This is a second installment of the story I began yesterday, and intend to continue as long as doing so feels right. With heartfelt thanks to those who have already signaled to me their interest in my carrying on. Installment 1 ended with this exchange with a helicopter mother (a term I don’t recall having back then):
“I’ll do my best,” I smile, shooting the wincing twins what I hope will be read as a glance of sympathy. “I’m new, too, as you know,” speaking to the twins, “and I’m wondering, as I’ll bet you are, whether this place will have expectations of us that we won’t meet. But we will fulfill the promise Wellesley saw in us, you and I, because the community will rally to see to it that we do.” …
Already I have an inchoate sense of the wisdom in those words, a sense rooted in what became an extended “chat” — a prolonged mutual probe — with the committee conducting the presidential search. Yogi Berra famously said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” I came upon one and, to my surprise, took it on the last day of March, 1993, when I returned a telephone call from my office in the department I chaired at the Harvard School of Public Health. My assistant had gone to lunch and left me a note saying that David Stone, of Wellesley College and North American Management, had called at 12:25. I’d scheduled a meeting down the hall with my research team at 1:00, so I gathered the pile of papers I’d been preparing and placed the call. A woman answered the phone and put me through to Mr. Stone.
The name was vaguely familiar. The speaker identified himself as the vice chair of the Wellesley College board of trustees and a member of the presidential search committee. “You’ve heard that Wellesley is looking for a new president?” The question, uttered in the sonorous tones of a Boston Brahmin, left no doubt that of course I would have.
I was standing beside my desk, gazing through my wall of windows at the empty plaza four floors below. It opened, from a short staircase, to the white marble quadrangle that was the monumental heart of the Harvard Medical School, a constant reminder of the subsidiary role public health plays to medicine. I was aware of the search, but hadn’t been paying it much heed. I didn’t tell my caller how long ago and far away Wellesley College seemed to me from where I was standing, a mere ten miles to the east, but lifetimes earlier. He said that my name had been coming up, and wondered if I would “be so good as to come by for a chat.”
My first impulse, Yogi Berra notwithstanding, was to ignore the fork in the road. I’d been deflecting occasional comments over the past few months from friends and acquaintances saying they had nominated me for the position, or thought I’d be “perfect” for it.
“I don’t think this is me,” I replied to David Stone, as honored as I told him I was to be receiving his call. As a scholar and a teacher, chairing a small department, I lacked the administrative experience I imagined Wellesley would want … and need. Plus the timing was wrong. This was only my third year leading the department of health and social behavior and we were just building a head of steam.
The redoubtable Mr. Stone wasn’t taking no for an answer. He assured me that the college “was in wonderful shape, with a strong senior staff, and a faculty that is jumping.” This image made me smile. He said the outgoing president, Nannerl Keohane, had been a professor at Stanford and chair of the faculty, but never a dean or a provost. “And she was one of Wellesley’s great presidents. The committee thinks your profile looks something like Nan’s and we want to talk to you,” he asserted with the ease of a person accustomed to having his way.
“We can agree that this may be a reach — for you and for us.” This said amiably. “But Nan was a reach too.” Then the coup de grace: “Anyway, don’t you feel you owe your alma mater at least the benefit of your advice?”
I recognized the advice ploy. I’d watched it propel my husband, Chris, into progressively larger jobs. He’d been head of the chemistry department at MIT for five years when the dean of the Harvard Medical School had started taking him out to breakfast meetings at The Country Club in Brookline, ostensibly to seek his advice about how to rejuvenate Harvard’s pharmacology department in light of the modern biological revolution. One breakfast led to another, their mutual vision broadened, and in time they had dreamed a solution so bold that Chris found himself agreeing, in 1987, to leave MIT after fifteen years on the faculty that had nurtured his scientific career from his days as a beginning assistant professor.
He would chair an expansive modern department of biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology, one of the five basic science departments at the Harvard Medical School. On the day the moving vans arrived at MIT’s chemistry building to pack up the abundant laboratory space being vacated by “the Walsh group,” graduate students from other groups had decorated the walls with signs that read, “better dead than med.”
Only a few years later, I watched Chris respond to more calls for “advice,” this time from the search committee for a new president of MIT, followed by a Harvard presidential search committee. I’d seen him come home from these conversations radiating the possibilities they had stimulated him to imagine, and ever more uncertain that what he was currently doing was challenge enough. Apparently it wasn’t, because in 1992 he became president and chief executive officer of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, a Harvard-affiliated hospital and research center, while continuing as chair of biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology at the medical school. As I listened to the persuasive David Stone’s smooth pitch, the cautious voice in my head was whispering, Oh be careful, Diana, this is a slippery slope.
“Why don’t you sleep on it overnight,” David suggested and gave me the confidential number of his assistant, Eileen, who could always find him if I had questions. The committee would need names of three-to-five people who could comment on my work, together with a current curriculum vitae, he added, as if the outcome of my overnight reflection was in no doubt. He gave me the name and address of the chair of the presidential search committee, Mrs. Gail Klapper. I wrote this down and rushed off to my meeting, banishing Wellesley from my mind until I could take time to reflect.
I told Chris about the call the minute he walked in the kitchen door of our house in West Newton that evening after work. His smile and raised eyebrows were saying, Now this is interesting. Always game to learn something new, always up for a new challenge, Chris invariably found it easier than I did to imagine pulling up stakes and moving on.
