"University Presidents Speak" about their career paths and challenges they've faced

Members of the "University Presidents Speak" panel shared their experiences to a crowded ballroom at The Hotel at Auburn University and Dixon Conference Center Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 16. Four panelists lined the stage, each sharing anecdotes from their careers and challenges they've faced as leaders.

The panel, sponsored by the Auburn University Outreach/ Tuskegee Auburn Women's Leadership Alliance Symposium, Women’s Initiatives, Women’s Leadership Institute, Women’s Studies and the department of English, invited four female university presidents to share their experiences in their careers and personal lives to inspire others.

Gwendolyn E. Boyd, president of Alabama State University, said she is familiar with being first. As the first African-American female to receive an engineering degree from Yale University, she is also the first female president of Alabama State University.

"It means that you have to stand on your own authority and know that wherever you are, that’s where you’re supposed to be," Boyd said. "Exercise that right, and don’t let anybody push you off."

Sharon Gaber, president of University of Toledo, said she has spent seven months on the job and is still loving it.

"There are politics, there are difficulties and there are budget struggles," Gaber said. "[But] I don't feel like I'm constrained in not being able to do something."

Gaber said "probably the worst part" is when she goes to the Walmart near her house in jeans or in sweats and runs into people.

"There are struggles all the time, but there are not things that I'm not able to do really in the position," Gaber said.

Mary Ellen Mazey, president of Bowling Green State University, said she believes higher education is the key to living the American dream.

"I'm probably the only person in this room that attended a four-room schoolhouse and grew up in a house without any indoor plumbing," Mazey said. "But you never, never know where you can end, because higher education is the key to success."

Molly Easo Smith, provost of Saint Martin’s University, said the most important thing to her was to have people sponsor others.

"[Have people that] have faith in you, make you take a leap that you never considered and never thought you could make," Smith said. "I think that makes all the difference to careers."

Gaber said she thought today's panel was about women's leadership and "the opportunity to really find you way" and not let anything stop you.

"I’d say to every young person, challenge yourself and figure out where you want to go," Gaber said. "[Find out] what opportunities exist, and don’t be hesitant to take them."

Boyd said she hoped the audience left encouraged after hearing the panelists speak.

"Women can be college presidents," Boyd said. "It’s not an unusual thing to think about anymore. I hope everybody leaves excited, empowered to know that even if you have to be the first in whatever it is that you’re doing, that it’s okay to be the first. But don’t remain the first [or] the only."

Boyd said it's important to "reach back" and mentor others so that "you're not the first and the only" person in a position.

"We're still breaking down barriers as women, and we understand that," Boyd said. "But as we break them down, it's important...you're bringing somebody who's going to be the second, and then they're going to bring somebody who will be the third."

Jaylin Goodwin, junior in marketing, said she thought the panelists were inspiring. Goodwin said she thought it was interesting that none of the panelists started out their careers wanting to be president of a university.

"All their careers took them there, and they trusted in that," Goodwin said. "They never just tried to start off being this [way] to get to the top. They just rode along the way and trusted in the process."

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