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Lessons From Inspirational Women In STEM: “Here Are 5 Things That Should Be Done To Improve The US Educational System”, With Adelphi University President Dr. Christine M. Riordan

An Interview With Penny Bauder


Require community service by college students. Higher education has a mandate to develop contributing, active members of society who think critically and understand their surroundings. At Adelphi, we’ve advanced this principle by forging community bonds that position our students in a variety of partner organizations. Imagine if this were a core part of a college education everywhere: Students at the University of Southern California could be helping Los Angeles kindergartners learn to read, while those at Columbia in New York could distribute blankets to the homeless.

I had the pleasure to interview Christine M. Riordan, PhD. Christine is the first woman to serve as president of Adelphi University. An internationally known expert in leadership development, career success, and diversity and inclusion, she is recognized for groundbreaking initiatives to personalize and transform the higher education experience. Under her leadership, and through her strategic plan for Adelphi — known as Momentum, Dr. Riordan is strengthening students’ academic experiences, enhancing diversity and inclusion, building a remarkable alumni and donor network, and elevating Adelphi to a renowned modern metropolitan university. Since her appointment in 2015, enrollment at Adelphi has grown 12%, 17 new academic degree programs have lunched and the university has welcomed its four most diverse first-year classes in 123 years. Dr. Riordan serves on a number of boards and holds leadership positions on most. For the board of directors of RE/MAX Holdings, Inc. (NYSE:RMAX), she is chair of the nominating and governance committee and serves on the compensation committee. She previously served on the audit committee. She is also a National Association of Corporate Directors Board Leadership Fellow — the Gold Standard Director Credential. Recently Dr. Riordan expanded her leadership, taking on two new roles in the higher education community, in addition to several other positions with non-profit boards. In summer 2019 she was appointed as vice chair of the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities in New York and as secretary-treasurer of the Long Island Regional Advisory Council on Higher Education, for which she serves as a trustee and on the steering committee. In addition, Dr. Riordan is on the board of directors for the Long Island Association, a leading business organization on Long Island. In 2018 she was appointed co-chair of the Long Island Association’s Women’s Collaborative which works to empower and engage Long Island’s leading businesswomen and provide a platform for them to impact issues vital to the region’s economic vitality. Dr. Riordan is the past chair of the President’s Council for the Northeast-10 Conference. She has been honored by Diverse: Issues In Higher Education magazine as one of 25 Top Women in Higher Education Who Are Making a Difference, by the Long Island Herald as a Premier Business Woman of Long Island, and by her alma mater Georgia State University as a Distinguished Alumni. She has twice been voted a Best College President in the Bethpage Best of Long Island Awards and she made the Long Island Press Power List of the 50 most influential people on Long Island for the past four years. Dr. Riordan previously served as provost of the University of Kentucky and as dean of the Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver. She has published nearly 70 academic and business press articles, is authoring a book on leadership, and is a frequent speaker on leadership and overcoming challenges, including her TEDx talk, “Dare to Be Extraordinary.” Dr. Riordan and her husband, Dr. Robert D. Gatewood, have two children in college. She earned her doctoral degree in organizational behavior and an MBA from Georgia State University. Her undergraduate work at the Georgia Institute of Technology focused on textile engineering now called materials sciences engineering. For more information, please visit www.christineriordan.com


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory”behind what brought you to this particular career path?

Both of my parents were first-generation college students who went on to become academics, my father a professor, and my mother, an elementary school teacher, and principal. I grew up in Atlanta — and people assumed I would follow in their footsteps. I long resisted that path, until a professor nudged me to pursue a Ph.D. I had never considered that before, but this professor thought I would excel. That expression of confidence in my ability to go farther in my career was pivotal.

