Dr. Tuajuanda Jordan of St. Mary’s College of Maryland: “Part of the problem is that the biggest challenges are that the old guard is still alive and kicking”

Part of the problem is that the biggest challenges are that the old guard is still alive and kicking. There is a lot of sexism in the STEM fields and a tendency to treat women as secondary or less serious. Those are real barriers. Women are speaking up about sexism and harassment, but more needs […]

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Part of the problem is that the biggest challenges are that the old guard is still alive and kicking. There is a lot of sexism in the STEM fields and a tendency to treat women as secondary or less serious. Those are real barriers. Women are speaking up about sexism and harassment, but more needs to be done to help raise the voices of women — not just their voices speaking out about the sexism they face but, their voices as scientists. There are still significant discrepancies in who gets called to be keynote speakers at national conferences, serve as top-tier journal editors, called upon to provide expertise in the public sector, etc. The vast majority of the time, the face of science is male.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Tuajuanda Jordan, President of St. Mary’s College of Maryland. The College, as Maryland’s only public honors college and the first of its kind in the nation, has been widely recognized for its successes. It is consistently ranked among the top 100 Kiplinger’s list of best values in public colleges and among the top 10 best public liberal arts colleges in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Since joining the College, President Jordan has been widely recognized for her contributions to higher education and the larger community. Recently, she was named one of the Top 25 Women in Higher Education by the national magazine, Diverse Issues in Higher Education.

Dr. Jordan gained national prominence in the realm of science education with the creation of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science Education Alliance (SEA) program and the launch of its first initiative, the SEA Phage program, which engaged novice undergraduates in research in genomics and bioinformatics. Prior to St. Mary’s College, Dr. Jordan was a tenured faculty member and administrator at Xavier University of Louisiana and Lewis and Clark College in Oregon. Dr. Jordan holds a B.S. in chemistry from Fisk University and a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Purdue University.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I didn’t expect a career in STEM, and I certainly didn’t expect to be a college president.

When I was in elementary and middle school I hated science. My curiosity was really dampened by the way science was taught. In 11th grade, though, I had a teacher who changed everything — he was engaging, he brought the science to life and he piqued my curiosity. He taught science the right way. It didn’t hurt that he was the cutest guy in the world too! I thought he looked too good to be whatever I thought a scientist might look like. I got very excited about science.

I loved chemistry but I went into college as a biology major because I didn’t know any black people who were chemists — even George Washington Carver is described as a biologist. (He wasn’t) In terms of pursuing a PhD, that was practical — my grandmother told me I needed enough money to take care of myself, and being a scientist seemed like a good way to make a living.

As an undergraduate I thought I’d get a job in the field. I had a professor in graduate school who pushed me to teach, but he was a white professor and I didn’t know if I was being spoken down to, and if perhaps he thought I couldn’t cut it in the lab. So, part of me wanted to go into the field to prove people wrong and show that I could. My PhD advisor was very hoity-toity, though, and he thought all of us should go into the academy. Being first generation, I was skeptical of a career in academia, but I found I loved the teaching. The teacher-scholar model, which was the approach I took as a young assistant professor, was really exciting. I loved it. And there I was, in “STEM,” though we didn’t call it that at the time.

As for how I got from there to being a college president, I found being a scientist is really good training for being a college president because you have to be an effective problem solver and a good communicator. You have to convince people what’s possible. I used to be relatively quiet — I played volleyball and I had a headband when I played that said “TJ the MEEK” because I was quiet, but then I would really surprise people.

I found as I moved up through the ranks of the academy, there was always some kind of problem or challenge that needed to be addressed. That’s the “STEM” mentality and the scientist in me — the problem solver. As the Dean of the College at Lewis and Clark College I found that people were bringing the tough questions to me and not the president. I figured if I was going to be doing the work, why not do it myself, have the title and lead and inspire an institution to be better than it thought it could be.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

COVID obviously is one. When the pandemic hit, I felt like Typhoid Mary because it was the second time in my career I’d been in a position of leadership when a major disaster struck. I had started as the AVP for Academic Affairs at Xavier in 2005 and I had probably been in that position for six weeks when Katrina hit. The whole campus was dispersed all over the country. Figuring out how to reopen that school was a huge challenge.

