Several colleges and universities in Oregon recently announced new leaders, and many of the people hired for those positions are also the institutions’ first Black president. We convened a conversation among three of these leaders to hear about how they’re approaching their roles and what it means to them to be a Black leader in higher education. University of Portland President Robert Kelly and Lewis & Clark President Robin Holmes-Sullivan join us. They each started their jobs July 1. We also talk with Oregon Health & Science University President Danny Jacobs, who has been at OHSU since 2018.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Several colleges and universities in Portland recently announced new leaders – and many of the people hired for those positions are the first Black presidents of those institutions. So we decided to bring three of them together to talk about how they’re approaching their roles and what the future of higher education looks like right now. Robert Kelly began his tenure as President of the University of Portland on July first, that’s when Robin Holmes-Sullivan officially became the President of Lewis and Clark College. Danny Jacobs, meanwhile, has been the President of Oregon Health and Science University or OHSU since 2018. We talked last week. I started by asking Robert Kelly why he sought the job at the University of Portland.
Robert Kelly: You know when I began to think about the opportunity to come back to come back to the Pacific Northwest, I’d, spent some time at Seattle University, but I began to look at the institution in terms of the, what was going on, the values, you know, the hot button issues that were happening for the institution for students, but mainly it was around the values. I wanted to be at an institution that had these kinds of values, and so that was the decision for me to come here.
Dave Miller: What were the values you were thinking about in particular?
Kelly: I would say that the quintessential value here is the idea of hope. And I think that now more than ever, colleges and universities need to be providing more hope for society. A lot of institutions have failed a lot of young people and so the idea of giving them a foundation, some reflections, some discernment about what the future could be and the skills and competencies to live in that way, I thought that that would be a hopeful way to approach the next phase of my career.
Miller: There is so much to get to with all three of you, but before I go to Robin Holmes-Sullivan and Danny Jacobs, Robert Kelly, I’m just curious how you instill hope in the next generation in a way that that feels meaningful to you, because it’s almost a necessary component to to push on for us as humans, but but also feels honest, given how many challenges we are all facing as humans, but how many challenges are going to fall especially hard on the shoulders of young people?
Kelly: If I’m answering that question accurately, the idea of honesty is, is it really there? I think we have to be really upfront and honest around the historical vestiges of how we got to where we are as a society. There are challenges across the board, be they financial or medical or legal or ethical. We have to be honest about what got us there, but then we have to give students the skills and tools to actually do something about it, so they know they’re they’re infinitely prepared to go out there and change the world in whatever way they might want to, or influence the world in whatever way they might want to, but they have to see it as hopeful, otherwise it could be a pretty, pretty despairing kind of a situation.
Miller: Robin Holmes-Sullivan, you have said in the past that you first considered pursuing the role of a college president, something like 15 years ago, but didn’t pursue it at that time, didn’t pursue the track at that time. How did your thinking change between then and now?
Robin Holmes Sullivan: Well, it is true, I had been thinking about the possibility of moving on to that next level and to leading an institution and I think we could all agree that 15 years ago the country looked and was acting and was grappling with very, very different issues. And at that time I went away to a particular, they call it, you know, Hopeful Presidents’ School, American Council on Education Fellowship, where you spend a year really apprenticing and kind of shadowing a college president and learning everything you need to know. And I have to be honest, after that year, I thought, ‘Wow, I don’t know why you want to do that particular job.’ It was just fraught and a really, really, hard, hard road. And I so much loved what I was doing, which was working directly with students on the student experience, on behalf of students. But I thought, you know, ‘I already have the best job. I think that I’m gonna stay where I am as opposed to pursuing that.’ So, that thought kind of was tucked back in my mind somewhere, but it was never too far away, and I was really just hoping for the best and the right opportunity, and if it didn’t come, that was going to be fine too, and it just so happened that that it did, and and I threw my hat in the ring and that was Clark.
Miller: But I have to imagine that the job of being a college president anywhere, I can’t imagine it has gotten easier or less fraught in the last fifteen years.
Holmes-Sullivan: Well that’s a very good point, David, it has not gotten less fraught. I’m sure it’s just differently difficult, I guess I would say.