With my doctoral degree in hand, I went on to earn tenure as an associate professor of management at the University of Georgia. And I then became a chaired professor at TCU before I fully stepped into academic leadership roles. For me, it’s a point of pride to help empower women to foster their own career confidence, develop resilience and energize themselves in work and life. It’s my mission to pay forward the confidence that many people helped me recognize.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When my daughter was twelve years old, she asked me if women could be anything they wanted to be. I answered of course. I had just come from facilitating a session with the top fifty women at an aeronautics company as well as meeting with my women undergraduate students to discuss careers. I was inspired to write an article based upon my early work experiences as way to provide advice for other women. I originally titled it Wishes for My Daughter — the editor of course changed the title to Hard Won Workplace Advice for my Daughter. Here is a link to the article about some of my experiences and advice. https://www.forbes.com/2010/08/04/sexual-harassment-female-workers-discrimination-forbes-woman-leadership-business.html#50fae81e4aed

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

“Shift Happens,” my forthcoming book, centers on the imperative to be adaptive in the workplace. Without nimbleness, it is becoming harder and harder to thrive in today’s workplace. www.shifthappensbook.com

Simply put: Business is rapidly becoming more complex, and successful leaders will need more than a conventional skill set. They’ll need psychological preparedness to be tough competitors, to rebound from mistakes and to collaborate and adjust course. Leaders have to keep educating themselves — and they must be vigilant to spot opportunities, challenges and threats. I’m hopeful the new book will be useful in preparing them.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are authority in the education field?

Results speak for themselves, and I’m delighted to share that Adelphi has admitted its four most diverse classes since we adopted a new strategic plan in 2015. Our enrollment is up by 12 percent, alumni giving has reached an all-time high, we have added 17 new degree programs, and we’ve earned the Carnegie Community Engagement Classification. I’m honored to work with a profoundly talented, motivated team, student body and university community that make these advancements possible. We make it a top priority to lead by example.

Before joining the administrative ranks, I took the lead in designing academic programs to develop leadership — including teaching leadership. While peers have recognized my contributions with a variety of awards, I’m particularly proud of my service in nurturing the future of higher education. I serve on the board of the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities in New York and on the President’s Advisory Council at the George Institute of Technology and am a past chair of the President’s Council for the Northeast-10 Conference. My work — such as the nearly 70 academic and press articles I’ve published — has been cited more than 5,400 times by other authors.

Outside academia, I serve on the board at RE/MAX Holdings Inc. and am a board leadership fellow of the National Association of Corporate Directors — both roles that help inform our leadership work at Adelphi.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?

As with many systems, some areas are excelling, others that are average, and some that need dramatic improvement. The pace of change is requiring us to think about what we are really teaching our students and how we are educating them. We need to be preparing our students for their future, which in some cases, we cannot yet imagine. Our future students need to be agile, able to think critically, have a learning mindset, technology-savvy, and able to solve problems. I don’t think many educational institutions have changed to focus on the skills of future.

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?

1. Now more than ever, statistics indicate that high school graduates are feeling empowered to pursue a college degree. The portion of high school grads who go to college is around its highest rate ever. While this trend isn’t perfect, it is promising.

2. The national student body — at the college level — is the most diverse it’s ever been. Students of color made up 45.2 percent of undergraduates in 2016, up from 29.6 percent in 1996, according to the American Council on Education.

3. A college degree still helps ensure financial stability, with graduates seeing roughly half the unemployment rates of those who did not attend college, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

4. Both underrepresented minority groups and women have made strides in faculty representation. The former accounted for about 13 percent of faculty jobs in 2013, up from 9 percent 20 years earlier, and women held nearly half of all faculty jobs, according to the National Center for Higher Education Statistics.

5. More than a dozen states are investing in high-quality preschool, a key determinant of future success and growth.

Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?

In addition to the area noted on preparing our students for the future, here are five areas that we should be prioritizing for improvement.

1. We need to be placing more women in tenured and tenure-track positions. The percentage of women faculty members in part-time appointments actually increased from 1993 to 2013 — from 48 percent to 56 percent — even as the overall number of women faculty members grew. To improve the quality of scholarship, education and opportunity, colleges and universities must place a priority on the advancement of women in faculty roles.

