Women in Leadership: Push Forward, Find Allies, and Do Your Best Work

Two women talking over a strategy

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Women’s History Month highlights and celebrates the contributions women bring to higher education throughout history and in contemporary society. Dr. Christine Himes, dean of the Lewis College of Science and Letters at Illinois Tech, shares her expertise, lessons learned, and hopes for future women leaders in higher education.

Kelly Cherwin, HigherEdJobs: After soon to be eight years as the dean (of currently the Lewis College of Science and Letters and formerly College of Human Sciences) you will be stepping down. What are a few of your proudest accomplishments as dean over the years Illinois Tech?

Dr. Christine Himes, Illinois Tech: There are a few things I tried hard to do. One was to establish a culture of openness and trust in the college. I think I’ve accomplished that to a great degree. I think faculty, staff, and students find me approachable, willing to listen, and open about college matters. Another priority was to help the departments in my college, particularly humanities and social sciences, feel like they offered more than “service” courses, that they were strong disciplines in their own right. That has maybe been less successful, but I think we’ve made strides. Looking upwards from my position, I’ve also wanted to be sure that our departments and areas of study were not forgotten about in discussions at the university level. I think I’ve been a strong advocate for my departments.

You don’t ask what I DIDN’T accomplish, but I’d say I had hoped to increase our undergraduate enrollment more than we did. We have pretty much remained static. That is disappointing. I also started with a strong desire to build truly interdisciplinary degrees. I knew it would be challenging, but it has proven more difficult than I expected. We are still not there as a university. For all the talk about the need to break down silos, those silos are pretty sturdy.

Cherwin: Looking back over your tenure as dean and now knowing what you know, what is some advice you would give your 2014 pre-dean self?

Himes: One of my biggest regrets was taking too much time to think strategically at the beginning of my term. There were resources available then that I should have capitalized on, since they disappeared by the time I was ready to act. I should have trusted myself to make good decisions and been more willing to take risks early on. I didn’t take full advantage of the honeymoon period.

Cherwin: As a dean in the area of ​​humanities at a STEM dominated school, were there challenges (or rewards) you experienced that you didn’t expect and if so, how did you navigate these?

Himes: The invisibility of the humanities was greater than I expected. It was complicated by the creation of a new college with the ambiguous name of “human sciences.” In the first 2-3 years I often found myself correcting people when they called it the college of humanities. We walk a fine line between advocating for the needs of the humanities and social sciences in all areas of study (our “service” role) and advocating for the programs in their own right. We are dependent on our non-majors to fill our classes, so we need to be sure that continues. But, we don’t want to be seen as only offering courses that are there to fill a requirement. While I’ve spent less time with the science departments, the same is true there.

Another feature perhaps somewhat unique to Illinois Tech was the emphasis of the university on developing master’s level programs. The humanities have a very small graduate program and social sciences none. My departments didn’t fit into that bigger vision, so I often felt left out of the discussion. That thinking has shifted a bit, but it has been difficult to find a role for my departments in the strategic vision of the university.

On the admissions side, the name of our school is Illinois Tech. It is difficult to reach potential students interested in areas outside of engineering and computer science. The possibility of coming here to study communications doesn’t even occur to high school students. I didn’t realize how much of an uphill battle that would be.

There is a lot of talk, inside and outside of the university, about the value of “soft skills.” Yet, in terms of our allocation of resources, those areas are not well-supported. There is a sense that anyone can teach writing, or that since humanities and social sciences are only here to fulfill requirements, we could just hire a stable of adjuncts to teach those courses and put resources into the tech areas. I am continuously making the case that we need to invest in our humanities, social sciences, and even in the basic sciences.

Cherwin: In an interview with four female deans at different institutions, one noted “And we have the common experience of knowing that these jobs are like running a marathon. It requires so much of you intellectually. It requires a level of stamina and patience.” I’m interested in hearing your thoughts about the analogy. Did you feel this and, if so, how did you manage your marathon race and is there anything that you would suggest to future deans in terms of how to “train” for this marathon?