Miller: [laughing] In a way that intrigued you…
Holmes-Sullivan: Exactly, exactly. The things that we’re grappling with now 15 years later, student mental health, the impact of the pandemic, the racial reckoning that’s been happening in this country, just, you know, the assault on Democracy. These are all things that I not only have a passion about, but some of what Dr. Kelly was expressing, I think that many of us are actually situated very well to help lead around these issues and to really make, to really make a difference – and so that’s why it felt like it was it was time for me to to take that step and to commit to trying to see if I could make a difference in our little small corner of the world.
Miller: And Danny Jacobs, you’ve said in the past that you would regularly get emails or letters asking you if you were interested in applying for some position. You came here from Galveston, Texas. Why did you seek out this particular job as president of OHSU when you were getting, it seems like, some number of invitations to apply for other jobs?
Danny Jacobs: I’m sure I would imagine most folks get what I would be effectively called feelers, you know, search consultants looking for folks that might be interested in moving elsewhere. So that’s just, gosh, that would happen; that was not new, that was something that had happened periodically for me, oh gosh, over the last fifteen years or so. And so what you’re referencing is the conversation I would have with my wife about these opportunities. And so we’ve been sitting around the dinner table, ‘Hey, honey, here’s one, what do you think?’ And most of them because- great job in University of Texas, Galveston’s local Branch of Galveston, very comfortable, Institutions doing great things. So most of those invitations to apply would be discarded. This one though, was different, probably for two or three main reasons. One, I’ve been in academia for- and in particular, in healthcare research and education for my entire career. And so there are no secrets in academic medicine. We all knew about the great things happening here in the Pacific Northwest, with Oregon Health and Science University, Institution with a great trajectory. But the major issue at least while we were considering that, the reason why my wife said, ‘Hold on a second, you need to look at this one,’ is that her family is all here on the West Coast, including her sister, who just moved to Newport. She actually graduated from Oregon State University. So there was this personal draw that was also important along with the great institution in this program.
Miller: Danny Jacobs. How much did you know before you got here, about Oregon’s particular racist history, Exclusion Laws, for example, the 19th century, that forbade Black people from even living here. How much were you aware of before you lived here?
Danny Jacobs: A lot of that came forward during the interview process, as folks would share the history. So I guess I must have come back and forth six times. So I think it was often mentioned in the context of OHSU’s mission, you know, here to attend to the health and well being of all Oregonians as part of our history.
Miller: Just so I understand and make sure our audience understands. So when you were being recruited by leaders at OHSU, they would share this with you?
Jacobs: Not necessarily the leaders, but it was part and parcel, it was shared by the search company, the search firm that recruited me, and then I would say, that as I would do for every opportunity, rich opportunity like this one, I would try to understand the history of the institution, the history of the state. So it was kind of a mix of those two. As I started to have the one-on-ones, as opposed to the big group interviews, these issues also came up – the history of Oregon as a state.
Miller: Robert Kelly. you worked most recently at Loyola University in Baltimore. And as you know, you had lived in Seattle before, in Central New York, in Vermont, how did you feel about moving to a city here in Portland that has a very small Black population?
Kelly: For me it was, what are the ways in which I’m going to interact with the community and how are we going to, one, look at the history, but also think about what does it mean for us to examine the psychological climate? How does it feel here in Portland for people around the issue of race, especially as an African-American person. I also want to look at, ‘how do we talk about it?’ What’s the behavioral aspects of it and then what are the plans for the future? I had lived in Maryland, where we had a long history of redlining that created very segregated communities in the city of Baltimore, no less. And as you think about our country and where we are, we’re more segregated in some ways than we were like in the sixties. And so for me, I think I knew of people here, in the Portland area, and in the Pacific Northwest that I could connect with and I could meet with. I already knew Robin Holmes-Sullivan, so I thought at least there’d be a community here for me to have and I think about raising my children here and how they would interact with others and where they would go to school. But for me it’s about, how are we choosing to move forward?
Miller: Robin Holmes-Sullivan, you represent many firsts right now at Lewis and Clark: The first woman, the first person of color, and the first out LGBTQ person ever to serve as President of Lewis and Clark. How do you think about all of those firsts together?
