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“Leadership Is Not a Solo Act": The President of Simmons University Discusses the Power of Community on EDU: Live

Written by Bannon Puckett on Mar 26, 2021

Related content: Diversity And Inclusion, Leadership

Editor’s Note: Hosted by 2U Chief Strategy and Engagement Officer David Sutphen, EDU: Live is a monthly LinkedIn Live series of conversations with leaders from academia, business, and civil society who are passionate about creating greater equity, access, and opportunity in higher education and beyond. Drawing from his experiences at 2U, his work with the civil rights community, and his service on education-related, non-profit boards, Sutphen talks about opening doors of opportunity with those who have walked through them—and are using their positions to empower others to follow. Visit the EDU: Live LinkedIn page to keep up-to-date on the full series, watch past recordings, and register for the next episode.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

Since childhood, Dr. Lynn Wooten, who last spring was named the ninth president of Simmons University mere weeks into the pandemic, has lived by this African proverb. As she shared with David Sutphen in the latest EDU: Live, she has always known that the best leaders lean on—and learn from—the people around them.

“The strong Black community in Philadelphia helped to raise me,” she said. “When I think about access in education, I think about [my time] growing up.”

A proud lifelong learner, Dr. Wooten said she “came to college in ’84 and never left.” From her studies at North Carolina A&T State and Duke to her posts at Michigan and Cornell to now Simmons, she has been priming herself to always “meet the moment” with others’ help while simultaneously paying it forward.

Read on for Dr. Wooten’s enlightening perspective on creating inclusive learning opportunities, building “a constellation of mentors,” and empowering women leadership.

Watch the full episode of EDU: Live featuring Simmons President Lynn Wooten

A Commitment to Diversity and Inclusion, Then and Now

From the start of her career, when she found herself one of only a few Black professors on campus, Dr. Wooten has actively advocated for more diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in higher education. “It's been a given for me, since the ’90s, to create cultures where DEI matters,” she said. “I want to make sure that Simmons is a place where people feel like they belong.”

That mission is self-evident in the student body: “Simmons is really special. Half of our incoming class this year are women of color. Half are first-gen. And about 30% are what we call Pell-eligible,” Dr. Wooten explained, referring to the financial need-based federal grant program. “I’m committed to making sure that everybody who touches Simmons—student, faculty, staff, alumni—knows the value of DEI.”

“Simmons has always had this role in society [of] educating women to bridge the liberal arts with professional education, and empowering them to be leaders in their career,” she continued. With the university well-known for its all-women undergraduate program and co-ed graduate degree offerings, Dr. Wooten then shared her excitement for working with 2U to launch a series of online undergraduate programs last year.

This new offering opens up even more DEI-serving learning opportunities, she said, enabling women who have some undergraduate credits to complete their degree as either adult learners or transfer students. “[This kind of initiative] spoke to me,” she said, “because it’s what I’ve done all of my career.”

Leadership is a lifelong journey of learning. Your job is not all about yourself. It’s to empower others to be their best.
— Dr. Lynn Wooten, President, Simmons University

Building “A Constellation of Mentors”

Reflecting with Sutphen on her career path, Dr. Wooten credited “a constellation of mentors” for supporting her professional journey and elevating her as a leader.

Part of that growth process, she said, “is listening to what other people say. But we know that women have a tendency to say no when they’re promoted or asked to be a leader. So there were women who sponsored, who mentored, who coached me and said, ‘You can take this next leap! Don’t say no, but instead [ask yourself] what do you need to be successful?’ So part of that is knowing your strengths and then thinking about how you want to use them—and who else do you need to help you?”

Dr. Wooten shared three mentor examples from her well-rounded “personal board of directors:” Cornell President Martha E. Pollack, then-provost at Michigan and a “multiplier of talent” who gave her opportunities to chair committees and work on special projects; former Bentley University President Alison Davis-Blake, who encouraged her to know when to “jump that S-curve” from a plateauing innovation to a new one on the rise; and Whitney Williams, a younger academic colleague who keeps her “cool and hip” on current trends and technologies.

At Simmons, Dr. Wooten is ensuring a similar framework of support for future generations of women leaders. Each undergraduate, for example, is paired with both an academic advisor and professional staff advisor, and these personalized mentor arrangements are proving invaluable. “You need to know that someone on campus cares about you,” she explained.

Better Together

Back in her own life, Dr. Wooten continues to lean on a wide network of personal and professional relationships. “Leadership is a lifelong journey of learning,” she said. “Your job is not all about yourself. It’s to empower others to be their best. Leadership is not a solo act.”

Perhaps no better example of this power of community is the timing of Dr. Wooten’s appointment at Simmons—right as COVID-19 reached crisis levels around the world and on campus. Suddenly, she said, she was thrust into addressing difficult questions that demanded immediate answers: What would a Simmons education look like amidst global lockdowns? How would the university continue delivering transformational learning experiences for students?

Armed with years of crisis leadership training and her curated constellation of support, Dr. Wooten didn’t have to answer those questions alone. “Thanks to 2U, we were able to pivot very quickly and provide a high-quality education online,” she said.

Dr. Wooten concluded the discussion with a hopeful eye to a future beyond the pandemic: “When I think about my legacy,” she told Sutphen, “I want Simmons to be an extraordinary place to live, learn, and work. I want young women and graduate students to say . . . ‘I’m going to go there and be successful in my educational endeavors—but also in my leadership journey.’”

Registration is now open for the next EDU: Live episode scheduled for Wednesday, April 28 with guest Dr. Alvin Tillery, founder of the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy at Northwestern University. To keep up-to-date on all episodes, visit the EDU: Live LinkedIn page.

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