2. Science, mathematics, engineering and technology — STEM — fields are ripe for growth and recruitment, in particular among women and underrepresented minority groups. Just 4 percent of the national workforce is made up of scientists and engineers, yet this group creates jobs for the other 96 percent, according to the National Research Council of the National Academies. These fields will drive our collective future, but too many of our students are not up to the tasks. One example: Some 75 percent of eighth-graders are not proficient in mathematics, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

3. Up to 44.7 million Americans carry debt from student loans, with the overall debt load topping that of credit cards and car loans. These debt levels are a heavy and discouraging burden to millions of Americans — hobbling the quality of life for many and preventing many others from even pursuing a college degree. The system of higher education must do more to improve accessibility and ease cost burdens for those without excess means.

4. Around a third of people who enroll in college in the U.S. won’t finish a degree but will still carry college debt. As college-level educators, we need to make sure — not only that we’re enrolling those best suited for college — but also that we’re equipping and supporting them to complete the journey.

5. Funding for public schools at the K-12 level should be equitable. The highest-poverty districts see an average of $1,200 less per child than the least-poor districts, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has found. Such discrepancies help perpetuate deep inequities in our public education system and society at large, extending to the college level and beyond. Also critical to prioritize is funding for higher education, particularly private colleges. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, there has been a $9 billion reduction in state funding over the past decade, forcing a greater portion of costs onto students and their families, squeezing affordability and access.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

In a recent Pew Research Center survey, just 13 percent of those with a postgraduate degree in STEM rated K-12 STEM education in the U.S. as above average. The survey spotted problems that include teaching styles. Another major issue: African Americans and Hispanics are underrepresented in STEM fields; they account for just 9 percent and 7 percent of STEM workers, respectively.

Here ae three ways to strengthen young people’s engagement in STEM fields:

· Encourage members of underrepresented groups to enter STEM fields as science teachers. Adelphi has excelled in this realm, winning praise for its New York Noyce STEAM Pipeline: Preparing Next-Gen Science Teachers program. The five-year offering combines bachelor’s and master’s programs; it incorporates art and design elements in addition to STEM disciplines.

· Rethink the learning process to encourage persistence among STEM students at the college level and improve graduation rates. This can be especially valuable for those who are first in their families to attend college, and for underrepresented groups. Adelphi faculty members have taken the challenge head-on.

· Start early. Work at the high school and middle school levels to inspire students, including those from underrepresented backgrounds, to pursue STEM careers. Successful efforts — like those at Adelphi — can involve college- and K-12-level educators working in concert to cultivate experimental learning opportunities.

Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?

As an undergraduate at the Georgia Institute of Technology, I remember one engineering class in which I was the only woman and, yet, the professor never knew my name and instead would say things like — you girl in the yellow shirt. It was poignant­ for me — suggestive that I didn’t belong there.

Of course, I went on to earn my undergrad degree in a STEM field, but I’ve never lost sight of how relatively few women — even now — go into STEM and STEAM lines of study and work. It’s imperative that we confront the historical deficiencies in these fields, that we acknowledge the historic gender barrier and gap, and that we lift up — as examples — those women who’ve cleared the hurdles. Society stands to benefit from the contributions of technical women.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

While the U.S has made progress in engaging girls and women in STEM fields, we still have lots of ground to cover. Just 42 percent of Ph.D.s in STEM fields are earned by women, according to the National Science Foundation.

Here are a few suggestions for bolstering engagement:

· Rely on mentors. Adelphi University has seen tremendous success in student retention and graduation rates under an innovative, one-on-one mentorship program. The lessons of this success can be applied in STEM, including at the high school level. When girls and women have a go-to person for questions and support, they should be much more likely to navigate the field successfully and to stick with it.

· Acknowledge and encourage girls and women who take up STEM courses. Too often, girls and women have been maligned and neglected in these subjects. Change the tone. Celebrate their choices in STEM.

· Cultivate women as teachers of STEM subjects at the K-12 level. They set an example as women who are passionate about, committed to and can harness the power of these vital fields. Students can see themselves in these teachers.

As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?

I favor STEAM. Fundamentally, the STEAM approach provides students a more comprehensive grounding, including important lessons in the humanities. With STEAM, a student is more likely to understand human behaviors, what makes us tick, how to relate generally and how to appreciate basic human experiences like the arts. The humanities underpin the hard sciences with meaning and feeling — those intangibles that we all crave because we’re living beings. Adelphi has gone the STEAM route, too, showing students where and how these seemingly separate disciplines connect with one another.