Robin Holmes-Sullivan: I have been thinking about it a lot because so many people have been talking to me about it, and it’s very noticeable to people and I’m really happy that it’s causing conversation. I think it’s causing reflection and it’s bringing about a sense of excitement about what it might mean for our state, for our city here in Portland and of course for our school Lewis and Clark College. And so I think it’s a great opportunity. It’s one that I’m planning on and have been leaning into, as they say, more than willing to to talk about it. But I also let people know that even though it’s a first for the college and in some ways, us all, being African-American Presidents in Portland, also first I would probably say, and I’m sure this is the case for my colleagues, that being first in higher education is kind of the norm for many of us, because most of us have worked at predominantly white institutions, predominantly heterosexual institutions, predominantly, you know, male-led institutions. And so one of the things that’s positive for me is that it’s not unusual to be a first, because that’s been the case with every job that I’ve ever started in higher education. So I bring that experience with me, that emotional tolerance with me. And I know how important it is for me to talk about it and to help others to come behind me, and so that it doesn’t always have to be that you’re the first of this, or the first of that.
Miller: Correct me if I’m wrong. But one of the subtexts I heard there is, that this isn’t necessarily something that you want to be continually asked about, but it’s something people keep bringing up. Did I get that wrong?
Holmes-Sullivan: No, it’s not that I have a negative feeling about it, it’s more of an acceptance that it is different and it is noticeable. So of course people are gonna bring it up. It would be as though when someone says I don’t see color yet, they’re looking at a Black person. That’s absolutely impossible. Of course you see the color. So people are going to see these differences, are going to note them and they’re going to talk about them. And I think that that is something that needs to happen and be noticed. I’m just looking forward to the time when that’s not the only thing that necessarily is noticed, and that will take a little bit of time. A friend of mine who is the President of University of Washington; she said it took about two years before people stopped introducing her as the ex-Ppresident, you know, put whatever you want in front of that. So that’s not too long. So I think I can make that.
Miller: Danny Jacobs, that part of what we were just hearing there from Robin Holmes-Sullivan is the question of, at least in my mind, what does it take, and what’s maybe the systemic work that needs to happen, so the ‘first’ doesn’t mean the ‘only,’ or the last – that it’s no longer something that really deserves that much special notice. What do you see as the systemic work that needs to happen just at your institution at OHSU?
Jacobs: We start with, I think, at least I hope, that’s what we’re trying to do here is an appreciation that what I call, and others call, capital ‘D,’ diversity is good for every institution, every act in the health center. It’s only because if we are to attend to the health and well being of all Oregonians, then the diverse organizations are the ones that do the best job in terms of treating patients with the highest outcomes, educating the next generations of health care providers, doing impactful research that will improve Public Health and outcomes. While also of course thinking and acting differently in terms of how we administer those programs. So the business case is sound. The literature is sound. What I think we often have to do is educate the members, as I call them, as to why and how capital ‘D’ diversity is also good for them, regardless of whether they belong to a marginalized group or not.
Holmes-Sullivan: And David, if I could just build on that a little bit. There was a recent article that just came out in ‘Inside Higher Education’, which is a publication that writes about education writ large. And there’s definitely a momentum that is afoot, and it is reflected in the numbers that we’re seeing of academic leaders of color at various institutions between I think it was 2019 and 2020, that number was about 18% across all minority groups. And it has jumped for the 2021 year to closer to 26%. And of that, you know, a quarter of that percentage are African-American leaders. And so I really do think that a couple of things that are happening are, one, that there are people of color that are in the pipeline that are in those chairmanships that are in those leadership roles, and now they’re actually being considered. Why not then? Why not us for that top role? We are there. We’re ready. We bring a variety of experiences and expertise that can really make a difference. And it’s reflective of what we keep talking about as a country, we keep talking about in higher education, the importance of diversifying the faculty, of diversifying the academic leadership, of bringing, you know, a variety of experiences and opportunities. And so something is definitely afoot. And we see that very, very clearly. And the most important thing is for that to continue, to continue to do the things that we’re doing to get folks in that pipeline, be ready to take on the leadership challenges.
Miller: Robert Kelly? Are there specific diversity, equity and inclusion policies that you plan to introduce at the University of Portland?
Kelly: For me, it’s how do we look at the inherent dignity and worth of every single person? We are all, you know, for us, as we’re a Catholic Holy Cross Institution. And so as we think about how we’re treating everybody, I think that it begins, it begins with that. So what my my hope would be to start with, striving to create a spirit of inclusion; What does it mean on campus? How does it feel? But then I think that there’s specific ways in which we can increase one, the structural, the sheer numbers, the structural diversity that you might see on campus. But then I think moving into moreso, and more importantly, in some ways, the psychological climate for that diversity as well as what’s happening behaviorally on campus. So for me, it’s beyond specific policies, but it’s, how are we striving to have a spirit of inclusion across the board?