Here at St. Mary’s College, I found myself again trying to figure out how to safely re-open an institution. There was a day last April where I was on the phone calling everyone I could looking for enough PPE for our entire community. That wasn’t really my job — finding masks and gloves. But it doesn’t matter. That’s how I work and what I believe- — even if it’s not your job, if it has to get done, you roll up your sleeves and do it.

Perhaps the most defining story for me since I began at the College has been unfolding since 2016. We had just begun construction on a new sports stadium and athletic fields. The College is located in a relatively undeveloped historical site so some digging is required before we build anywhere. It was then, doing our required digs for the stadium, that we uncovered historic artifacts — broken pottery, a clay pipe. I held my breath. As president of this College I knew there had been slavery in Southern Maryland, but somehow in my deepest heart I had hoped that we had nothing to do with slavery.

The research came back, and showed that in fact, enslaved people had lived on our grounds. The artifacts were relics of slavery, from enslaved peoples quarters. What do you do?

We immediately understood the significance, and we also understood that this needed to be a moment to do something different. It forces you to look at yourself in the context of this broader theme of history and think, what is my role in perpetuating some of these stereotypes and these negative things, and what is my role in trying to compel this country to do better?

We took it head on. I convened focus groups of students, faculty, staff and community members. And we decided not to just mark the spot historically, but to actually honor the enslaved people who lived in St. Mary’s City and all of Southern Maryland. We needed to give them a voice. So that’s what we did.

The result, over four years and hundreds of thousands of dollars later, is a commemorative that will stand in perpetuity on our campus: From Absence to Presence: The Commemorative to Enslaved Peoples of Southern Maryland. It’s an art installation that resembles slave cabin, with erasure poetry that includes the names of enslaved people as well as their “voices revealed” from actual slave documents from the region. Their words are cut into metal panels on the site where the artifacts were found. It’s lit up at night. It’s impossible to miss, and a very visible presence on campus for visitors, students and the community.

To me this wasn’t just interesting- — this was a gift that allowed us to tell history from a different perspective.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I arrived as president of the College everyone was always inviting me everywhere and asking me to speak, and it’s hard to figure out a new community. Everyone knew each other — -colleges and small towns can be very insular. I was invited to speak at a women’s leadership award dinner, and give remarks about the woman who was receiving the award.

I got up, looked at my notes, delivered my remarks and suddenly everyone started laughing. I hadn’t made a joke. It turns out at the end of my remarks I called her the wrong name. My script had a woman’s name that I called that wasn’t the recipient. I was mortified. Now, mind you, these are all white women, Southern White women, and I walked back to my table and the recipient came up to me and gave me a big hug and said “it’s okay, we all look alike,” and everyone laughed. She was very gracious.

The lesson I learned was that I know I’m a visual learner. I need a photograph or an image, and as a leader prepping for an event or fundraiser, I need a visual connection to hit my marks.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

St. Mary’s College of Maryland, The National Public Honors College, is incredibly unique- — it’s one-of-a-kind. We’re one of only two public honors colleges in the nation. Every single student has a professional or graduate level experience; every student participates in honors courses, seminars and our core curriculum. St. Mary’s College of Maryland is a public liberal arts college — that means we offer rigor and engagement, but also prioritize access and diversity. We’re a small college with one of the most beautiful campuses in America, but are also affordable. Our “college town” is a national historic park on the St. Mary’s River and the Chesapeake Bay.

