversation when I called my daughter and said, 'How would you feel if your mom came to work with you?'"

Orr's daughter, Dr. Ivy Hamerly, is a lecturer in political science at Baylor, while Orr's son-in-law, Dr. Greg Hamerly, is an associate professor in computer science.

"I always said after I first came that I could have a focus group every Sunday at lunch, because I had my daughter and son-in-law who were professors, myself as an administrator, and my niece who was a student," laughs Orr. "That was a very special first year."

From the White House to Waco

Kathy Wills Wright, BSED '85, MSED '88, is actually even newer to Baylor's administration than Orr, having been appointed senior vice president for strategic initiatives and partnerships and interim vice president for development in July. But her connection to Baylor goes back to her time as a student at Baylor in the 1980s.

"Having so many women on the Executive Council sends a strong message that women's leadership is highly valued at Baylor University," she explains. "It's a reflection of who Baylor is. We are an extension of those who we are privileged to serve."

"My commitment to the field of education began right here on this campus, where I learned education is the general welfare of the nation from a professor while working on my master's degree," she recalls. "Although I didn't go into the classroom as a teacher or professor, this knowledge has permeated my career in public policy."

After graduating from Baylor with her bachelor's in education in 1985 and her master's in education three years later, Wright spent the next 25 years working in communications, marketing, fundraising and government relations. Most recently, she held several appointments in the George W. Bush Administration, including serving as special assistant to the President and deputy director of the USA Freedom Corps at the White House and special assistant to the President for legislation and policy in the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

Wright describes her current role as "leveraging every alliance, relationship and partner to help Baylor be better and go further faster." And while her time in Washington, D.C., allowed her to fill more than one Rolodex with contacts and associates in high places, she says her ability to make those connections began -- where else? -- at Baylor.

"My main responsibility is to build strategic alliances, and there is no better place to learn how to build relationships than right here at Baylor. Baylor gave me an excellent education, a great work ethic and a spiritual foundation that has served me well," she explains. "There are enormous opportunities for Baylor's impact to be felt way beyond Waco, Texas. We have to look beyond the immediate and understand the responsibility entrusted to Baylor. We are a part of the Great Commission."

To achieve that, she says, Baylor needs to have every constituent represented in its leadership.

"Having so many women on the Executive Council sends a strong message that women's leadership is highly valued at Baylor University," she explains. "It's a reflection of who Baylor is. We are an extension of those who we are privileged to serve."

A Lifetime at Baylor

Tommye Lou Davis, BA '66, MS '68, has been serving the Baylor family in a variety of roles for nearly half a century now. After coming to Baylor sight unseen as a freshman from Little Rock, Ark., in 1962, Davis began teaching at Baylor the fall after she graduated.

"When I started out, and for many, many years, I was the only woman in the classics department," she recalls. "I never felt like less of a student or professor because it was an all-male administration, but Baylor is healthier now for having the diversity.

"When you've got diversity, it brings you a greater level of wisdom and a balance of approach," she continues. "We all know that God made men and women different in the way we think, in the way we react, and to have that balance is extremely important. It brings a richer, deeper, more thorough conversation, and ultimately wisdom."

Davis' knowledge and experiences have benefitted Baylor in a wide range of positions. The faculty advisor for Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority, she has taught in the classics department for most of the last four decades and was named a Master Teacher in 1993; she has also been a department chair and chief of staff to the president and chancellor. Davis headed Baylor's push to land the Bush Presidential Library and has served on the Faculty Senate, the Baylor Alumni Association Board of Directors and the Faculty Athletics Council.

"I think I have seven different business cards from Baylor," she laughs. "I've enjoyed everything I've done at Baylor. I look back and think how fortunate I am to have experienced so many different opportunities in the university." As vice president for constituent engagement, Davis says her job is "to bring people together and to provide opportunities for Baylor people to be engaged and to serve Baylor."

"We all owe Baylor for the impact it has had on our lives. Anybody who's graduated from Baylor, to some extent, Baylor made them the person that they are," she says. "Ultimately it's all about the students. We had a wonderful experience, and we need to provide opportunities for prospective, current and former students and for friends to serve the university, and by doing so to serve the students, and to be engaged with Baylor at all different levels." 

Helping the church be the church

Dr. Diana Garland's engagement with Baylor actually came to pass in part because of her views on women in leadership. Flash back to 1993, when Garland was named dean of the Carver School of Church Social Work at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Just a short time later, the seminary hired a new president whose views on the issue essentially forced Garland to leave her position.

"I am a midwife, a people helper, a social worker. I never thought of myself as a leader," she says. "Thankfully, there have been some leaders at Baylor who have been very intentional about recognizing that women sometimes bring a different dimension to leadership."

Shortly thereafter, Garland -- and her husband, Dr. David Garland, former interim university president and dean of George W. Truett Theological Seminary -- were hired by Baylor. Diana Garland was tasked with helping develop the graduate social work program. Three years later, the School of Social Work was created at Baylor, and in 2005, it became a freestanding school within the university, with Diana Garland as its inaugural dean. "Social work grew out of the church," she says. "Our profession began with volunteer church women going into the slums during the turn of the 20th century. From that it became a profession -- one that has some amnesia about its beginnings. There's been almost no research and scholarship around the church as a context for professional social work practice, so that's really been my area of writing.

"The joy I have of speaking in congregations is in making the connection between who the church is and its mission. My calling, as I've found it, is to help the church be the church, through my discipline of social work."

As a dean, teacher and researcher, Garland has her hands full. But at its core, she says her responsibilities boil down to one thing.

"I see my job, if it's done well, to be one of investing in my colleagues," says Garland. "As important as my research and writing is to me, it has to be secondary to my finding the resources -- whether that's time, great students, grants or gifts -- to support the work that the faculty and staff in the School of Social Work are doing, and investing in their lives, because they're going to be here long after I'm gone.

"When I first became a faculty member [at another university], there was no women's restroom in the faculty wing of the building," she continues. "At the time, we didn't think much about that; as I look back, I think, 'My word.' There was no maternity policy.

"I can remember early in my career being in a faculty meeting, and it would get to be about 5:00 or 5:15, and I was thinking about my children who would be sitting on the curb at the daycare center if I didn't get out of there. Yet, I didn't want to get up and walk out for fear of not being seen as 'professional.' "Then I think of the changes I've seen. I think we're building long-term joy in work when we help young and not-so-young women and men have family lives. As a consequence, I'm fiercely protective of my faculty's flexibility. That I can do that is a change. Not just at Baylor, but across the country."