Miller: Robin Holmes-Sullivan, this is a particularly interesting time, it seems to me, for higher education, with so much political uncertainty and climate anxiety. There are huge questions about both the kind of future that young people need to be preparing for, but also the role that colleges and universities should have going forward to prepare them for that uncertain future. Do you see a changing role for institutions like Lewis and Clark?
Holmes-Sullivan: You know, I really do, especially for the small liberal arts, where, you know, the faculty in particular, but also the staff, have an opportunity to have, you know, very close working relationships with with their students because of our size and because of the approach that we take, I think the opportunities just abound. But in general, I think all of us have to commit to the fact that what’s happening in our country, that what’s happening for our young people is something that we all should be concerned about and ready to take the opportunity to help them. So, for example, at Lewis and Clark, last year we began an approach of, ‘How can we have more dialogue and conversation with opportunities to talk across differences, regardless of the topic, even if it’s a difficult one,’ to realize that we can have differences, opinions, ideological differences, that’s absolutely fine. But we still need to stay ‘within community,’ we still need to be able to talk and have these discussions without splintering across our groups. And I think that that is an opportunity that all schools can do and take a part of something that we’re really going to make sure that we work, work because we want to help students to build those competencies, that tolerance to have constructive conversations even when they leave school? Because it’s clear that’s what’s missing right now in our country. So it is a unique opportunity for liberal arts colleges to really work very closely with their students about how to be active citizens that contribute, but also to know how to foster and stay ‘within community,’ and I am very, very excited about that opportunity. It keeps me very hopeful.
Miller: Danny Jacobs, you are training people, whether in Medical School or Residencies now for a medical field that has faced a huge amount in the last two and a half years. How do you prepare people to not burn out?
Jacobs: Number one, there’s a general recognition of the pressures that have always existed in the Health Sciences, but I think have been accentuated over the past several years, of course. They’ve always been there, but until recently, without saying to ourselves, ‘Well, gosh, we need to better prepare our learners,’ which means we need to have course-specific coursework that talks about the pressures of being in the Health Professions as folks get exposed to it. Part two is, as we think about the future of Healthcare, which I think is ‘Patient centered, family-oriented and team based.’ It’s about acknowledging that those pressures exist and then asking, ‘How can we work together more effectively as a team in order to mitigate some of those stresses,’ while still providing the very best care possible. So just acknowledging that those pressures exist, I think is fundamentally different from my thirty years in academic medicine.
Miller: Robert Kelly, you said you wanted to instill hope in your students by being honest about what got us here. How do you do that in a moment when many people in this country do not even want to talk about race or racism and in some cases are passing laws to make it so that teachers can barely teach it?
Kelly: Oh God, that’s a great question. I think, you know, why we need to not shy away from the difficult, or hard, conversations and when we talk about rhetoric, it’s really important how the words we choose and how we use them. I think sometimes people end up in situations where they’re so afraid of saying the wrong thing that it almost becomes either the ‘Gotcha game,’ or people, again, people are just so afraid of saying the wrong thing that they shy away and they run from conversations. We have to equip our students and be leaders in that, be examples of that, go to that vulnerable place of going out there and speaking with one another, taking down those barriers because it’s so much more that brings us together than really what divides us when we talk about social constructs, or looking at the historical vestiges of inclusion and exclusion. We have to talk about those things or be prepared to not be leaders in this new world that we’re entering, if we’re going to be leaders, if we’re gonna be ready, if we’re going to be able to tackle the biggest issues for the most disenfranchised, the marginalized and ‘the Other,’ we have to be able to talk about it or you know, and I’m pretty upfront with this, you know, or we want them to do something else with that education. It’s such a gift, it’s such a privilege to have it, that if they’re not going to do that, they’re not going to lean into what can sometimes be a difficult, uncomfortable and challenging conversation, they need to be doing something else. College and the university environment, it’s not meant to be safe, it’s meant to be a learning environment and sometimes learning is going to occur when there’s a little bit of, you know, uncomfortable nature. So for me, we got to do it, we got to jump into it, but we need our faculty and staff and administrators to be mentors and role models and lead the way for our students.