I also think the ethos of our “company,” what we call the “St. Mary’s Way,” stands out. When you look at the Commemorative to Enslaved Peoples of Southern Maryland, it was borne out of a real desire by our community to give voice and create something forward looking. In the pandemic, we have had one of the lowest transmissions and infection rates of any college in the country and haven’t closed our doors once because students have held each other accountable. The Student Government Association stepped in to support students who lost work because off campus jobs dried up, and saw to it that fellow students could stay in school for the semester. There is a real spirit here that is very special.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I have been working to implement something we call LEAD — Learning Through Experiential and Applied Discovery. Think of it as an all-encompassing, integrative pathway that will prepare a student for whatever their next step is — research, professional school, or the workforce.

Through the implementation of LEAD, St. Mary’s College is redefining the whole concept of a liberal arts education. LEAD is a core curriculum that blends inquiry-based discovery and professional career development skills for every student. There are new majors, new programs and overall a big new idea — -that you can have the liberal arts and the rigor while still preparing students for what employers need and what parents/prospective students say they want.

This project leans into some of the biggest debates in higher education today. Can the liberal arts succeed, what is the role of STEM in higher education, how are colleges addressing enrollment trends, etc. It’s very exciting.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

That’s a dangerous question! What is the status quo? As someone who is no longer engaged in the practical aspects of a career in STEM, I am not sure I have the best perspective. What was the status quo may have changed. One thing that has always been the case is that men tend to lead the biggest labs, get the most funding and are seen as the big thinkers. That’s not true and the perception is changing some, but not enough. Part of what we can do in higher education is give women in STEM a bigger voice, more opportunities and acknowledge their accomplishments.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

Part of the problem is that the biggest challenges are that the old guard is still alive and kicking. There is a lot of sexism in the STEM fields and a tendency to treat women as secondary or less serious. Those are real barriers. Women are speaking up about sexism and harassment, but more needs to be done to help raise the voices of women — not just their voices speaking out about the sexism they face but, their voices as scientists. There are still significant discrepancies in who gets called to be keynote speakers at national conferences, serve as top-tier journal editors, called upon to provide expertise in the public sector, etc. The vast majority of the time, the face of science is male.

To address this at St. Mary’s College, we’re working through our new curriculum to develop the voices of women and Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) professionally, and to create the kinds of opportunities that women and BIPOC lack heading into the workforce. We aim to narrow those discrepancies. I mentioned that we’re one of only two public honors Colleges in America. That “Honors College Promise” means that all students — ALL students — have professional development and job readiness integrated into their core curriculum. And all students have a capstone pre-professional experience: an internship, a research project or an international experience.

This approach helps to break down barriers in several ways:

  • By giving women and students in STEM an opportunity to see professionals in different disciplines working together to solve problems
  • By exposing students directly to professionals in the field, and to an understanding of work-readiness in the field. I believe our STEM students will be more “work ready” than those from any elite institution because of the exposure they get
  • By getting a leg up through an honors college experience. Students graduate with a record to immediately build on

We’re one institution that’s innovating and experimenting. But I think this is a model. Academia, higher education, corporate America can all create opportunities for younger women starting in high school through college by exposing younger students to ideas and giving them opportunities to find their voice.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

We can and will do. That’s one right out of the gate. Women of all intersectionalities are as interested in STEM and tech as anyone else. We’re as talented and can be as, if not more, successful as men when provided with equitable opportunities.

I’m very inspired by the effort to vaccinate against COVID. The lead scientist on the Moderna vaccine was a woman of color — -that’s as high-profile and important a project as you can imagine, which succeeded because it was truly a multidisciplinary, barrier breaking collaboration. When I talk about working across disciplines to solve problems, it’s not an abstraction. It’s why we have a vaccine.

One other myth is the idea that if you want to be a leader in STEM, particularly in the lab and producing work in the field, you have to either delay or forego having children. It’s not easy, but it’s not true — women have choices.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why.

