Scientist, Educator & Speaker
This is the fourth in a series of interviews with women leaders that aim to inspire, motivate, and provide useful tips for advancing your career towards becoming a leader in your field.
NW: What experiences during your academic career led you to take on leadership positions, rather than hunkering down and staying on a professorial track?
DL: Prior to becoming a professor, my doctorate was in intercultural communication. I had a scholarly and a personal ambition to contribute to cultures coming together, communicating effectively as global citizens. Through my early administrative positions, I soon understood that I had an opportunity to influence policy and institutional vision that would in turn help educate, graduate, and empower people with skills to become global citizens.
NW: Your predecessor at University of La Verne, Stephen Morgan, was president for 26 years. Transitions between the old guard and the new one can be very challenging, especially when the old guard was in the position for so long. What strategies did you use to make that a smooth transition for university leadership, faculty, staff, and students?
DL: A smooth transition starts with listening. I was fortunate to have seven months between the announcement of my appointment and the moment I assumed the post full time at the University of La Verne. During those seven months, I launched a listening tour. I was still living in New York City and I was the vice president at another university, but every three weeks for seven months I traveled across the country to meet with faculty, students, and staff at our central La Verne campus as well as every one of our nine regional campuses. I didn’t want to talk with them about a vision. I wanted to listen to their views and talk about the values of this institution, what made them the most proud, and why they chose to come and to stay at the University of La Verne. So, when I started on July 1, 2011, I had already met with, talked to, and listened to many faculty, staff, and students. The transition was not very hard because I had listened to the community and had communicated with them that it was the values, the mission, and the student demographics that attracted me to La Verne. My job was to take this wonderful foundation built by my predecessor, Dr. Steve Morgan, and so many others over the university’s 125-year history, and help lead us to the next level without losing any of the soul that is the essence of the University of La Verne.
NW: You haven’t been in the position that long, it’s only been six years. I assume you are keeping track of metrics on retention and success. Are you seeing anything move in a positive direction at this point?
DL: Yes, just about everything! With metrics, the quantitative pieces tell a story, but the qualitative pieces tell a greater story. When I started in 2011, we spent a year creating a 2020 Strategic Vision. The purpose was to set a roadmap: In 2020, who do we want to be, who do we want to serve, what difference do we want to make? For example, under the category of Educational Excellence, we gleaned insight from research that pointed to what jobs, professions, and careers would be critical for the region in 2020. We want to fill those needs and prepare students to graduate with the skills and knowledge that will enable them to thrive while enhancing the region.
One academic area we are focusing on is health. As a result of that 2020 Vision, we are implementing a Physician Assistant program because research shows that is going to be one of the most needed professions in this region. Last year, we received 800 applications for 20 student spots for our upcoming inaugural Physician Assistant cohort. That tells you there’s a need for the students and a need in the community. We are also focused on expanding our current programs in Health Service Management, Gerontology, and Athletic Training in response to student and community needs.
Another metric that is important to the university’s mission is how well we are meeting the needs of low income, underserved students. Every year, we have been able to meet the financial needs of students who choose to come to the University of La Verne. Our students on average pay only about $6,000 out-of-pocket a year on a $40,000 “sticker price” thanks to our ability to provide scholarships. We gave $50 million in scholarships this year alone. The metric that may be the most telling is that the retention rate continues to go up for traditional undergraduate students. And, the default rate of our students is much lower than average. The average default rate on student loans across the country is 14%. For the University of La Verne, it is just over 3%. We graduate students who go out and contribute to the community and pay back their loans. University of La Verne students give back and pay back.
NW: Since arriving as President in 2011, you have launched and supported a number of new initiatives including the La Verne Experience. What is your vision for this initiative and how do you see it transforming students’ educational experience?
DL: Developmental research literature says that undergraduate students who feel that somebody cares about them – and who care about somebody else – tend to be more engaged with their education and stay in school. It’s not necessarily because of finances or ability that people might want to drop out or transfer somewhere else. It’s about feeling connected to the institution. The week before classes start, all 600 incoming first year students spend a full day in their First Year La Verne Experience (or FLEX) – doing service in the community with each other and the faculty. Day 1, they get to know somebody in their FLEX and they get to know their professor as a person. There are 33 FLEX learning communities and there are 3 courses in each FLEX – two content and one writing course. The same 18 students are in all three courses. They get to see the connection between different disciplines, they do service in the community, and then the writing course is a reflection on the connection between the courses and the work they’re doing in the community.