Miller: Robin Holmes-Sullivan. When you eventually look back on your tenure as President, a tenure you just started, a couple weeks ago, what do you most want to be able to say you’ve done?
Holmes-Sullivan: That’s a great question and you’re right – when you’re just starting your thinking about all the things in the future that you hope will happen, you’re not really looking back quite yet, but you know, I think a couple of things, we’ve already talked about; you know, opening the doorway or the pathway for others to come after me who represent various types of identities and for that to become more normative, whether that’s at the president level, faculty or staff level. I do hope that that is something that my legacy will leave, as well as what we were just talking about, that we are a college where a community, that is able to have difficult and constructive conversations and work through them in such a way that we stay very connected as a community. There’s a cultural shift that has happened. What we see right now is that students come in, I believe, our students come to your class with very strong values around social justice. They’re very interested in inclusion and acceptance and and lifting everyone up, but they don’t know what and how to do that, and they need to see it more – kind of demonstrated from the top all the way back down, and when they do kind of linger into that every once in a while then social media really does kind of come down very hard – and that’s a moment like that ‘Gotcha moment’ that Dr. Kelly was talking about. So there really is a fear that we’re not supposed to talk about things that are hard or difficult or have a question about something. So, you know, five, ten years from now when I’m no longer in this role, if that has changed, the culture that we feel, and we can see that we have these kinds of conversation, this, this kind of inquiry that is just a norm for our college. I will feel very, very positive about my time.
Miller: Danny Jacobs. What about you? What do you want to be able to say you have accomplished?
Jacobs: I kind of pivot that just a bit because I think this is, not to be pejorative, but it’s about what we have accomplished. I think certainly in academic health centers, often there’s a tendency to say what has the president done or what have a few senior executive leaders done, when I think certainly for OHSU and what I think is the future of academic health centers is what we have done. So it’s not ‘me,’ ‘my,’ it’s ‘us,’ ‘ours,’ ‘we’ which we try to focus on here. But if you said to me, ‘Gosh, what would I like folks to say when I retire,’ and not to oversimplify it, but folks, regardless they may not know exactly what happened. But I would feel gratified if folks said ‘Yes, things got better.’ Not sure exactly what caused things to get better, maybe in some cases they can, but I think that there is this perception of improvement. And I think part of that would be that more folks would say, I see something of value to me personally, relative to my own belief systems, for example, I can see part of that in the institution’s mission vision and values and I’m glad to be here and pleased to support our mission activities. I really appreciated the other comments that were made too, because I think this issue of freedom in the public square, if you will, freedom to share opinions, is critically important. A lot of work to be done to make sure that, at least here at OHSU for example, and I think in other academic health centers, that we communicate, that diverse opinions are welcomed, but language and words do matter and clarity of purpose is fundamental. So if folks look back on my tenure here and say progress is made, progress was made. I’m not sure exactly what happened, but the institution improved. If that included a better recognition of the opportunities to have to encourage debate but encourage debate that is direct, non threatening and non confrontational, if they mentioned that is something that was different about the organization that would be gratifying to me.
Miller: And Robert Kelly, what about you? What do you hope to be able to say when you eventually look back on your time as President of the University of Portland?
Kelly: As the University of Portland, I hope that we will be able to say that we are anchored in Portland, engaged in Portland, but that we are the premier Catholic University on the West Coast, offering unparalleled experiences for students to be seen and heard in their entirety. The only way to do that is to be a national leader in issues of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice.
Miller: Robert Kelly, Robin Holmes-Sullivan and Danny Jacobs, thanks very much.
Kelly / Jacobs / Holmes-Sullivan: Thank you. Okay, thank you. Thank you.
Miller: Robert Kelly is the new President of the University of Portland’s. Robin Holmes-Sullivan is the new President of Lewis and Clark and Danny Jacobs has been the President of OHSU since 2018. We talked last week. Tomorrow on the show, three Washington breweries recently filed suit in federal court in Oregon. They say Oregon is unconstitutionally blocking out of state breweries from shipping beer directly to customers in the state. If you don’t want to miss any of our shows, you can listen on the NPR One App on Apple Podcasts or wherever you like to get your podcasts. Our nightly rebroadcast is at eight p.m. Thanks very much for tuning in to Think Out Loud on OPB and KLCC. I’m Dave Miller, we’ll be back tomorrow.
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