Campus & Community

10 Questions with President Lynn Perry Wooten

President Wooten shares her thoughts on the state of higher education, the global pandemic, systemic racism, and more.

Lynn Perry Wooten, a seasoned academic and an expert on organizational development and transformation, became the ninth president and first African American to lead Simmons University on July 1, 2020.

Specializing in crisis leadership, diversity and inclusion, and positive leadership, Dr. Wooten is an innovative leader whose research has informed her work in the classroom and as an administrator.

As the ninth president of Simmons University, you're entering this role at a unique time in history, in the midst of a pandemic as well as a national conversation about race. What in your background has prepared you for this moment?

My entire life journey has prepared me for the conversation on race. I came into this world in the ’60s, at the height of the civil rights movement. I went to a historically Black college. Thinking about race and America’s celebration and struggle with it was embedded in me during my formative years. For the last 25 years, my research, teaching, and speaking engagements have centered on what I call the ABCs for diversity, equity, and inclusion: Affirming an organization’s identity and understanding the demographics; building bridges across differences and fighting against the “isms,” such as racism and sexism; and cultivating capabilities with organizations so they can succeed at diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Two key things have prepared me for the pandemic: my focus on learning and my focus on relationships. The last three to four months have emphasized the importance of both. We’ve had to adapt and be agile with how we run universities and pursue excellence. How do we use data and theory? How do we create spaces where people feel physically and emotionally well and are able to get their work done? The pandemic has also given us opportunities to reimagine and invest more in relationships, especially through technology.

As the parent of a rising college freshman, what do you say to students and parents who are concerned about this coming semester?

The first thing I say is, this too shall pass. But while we’re living in this pandemic, and you’re sending your child into their first-year experience, it’s important to choose a college that prioritizes their mental and emotional well-being. Is the college being intentional about building communities? Will there be an academic advising team to support your child? How are your child’s co-curricular interests going to continue during the pandemic? What is the college doing so that when your child graduates, they will be positioned for their career or their graduate school endeavors? At Simmons, we are doing everything to preserve the transformational experience, in the classroom and outside of the classroom, from physical activities, like online workout classes for our athletes, to leadership development opportunities. Whether in person, online, or hybrid, we’re preserving the Simmons distinction.

What do you see as the role of higher education in addressing systemic racism?

College brings people from diverse backgrounds together. What we do in the classroom and in the community, what we read, and learning to understand people from different backgrounds are all important in addressing systemic racism. Education also has a big role in closing the achievement gap for people who come from under-resourced and underrepresented backgrounds. Perhaps most important, higher education has the role of developing citizens who are willing to fight to change the world. We do that in the classroom, and we also do it through action-based, community-engaged learning. One of my hopes is to increase the number of our students working in local communities on social justice projects and with nonprofit organizations that have the mission of alleviating racism and disparities in poverty. Through learning, doing, and knowing, higher education can be a major contributor to alleviating systemic racism.

What is the importance of positive leadership and organizations during this time?

I define positive leadership as the intentional and evolving practice of lifelong and life-wide learning so that you authentically show up to be your best self, lean in to answer your calling, and be a positive difference for the world and empower others to do the same. Now more than ever as we deal with the pandemic and the issues of racism and social justice, one important role of positive leadership is giving people hope. Positive leadership is also about the courage to challenge the status quo, so that an organization is always on a continuous cycle of good to great.

How does your racial identity impact your leadership?

I have a strong desire to be an inclusive leader. When you grow up being different in society, you go out of your way to include people from all different types of backgrounds and experiences, to learn from them, to celebrate from them, and to make sure they feel that they belong. Every day, being African American is part of who I am, whether it’s as a parent of a freshman college student, a research scholar on health disparities in organizations, or as an educator thinking about the curriculum to ensure that everybody is exposed to topics related to diversity and identity.

Why does women-centered education matter today?