When they are sophomores, keeping that connection alive, they are in learning communities named SoLVE – Sophomore La Verne Experience. Throughout the semester, there are modules in SoLVE that address topics such as diversity, understanding different religions and faiths and perspectives on the world, and career services. Every student is required to go to at least six activities on campus so they get more deeply connected with the campus, with each other, and start thinking about purpose and a career. I say to students, “I don’t want you to just pick a major. I want you to major in a mission. And then we’ll help you select the major that will help you achieve that mission.”
During their senior year, they write an autobiography called My La Verne Experience. It reflects back on the values of the institution, how their lives were transformed during their four years here, how they majored in a mission, and what that’s going to be post-graduation. That’s the La Verne Experience.
NW: How do you personally interact with students and faculty so they feel that their voices are heard and responded to?
DL: For the students, three small examples. First, I try to walk across campus many times every day because it gets me out with the students. When I have meetings with each of the vice presidents, I’ll sometimes say, “Let’s walk the track and have a track talk.” We walk the track and walk around campus, and stop and talk with students – every day. I’ll ask them: where they’re from; what’s their mission; what’s their favorite thing about the university; if they were president for one day, what would they change on this campus. Another example is, once a semester we had something called the Pajama Power Hour. All of the vice presidents, the directors – we would come in our pajamas at 10 o’clock at night, open up the auditorium, and hundreds of students would come and ask thoughtful and insightful questions. It’s their time to ask us, to push us, to make us uncomfortable – because we’re in this together. As another example, every semester I have time in the Campus Center with the president of the student body. It’s an open session for students to come and talk with us. Also, once a semester I go into each of the residence halls for Pizza with the President. I sit on the floor in the residence hall from 7 to 9 at night and talk to students about what is on their minds. That’s constant and I love it! It brings me to the main reason why I’m here on campus – for the students.
I meet with faculty regularly. Once a month in my office I meet with the Executive Cabinet of the Faculty Senate so we can have open discussion and dialogue. I go to the Faculty Senate meetings when I’m invited. And I eat lunch in the dining hall with faculty and students. It’s pretty constant – not perfect, but constant.
NW: During your upward trajectory in a very demanding career, you raised two children. How did you manage balancing work with your family life?
DL: My husband and I have two remarkable daughters whose values I’m tremendously proud of. We were very open with the values that we believe in, making contributions where we could to the causes we believed in. Our two children were very active, in lots of sports, and with lots of friends. My husband and I divvied up the duties. There were times when he had complete responsibility, and times when I had complete responsibility. When I took the job in New York, he stayed with the children for seven months so they could finish their school year. Then they moved to New York. And when he arrived he said to me, “Devorah, thank you for letting me have this time with the children. It was the best gift you could ever give me.”
There were times when my parents or my friends said, “Maybe you shouldn’t work so that you can give more time to your children. To be a stay-at-home mother.” I knew that I had to be true to myself. I knew that I would be a better mother if I felt like I was contributing to my family, and majoring in my mission, which was giving back to students and the university. My husband knew that about me – he supported me in all of that, while I supported him in his profession. I think the answer is in being a family and everyone knowing, without guilt, that this is how a family works together. Every family is different. People choose to stay home, not out of guilt, but because they feel that this is the right thing to do, and that’s wonderful. But, I couldn’t do that.
NW: How do you see the Master Plan transforming the university? And what is your role as a leader in moving the Master Plan forward?
DL: Our Master Plan was part of the 2020 Strategic Vision, which was created in 2011-2012 soon after I arrived. For this institution to meet its academic and co-curricular needs, and to create a sense of belonging, there are physical spaces that need to change on the campus. For the Master Plan, the first thing was to build another residence hall, and it’s now built. The next thing was to build a parking structure so people wouldn’t have to drive around and hunt for parking, and so residents in town weren’t angry that university faculty and staff were parking in front of their houses. We built a parking structure – which was expensive. The next part of the Master Plan is another residence hall and dining hall, which is under construction right now and will be completed in Fall 2018. All the residence halls will be clustered together, so students will connect with each other and not feel isolated on a certain part of campus.