These aren’t just for STEM — these are leadership lessons I carry and urge for anyone in any field, especially women and BIPOC:

  • Challenge the status quo
  • Join the boys club. Find out where they hang out, go there and be a presence.
  • You don’t have to test everything ad nauseum. You can try things and be prepared to fail.
  • It is okay to be opinionated, as long as you speak with confidence and have something to back up your opinion.
  • Use your voice. I really believe that’s why we’re here.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

Put this on a post-it note and live by it:

  • Know the individuals
  • Know their strengths
  • Place them where they will be the most effective
  • Set clear expectations and objectives
  • Get out of their way
  • The product, not the path, is what’s most important

What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

The same as above. Even in a large team, you should know who people are and not be overly beholden to endless processes. The product, not the path, is what’s most important

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

When I had just started at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA), their VP for Academic Affairs at the time was a woman named Diedre Labat. She was the first woman to graduate from Newcomb College, an accomplished biologist and a remarkable higher education administrator.

On one hand XULA is unique because it is the only HBCU and Catholic higher ed institution in the nation. On the other, XULA was, at that time, a traditional HBCU in being very paternalistic. Watching Dr. Labat as a woman navigate that environment taught me so much — she was a genius. She would sit back and let the men talk and scream and bluster and just wait to speak at the end, and then give a very clear, direct opinion on how things were going to go. I recognize a lot of her in me today.

She wore the most beautifully tailored suits and I wanted to be like her someday. She was the first woman I’d met who had a husband and children and a career at that level and she was just able to get it done. One day I asked her “how do you balance everything?” She gave me a long answer, then stopped and said “you know I’m pulling your leg.”

She told me something I live by today: There’s no such thing as balance. What I’ve learned to do, which I learned from Dr. Labat, is taking care of whatever pops up at the top of the list, getting the important things done, doing as much good as you can in the time you have, and then that’s enough for the day and you shut it down.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I try to view everything with an equity lens. When I got to Howard Hughes Medical Institute, I spearheaded the development of the Science Education Alliance — a significant change in how they developed and targeted their programs. They were very focused on “the best.” Only “the best” scientists and “the best’ science educators, colleges, and universities” could participate in their programs, which meant that the same institutions were often represented over and over again.

I used my position there to challenge the notion of “best” and what that meant. There are a lot of definitions of “best” and what kinds of representation makes a strong program and quality research. I was the first Director at Howard Hughes Medical Institute to develop a major program that was perceived as being “the best,” but was also accessible and open, with participation from community colleges, HBCUs, lesser-known state schools, etc. included in with their ‘best’.

That is a different kind of “goodness,” I suppose — accessibility and access. But I’ve tried to use every position of power I’ve had to open up access. Even the concert series we have here at St. Mary’s College every summer was one I challenged in terms of the kinds of music which tended to lean toward classical and appeal to largely the same audience year after year. Would there be other ways to offer more diverse forms of music to other audiences in the community? Equity and access are very important to me.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I was recently speaking with the Lieutenant Governor of Maryland, who was touring our campus and visiting the Commemorative to Enslaved Peoples of Southern Maryland. I asked him, rhetorically I suppose and I was also asking myself: “Why is it that there is always a group that feels like they have to dominate, and have to oppress?” So maybe the movement is anti-oppression.

Also, I go back to the Commemorative and the aims of that project, which is changing history by giving voice. So much of the reaction to our history has been anger toward the oppressors, and deservedly so. But the way in which our work here at St. Mary’s College has flipped the script to give voice and dignity to enslaved people. Maybe that is a model for a movement.

Can you please give us your favorite” Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Roll up your sleeves, put your head down and get the job done.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

We’ve recently lost so many leaders I wish I’d had the chance to sit down with. John Lewis and Toni Morrison come to mind. Someone who really intrigues me, though, is Marian Robinson, Michelle Obama’s mother. I find her fascinating. The stories she must have and the life she lives and strength she brought. I think she’s a remarkable woman.

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