Dr. Tuajuanda Jordan of St Mary’s College of Maryland: “You need to get it right”

What I lean on here is the curriculum we’re creating for our students and prospective students, which builds on ideas of access and exposure. If we want to help younger BIPOC succeed, just like low-income people, women or anyone from marginalized communities, we need to create opportunities for them to see professionals in different disciplines […]

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What I lean on here is the curriculum we’re creating for our students and prospective students, which builds on ideas of access and exposure. If we want to help younger BIPOC succeed, just like low-income people, women or anyone from marginalized communities, we need to create opportunities for them to see professionals in different disciplines working together to solve problems. We need to offer exposure to professionals at all levels.

Diverse leadership is an imperative substantively, because of the perspectives it adds to an organization. And it’s an imperative culturally because it signals that there is a path. It’s a beacon.

I had the distinct pleasure of interviewingDr. 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 set out to become a biochemist, 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.

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 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 your career?

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.

Can you share three reasons with our readers about why it’s really important for a business to have a diverse executive team?

First, you need to get it right. To be an organization or business that values diversity, you can’t make assumptions on behalf of people. You need diverse representation on those teams. Oftentimes there are even subtle differences in how ideas, policies and vision are perceived. Without diverse representation, organizations get it wrong.

Second, people all have their own perspectives and experiences and tend to transfer those things to others. Without diversity there is little innovation, no challenge to what we know or different modes of thinking at the table. These lenses help push the limits of what we understand and get us to a better place.

Third, I’m in higher education. If all students see is the old guard, an institution no longer has credibility. Not everyone has evolved and not everyone is willing or wants to, but authentically diverse organizations that look like the communities they serve are where the world is headed. That has to be embraced now at all levels.

More broadly can you describe how this can have an effect on our culture?

What I lean on here is the curriculum we’re creating for our students and prospective students, which builds on ideas of access and exposure. If we want to help younger BIPOC succeed, just like low-income people, women or anyone from marginalized communities, we need to create opportunities for them to see professionals in different disciplines working together to solve problems. We need to offer exposure to professionals at all levels.

Diverse leadership is an imperative substantively, because of the perspectives it adds to an organization. And it’s an imperative culturally because it signals that there is a path. It’s a beacon.

Can you recommend three things the community/society/the industry can do help address the root of the diversity issues in executive leadership?

I’m part of an interesting support network, which is a group of Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) women who are presidents of primarily white institutions. We talk regularly and share stress and anxiety that only we can understand, and trade ideas and suggestions for how to help each other through difficult situations and collectively improve our institutions.

With that conversation fresh, I’d offer three suggestions to address the root of diversity issues in the sector:

First, the role of boards in institutions is critical. This applies to corporations, higher education institutions and nonprofit organizations. The Board brings in these people who are highly motivated and talented leaders. All of them will tell you that “the board is 100% behind me” and everyone wants it to work. But the challenge is that board members don’t always take the time to understand the culture of the place, or realize how hard it is to make change in an institution. And then things fall apart.

So, having a board with patience, with an understanding of your institutional culture and a real commitment to seeing things through is critical or emerging diverse leadership will fail.

Second, I can’t say enough about the importance of building and supporting professional networks. The group I mentioned, we’re becoming larger, leaning more on each other and building strength within that network.

Third, and I may get in trouble for this, we have to change the tenure system. You have young professionals come to our institutions, approach tenure and embody all that we aspire to. They’re diverse, they’re creative, inspiring in the classroom, inventive as scholars and creators. But then something happens because the culture and the climate aren’t ready and the younger professionals get smothered. The system as it remains today has a way of smothering creativity and innovation in the climate of an institution. You can’t change the old guard, and the younger people leave. Somehow this has to change if we’re really going to address the root of diversity issues in higher education. I imagine there are significant parallels in other sectors as well.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is having the ability to inspire others to believe that that which may be currently invisible is attainable and you motivate them, by example, to put their heads down, roll up their sleeves and figure out a way to get it done.

I also think leadership is about empowerment. I’ve talked some about helping others to find their voice and giving opportunities and access. This is where a conversation about diversity and empowerment from the top really matters. Leaders who build diverse teams go out of their way to trust people with real responsibility, empower them to own their work and get out of the way.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why.

These are the five 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.

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?

I eluded to this earlier: Roll up your sleeves, put your head down and get the job done.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially 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.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I’m on Twitter and Linkedin, but the best window into St. Mary’s College is Instagram — https://www.instagram.com/stmarysmd/.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

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