If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?

1. A national program to help upcoming K-12 teachers specialize in STEAM fields, with an emphasis on encouraging women and those from underrepresented communities. This would be modeled after a similar effort at Adelphi, and expanded. It would broaden the nation’s foundation for launching new thinkers, academics and innovators in those crucial STEAM areas. Special attention would be paid to placing these new teachers in underserved and underprivileged communities, tapping into neighborhoods too often overlooked.

2. Require community service by college students. Higher education has a mandate to develop contributing, active members of society who think critically and understand their surroundings. At Adelphi, we’ve advanced this principle by forging community bonds that position our students in a variety of partner organizations. Imagine if this were a core part of a college education everywhere: Students at the University of Southern California could be helping Los Angeles kindergartners learn to read, while those at Columbia in New York could distribute blankets to the homeless.

3. Make core college and university resources, such as the library, available to all alumni in perpetuity. The nature of higher education is shifting. We can’t learn enough in four years to sustain a lifetime. The pace of change for the workforce is quickening, and alumni need a lifeline. As educational resources evolve to reflect the times, alumni should be able to take advantage of those university resources well after graduation. In addition to library access, this could include certain course materials and online training resources.

4. Mandate financial-literacy classes. This could begin at the high school level, as it already has for at least 20 states that have required lessons in personal finance. Too many college students don’t finish a degree because they haven’t taken sufficient steps to plan for the finances. But financial literacy isn’t a panacea — it doesn’t solve the core problem of access. Mandatory financial literacy can be only a part of a push to broaden access to higher education, including financial aid.

5. Equalize K-12 funding. To address gaping differences in funding between impoverished and wealthy school districts, implement level funding formulas that allocate money to each district in equal measure depending more heavily on enrollment. While some states, such as Connecticut and New Jersey, have already taken steps in this direction, a national approach would help put all students on more level footing — with more equitable opportunities early in life.

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

“In life as in dance, grace glides on blistered feet.” –Alice Abrams

I had the pleasure of having dinner with Alice Abrams one evening — and after a delightful conversation — she handed me a card that had her quote and said “thank you for making a difference — from an octogenarian!”

The quote has such meaning for everyone. All of us have failures. Each of us makes mistake. Every single one of us endures struggles. But from these challenges grow wisdom, resilience, and courage. These are the qualities and traits that carry us forward. The difficulties I’ve faced have only emboldened my resolve to forge ahead — more smoothly, more smartly, with the benefit of my missteps.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment 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, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Wow, it is hard to pick one. But I would likely pick Oprah Winfrey. Her grit, resilience, ability to adapt and her values are exactly the type of skills and abilities that we need our students to develop. I would enjoy brainstorming with her on how to improve all levels of the educational system as we prepare for a future that we have not yet even imagined.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

They can reach me through my personal website, www.christineriordan.com. I’m also on Twitter as @PrezRiordan and on Instagram under the same handle. I also feature leadership articles on my personal Twitter @Chris_M_Riordan and my Linked In account.

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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About the author:

Penny is an environmental scientist-turned-entrepreneur. She’s worked as a climate scientist, an environmental planner, and a wilderness park ranger. Motivated by a passion to raise a generation of environmental leaders, in 2010 Penny founded Green Kid Crafts, a children’s media company that provides kids around the world with convenient and eco-friendly STEAM activities. Today, it’s become a leader in the subscription industry, with over 1 million packages shipped worldwide that have exposed a generation to think about and take a leadership role in sustainability. Penny, her husband Jeff, and her children Rowan and Declan live together in San Diego, California. She holds a B.A. in Environmental Management and an M.S. in Environmental Science. Penny has over 20 years of experience in entrepreneurship, management, strategy and finance. She’s a seasoned leader, an inspiring speaker, an encouraging business mentor, and a creative writer. You can learn more about Green Kid Crafts at https://www.greenkidcrafts.com/ and follow Penny’s stories and updates at https://www.instagram.com/greenkidcrafts/ and https://twitter.com/bauderpenny.

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