Blazing a trail is no easy feat, especially as a minority female breaking into the presidential club in higher education, a traditionally male-dominated arena. Just ask Dr. Pamela Gunter-Smith, who, this summer, became the fourth president of York College of Pennsylvania and stands as the first female and first African-American president of the college.
Recently, I sat down with Gunter-Smith to talk about her newest challenge in leading York College and the past trailblazing efforts that brought her there.
Q: What thoughts were running through your mind when you got the offer from York College of Pennsylvania to serve as its president?
A: I was in an airport when I got the call from the board chair. I thought things had gone well, but I had expected the “nice to meet you, but we decided to go with a different candidate” call. I was thrilled when I was asked, “How would you like to be President G-S?” I believe that committees seek to generate a diverse pool of qualified candidates, but then they find that the “fit” isn’t right. York College is a wonderful institution, and I was, and am still, very honored to have been selected. In my case, it was clear that both the College and I found that the fit was there. The College’s mission and values are ones that I embrace—student-centered, focused on academic excellence, accessible and affordable. I believe the College felt that I also was what they needed to move forward at this particular time.
Q: What does it mean to you to be the first female and African-American president at York College of Pennsylvania?
A: I have been first and only many times in my personal and professional life. I grew up in the segregated South at the beginning of desegregation, so this is not new for me. There have been many times where, as an African-American woman, I’ve had to not only earn my seat at the table, but prove to others that I was qualified to be there. Now, of course, I am cognizant of the impact of my presidency at the institution and beyond. The academic world has not made great strides in increasing the number of female presidents and, in particular, African-American presidents, at a majority of institutions. My appointment represents a major accomplishment for all women of color. One of the amazing things to me is that, while it is clear I am an African-American female, it rarely comes up here on campus.
Q: When I researched your academic and administrative history, the first word that came to mind was trailblazer. What is your reaction to being labeled a trailblazer?
A: As I indicated previously, I have been first and only many times before. None of us achieves this level alone. My parents stressed to me education and professional achievement from a very early age. I learned how to acculturate myself into uncomfortable situations without losing my sense of self. I also benefited from many mentors—male and female, black and white—who thought of me when opportunities arose and put my name in the hat. I understand that I have a responsibility to mentor those who will follow me and help to prepare the way for them.
Q: As president, what is your vision for the College?
A: My vision is very simple—to move York College from great to greater, continuing to serve our students in this very challenging and complex environment.
Q: Would you like to see any colleges or departments grow or see new degree programs?
A: York College has undergone tremendous growth in the past 15 years. Our student body has doubled; many new programs and majors have been added, and our physical plant has been expanded. After so much growth, it is time to take stock of where we are. What are we doing well; where do we need to improve? What skills will our graduates need in the future and what will be the future needs of employers? How do we create more opportunities for our students to put theory into practice in the broader community of York, Pennsylvania? What makes sense for York College?
I am especially excited about two areas: our J. D. Brown Center for Entrepreneurship and our Center for Professional Excellence. The J. D. Brown Center is an incubator for students and community members who are interested in opening new businesses and enterprises. We also have an entrepreneurship major. Our Center for Professional Excellence provides programming that instills in students those characteristics that mark a professional in any career (e.g., integrity, accountability). The Center for Professionalism also leads the national conversation among employers and institutions about what it means to be a professional.
Q: What are some of the biggest changes that you have made during your brief time as president?
A: For the past two months, I have been in listening-and-learning mode. I am in a new place with a distinctive culture. Our students and faculty, who are at the core of the institution, have just returned to campus. Therefore, I have made few big changes. I am told by my colleagues that the biggest change is my collaborative style and my engagement with faculty, staff and students on campus. I believe in being a very visible president on my campus and in the community.
Q: When you are not leading a college, what do you like to do in your spare time?
A: Life on a college or university campus is filled with things to do—sporting events, concerts, receptions, lectures—and interesting people to meet. I find that engaging with various College constituencies and the community, as well as maintaining my other professional connections, leaves little time for much else. I am fortunate that my husband also enjoys a high level of engagement. We do like to travel when we can find time. My husband says I am a gym rat, which is correct. I find my gym time very therapeutic and necessary to sustain my energy level.
Q: Is there anything else that you would like to share with our readers?
A: I am very fortunate to be the president of York College of Pennsylvania. I get to interact with very smart and committed people, as well as bright and capable students who want to learn. Students remind me of the importance of the work I do and keep my thinking fresh. By the way, did I tell you that I have the best job in the world? I love my job and York College!
That concludes my interview with President Gunter-Smith. I would like to thank her for taking time out of her busy schedule to speak with me.