Women-centered education matters because we still have a gap when we look at wages and organizational leadership. At Simmons, our undergraduate education is intentionally dedicated to making sure that every day our faculty and staff are working on developing the next generation of women leaders. We have a learning space where throughout the curriculum we talk about women’s history and issues and have a women’s framing on how we look at problems and opportunities, whether in nursing education, business education, or data analytics. We know from research that women sometimes lack confidence compared to their male counterparts. Women’s education and women-centered institutions are where we develop programs and curriculums to boost that confidence for women’s chosen professions and cultivate the skill set and assurance they need to excel.

In a recent interview with Boston Business Journal, you said, “Higher education is never going to be the same.” How do you see education at Simmons evolving, and what will be the role of technology going forward?

The future of education is not going to be either/or, a residential or a technology experience. It’s going to be more integrated experiences. The pandemic has given us the opportunity to complement an excellent transformative residential experience with technology. We have a great partnership with the online platform 2U to bring our graduate education to students, and now we’re investing in the platform for undergraduate education. We have an opportunity to be intentional about closing the achievement gap through technology. Online education is leveling the playing field as we create more inclusive learning practices. It can make learning more global, with guest speakers from all over the world. At Simmons we have a structured road map, developed through faculty and staff collaboration, where we’re looking at each touch point along the student’s journey and making sure there’s integration of technology in a way that supports Simmons’ academic excellence. Technology is opening doors for us to be better at delivering education. And now, because of the pandemic, we all feel more comfortable with it.

What do you see as the role of the faculty in this evolution?

Faculty are the core—their teaching and research are the heart and soul of our university. I can already see that Simmons faculty members are deeply committed to scholarly excellence and student success. They have exhibited tremendous innovative spirit in taking ownership of the curriculum in the year ahead, giving their time generously to think about how we use technology to complement our high educational standards. They are redesigning and reimagining the classroom experience, working with administration and staff to move education forward in this pandemic and beyond.

Can you speak to the important relationship between Simmons alumni and their alma mater?

Alumnae/i are such a key part of the Simmons community and how we continue to make Simmons an excellent institution. They have such pride and love for their alma mater. Many have gone out of their way to welcome me and to talk about how Simmons transformed their life. John Simmons was a trailblazer in his vision for educating women so they could be economically empowered and successful. And throughout history, Simmons has continued not only this vision for women, but has welcomed people from all races and backgrounds. The Simmons alumnae/i from diverse backgrounds who’ve reached out to me and talked about their Simmons experience have elevated me and really made me excited about working in this community.

In an article on crisis leadership you wrote, “Crises are opportunities for organizational change and revitalization because a crisis brings to a leadership’s attention issues that have been neglected and present possibilities for innovation and system improvements.” What possibilities do you see ahead?

The pandemic has given us all the opportunity to take a pause, and in that pause we’ve been investing in relationships and learning. We’ve come together and learned how to work better as teams. We’ve been thinking about how to better use technology, and coming out of the pandemic, how we will use that technology to further enhance education and learning. We have the opportunity to cultivate new capabilities and think about how to engage students in their learning through multiple ways. Crisis is also an opportunity for innovation. One of the opportunities we’re thinking about is degree completion, especially for women. Nationally, women have a high rate of starting college and not finishing, sometimes for caregiving responsibilities or economic reasons. We want to develop a cost-efficient and time-efficient way for students to complete a Simmons-quality undergraduate degree online if a residential experience is not possible or of interest That’s something I’m very passionate about.

What have you done to stay positive during this pandemic?

The pandemic has been really hard on my family. I have two children who were supposed to graduate this spring, one from Michigan Law School and one from high school. Missing those milestone moments was difficult. On the plus side, I’ve had the opportunity to rediscover cooking and to spend family time with them and my husband, David, who is a professor at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. We’ve spent time taking walks, watching movies, and listening to my pandemic playlist. We’ve been such a family constantly on the go, it’s been an opportunity to take a pause. Last week I took a break during a hectic week to watch the Netflix mini-series “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker” with my mother and daughter. Madam C.J. Walker was the first woman millionaire, who made her fortune selling Black hair products. The story spoke to the importance of women working together in teams, and empowerment, and having a business mind in leadership. My kids were teasing me, because I never sit down for four hours and watch TV. It was worth it.

Lynn Perry Wooten is the ninth President of Simmons University. Learn more about President Wooten.

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