“But I’m so lucky to be where I am,” I said, as much to myself as to him. “In a dream job I never thought I’d have. This search committee isn’t going to pick me. I know that. But if I start down this path … I know myself. We do! My competitive juices will start flowing. And I really don’t want to be questioning whether I’m happy where I am. What’s the point of that … especially now? And why should I lead the committee on if I’m really not interested?” The hesitation I didn’t voice, even fully to myself, was the deeper worry that I might let my ego get hooked — and then bruised when the committee chose someone else. Why risk that?
“They might pick you, actually,” Chris was saying in his pensive way. His greater confidence in me than I could ever muster for myself was a constant in our twenty-seven years of marriage. “Why wouldn’t you talk to them? You might learn something, and it doesn’t mean you have to take the job, even if they do make the offer.” He gave me a hug and assured me that I had his support whatever I decided.
After supper I called my long-time mentor and former Ph.D. advisor, Sol Levine, to seek his advice. I also wanted to ask him if I could submit his name to the search committee as a confidential reference, should I decide to go forward. Sol was one of the leading medical sociologists of his generation, with a prestigious university-wide appointment as a University Professor at Boston University. He was also a mensch of the first order. Everyone who knew Sol sought his counsel on important life choices. Not only had he spent his career studying social stress, interpersonal relations, the sources of satisfaction and the quality of life but he exuded a joie de vivre we all wanted to emulate.
I had recruited Sol as a part-time faculty member in the department I was chairing, so we were in daily contact and we’d worked closely together over a decade and more, I as his student initially, then as his colleague, then as his replacement when he left Boston for a professional stint in California, and, now, amusingly, as his boss. Sol chuckled as I told him about the Wellesley call.
“Knowing the kind of person you are,” he said in his deep voice, “you’ll have to step up to the plate. All the momentum in your personality will propel you forward. The biggest question I would encourage you to consider is the impact on your family, on Chris and Allison.” Then, in keeping with the kind of mentor he had always been, he predicted that if I went to the interview, I would become the Wellesley president. “And you won’t want to be successful at it, you’ll want to be great. So you should consider carefully whether to start down this path.”
My dearest friend, Elaine Ullian, an accomplished leader, and, at the time, president of the Faulkner Hospital, declared this new twist “delicious” when I reached her next. She and I had grown up together professionally, supporting each other every step of the way, beginning in 1974 when I was thirty and she was twenty-six, both working for the state commissioner of public health. She, ever the no-nonsense pragmatist, was running a statewide regulatory program back then that I, the scholarly ruminator, was writing about.
As women coming of age in the second wave of the feminist revolution in the late sixties and early seventies, we were writing our own emerging life scripts with few satisfactory role models on which to draw. Over time, we evolved an intimacy that encompassed all aspects of our two lives — our husbands, our children, our families and friends, our work, our priorities and values, our ambitions and insecurities, and the hopes and worries we carried for ourselves, our country, the world.
Through it all, we had developed a friendship for the ages, one so capacious and unconditional that it became for me the touchstone of all the security and all the stability truly reciprocal friendship can supply. When I voiced my hesitation to Elaine about venturing out onto this new slope, she spoke with the easy decisiveness I always treasured in her, and invoked her standard litmus test for questions about career.
“Don’t be silly, Diana,” she said, “of course you’ll go to the interview. A man would never decline an invitation like this, a chance to see and be seen in a larger role.” How true, I thought, as I wrestled with my resistance to the idea of putting myself in harm’s way when I didn’t have to. Trust Elaine to invoke the obligation we both felt, as feminists, to take up every challenge that came our way. She, too, agreed to be one of the five references David Stone had asked me to name.
The third was a surgeon and the academic vice president for health affairs at Boston University, with responsibility for all five of the university’s health schools (medicine, nursing, public health, social work and allied health), as well as for University Hospital, and for a health policy institute, which I had co-directed with him. Dick Egdahl was his name. He was another unalloyed supporter of mine, a mentor who had made all the difference. We’d led conferences and published papers together, co-edited a series of nine books, and developed a fellowship program for health policy scholars. Dick loved to coach promising young people about their career choices and was much sought after as a canny strategist. He had played one of the most decisive roles in my career in the ten years I had worked with him and, among many other acts of generosity, had made it possible for me to complete my Ph.D. while working full-time at BU.
After a formative decade at BU, I had left, reluctantly, three years earlier, when the dean of the Harvard School of Public Health had offered me a package that Dick had agreed was irresistible: the chairmanship of the department of health and social behavior and a tenured full professorship — a position for life — with the added prestige of a named professorial chair. It was when I called Dick with the news of the overture from Wellesley that he invoked the bully pulpit.
I still needed two more people who could comment on my work and decided to ask Margaret Mahoney, the influential president of the Commonwealth Fund in New York. Maggie had been an early booster of my work, awarding me my first major research grant, a million dollars and a lot of technical support for a study of alternative alcoholism treatments that had broken new ground. Also I lined up Joseph Newhouse, a distinguished professor of economics and public policy at Harvard, a renowned health policy scholar I knew less well, but admired. Only later did I learn that his wife was an alumna of Wellesley. I sent the five names and addresses, together with my vita and a short bio-sketch, to David Stone, care of the presidential search committee, with a four-sentence cover note.
I’d tossed my hat into the ring.
Originally published at medium.com