The next building will be focused on the values of this university – it doesn’t have a name yet, but it’s about community engagement, multicultural advancement, and learning about others’ faiths. It will be a place where faculty, students, and staff can all be together. Developmentally, we know that students in this day-and-age want to learn about each other, learn about each other’s cultures and faiths, whether or not they’re international or domestic. We plan to begin construction on that building in Fall 2018.
The building following that will be a new academic building focused on health and science. Remember, one of our new initiative is health – and that building will bring together all of the health disciplines and the sciences, rather than having them in different buildings across campus. We believe that if someone is teaching health law next to somebody who is teaching gerontology, they’re going to have interactions they would not have had if they were in different locations. This will be a very mission-driven building that will lead to more interactions between faculty and students, and new scholarship is going to come out of that.
NW: All of this building and renovation is very expensive. And supporting low-income students’ ability to come to this university is also very expensive. How are you going to pay for that? There are a lot of colleges and universities in Southern California. How do you distinguish this university from all the others so you get the attention from potential donors and friends of the university?
DL: That is the $64 million question! I always say if you are distinctive and you’re relevant, you will be competitive. What makes us distinctive are the programs I’m talking about right now: the La Verne Experience; the health programs; education. In doing our analysis of other campuses – the CSUs, the UCs, the private not-for-profits, and the private for-profits – the majors and programs that we’re offering are distinctive. Thirty percent of the school superintendents in the State of California who have a doctorate received their doctorate from the University of La Verne. Why is that? Because the doctoral program at the University of La Verne is distinctive. The more you can offer degrees that truly speak to students who want to come to schools like La Verne and meet the needs of the community, the more distinctive you are. Our affordability, small class sizes, and an intimate educational environment also make us distinctive.
The pipelines we have created from high schools into the University of La Verne, and from undergraduate programs into graduate programs, are helping to attract more students to the University of La Verne.
The money we are using to build these buildings is not coming from tuition. It’s not on the students’ backs. We’re raising the money. We’re in a $125 million capital campaign – part of that 2020 Strategic Vision. I’m proud to say that it was announced today that we are over the halfway mark to that $125 million goal. People are donating because they are saying, “I want to give to an institution where I can have an impact on students who are going to have an impact on the lives of their families and on their communities.” And it’s a formula that’s going to change this region, this country, and the world. This student body looks like the region we live in. This student body looks like what the United States is going to look like in 20-30 years. People want to support students who are going to be successful and who reflect what we’re going to look like in the future.
NW: Do you have any additional advice for women who are considering leadership positions in their fields?
DL: No matter what rung of the ladder you’re on, you are going into your field because you have the experience and you have the qualities to be successful in whatever track you are in.
In 2017, gender bias is still real. When I took this position at University of La Verne, I was the first female president in 119 years. And I was the first president who wasn’t from the Church of the Brethren. I say, very facetiously, that we went from Brethren to Lieberman – which was a big leap. I bring that up because I was truly breaking a glass ceiling around faith and around gender.
I think some people listen differently to women, they challenge women differently, and they judge women differently. This isn’t something that I resent or that makes me angry. But, I am aware of it. I will consciously say to myself, “If I were a man, they may not have asked that question, may not have challenged me that way, may not have judged me that way.” Just being aware of it helps me to be the leader that I want to be for this institution. It’s the same thing with difference in faith. At the beginning, people would say to me, “Why would you want to come here? You’re not a man and you’re not Brethren.” I was asked that many times. My answer has always been, “Because I believe in the mission of this institution, and I was hired to maintain the values and move this mission forward.”
Any woman who is considering a track should say to herself, “As a woman, I bring diversity to a particular track, or I bring something that others may not have. This is the track that I can help move forward – the discipline, the profession, the institution.” I believe, as a woman, I bring something that is really needed at this university.
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