Himes: I never would have thought of the marathon analogy myself. It certainly does require a willingness to continuously tackle the same problems, to be patient as processes move forward slowly, and to stay focused on the big picture. For me the challenge is more emotional than intellectual, however.

I think in both the department chair and dean positions the surprising feature to many is the amount of time spent on personnel issues. The advice I give new department chairs is that they need to learn not to take things too personally. Every complaint or concern does not need to be addressed, sometimes not at all, and often not immediately. As a dean you deal with people who bring all kinds of baggage with them. Not all of their issues are related to their job, but they get played out here. Some things you can’t fix, you need to learn to recognize those.

If I could do one thing as dean it would be to strictly limit the use of email! I answer many long emails written at 2 AM with a simple, “Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me.” I do appreciate their thoughts, but I will not be drawn into a long back and forth exchange over issues. If it is important, I invite them to come and talk with me. I spend way too much time sorting out disagreements that arise because of email exchanges that were misinterpreted.

Cherwin: We’ve heard the saying, “When one door closes, another door opens.” What will your focus be switching to once you step down as dean?

Himes: I’m not quite sure of my future plans. Immediately, I plan to have a year sabbatical and then return to the faculty to teach. I’ll see how that feels. In one sense, I’ll be happy to give up the responsibilities of dean, but I know I will also feel a little bit “out of the loop” and wonder what big decisions and discussions I am missing.

Prior to the pandemic I explored some provost opportunities, but I think I’m done with academic administration now. I can see myself perhaps playing some role as a facilitator between faculty and administration. Before becoming a dean I thought hard about the difference between being an administrator versus a faculty leader. Both play important roles. I chose to go to the “dark side” as the faculty like to call it, but I hope I’ve kept at least a few toes on the faculty side. Now that I’ve been in both roles, maybe there are places I can be useful in helping the two groups communicate.

I’d like to think I could restart my research, but that may be more challenging. I do really like the student body here at Illinois Tech, so going back into the classroom will be fun…I think! I haven’t taught regularly for several years, so I will need to invest some time to get back up to speed.

I’m also looking forward to having more flexibility in my schedule and, at some point, in the not too distant future, retirement. I’d love to be able to take a vacation in October! I hope to have more time for volunteer activities, too.

Cherwin: As we know the word “transition” can mean different things to different people. Are there emotional components of this transition that you didn’t expect from closing a professional chapter and starting new beginnings? How are you embracing these?

Himes: I guess I touched on that a bit above. I know I will miss being in the inner circle, feeling like I’m involved in important decision making. I think my experience as a dean will allow me to help faculty better understand some of what comes down from the administration. On the other hand, I look forward to being able to relate to my fellow faculty members more as a peer than as their dean. I worry about my staff. I’ve developed good working relationships with them and I hope a new dean treats them well.

Cherwin: As you transition away from your deanship, what are your biggest priorities that you want to complete before you leave? Are there certain “must dos” that you would suggest others, or future deans in your position, do in terms of supporting staff, finishing up projects, etc. to set up your successor, the departments, and college for success?

Himes: For a variety of reasons when I took on this role I was given very little guidance from either my predecessor or other deans. I’d like the new dean to not be able to say that. I am trying to get things organized so that the new dean will have important records and administrative information. I’m also trying to tie up some loose ends on personnel issues and appointments. I don’t want people in vulnerable positions to be left dangling.

Cherwin: The month of March calls special attention to Women’s History Month and I’d love to close with a question regarding women in leadership. What advice do you have for women aspiring to be in a dean or leadership position?

Himes: I’m never very good at articulating the issues women face in leadership. Women vary just as much as men in their leadership styles. Some are very collaborative, others more authoritarian. I do think there continues to be a battle to be taken seriously. I am sometimes met with a condescending or dismissive tone. For me, the key is to push forward, find allies wherever you can, and do your best work.

I was surprised at how important having a female dean was to others in the university. At one point we went from having several women in leadership positions to only a few. Many women came to me to express their dismay and saw me as an important voice and ally. I had never viewed myself specifically as a “woman leader.” But, as a result of those discussions, I’ve tried to be more proactive in promoting the needs, ideas, and careers of female students, staff, and faculty.

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