Provost. Senior Vice Chancellor. Strawberry picker?
“It was hot, it was dirty, but I was a very good strawberry picker,” said Patricia E. Beeson. She was answering a question from Valerie Kinloch about her first job. Kinloch, the Renée and Richard Goldman Dean of Pitt’s School of Education, was the moderator of a discussion about female leadership.
Beeson joked, “It’s where I got the red hair.”
She, along with Kathy W. Humphrey and Geovette Washington, served on the panel for “Spotlight on Women Leaders at Pitt.” Humphrey is the senior vice chancellor for engagement and secretary of the Board of Trustees, and Washington is the senior vice chancellor and chief legal officer.
The Provost’s Advisory Committee on Women’s Concerns timed the March 15 event with Women’s History Month.
When asked about the biggest challenge that they have faced in their leadership roles, Beeson and Humphrey both reflected on their responses to bomb threats directed at Pitt during the 2011-12 academic year.
Beeson said that the challenge early in her tenure as provost and senior vice chancellor taught her how to unify people during a crisis.
“What I learned mostly was how great everybody at the University was and how committed everybody was to their jobs and, more importantly, how committed they were to the students,” she said.
Humphrey, then the vice provost and dean of students, recalled crying in her closet in reaction to the fears of students and their parents.
“I was in my closet in tears because I could not show fear — because I had to be the strength for my staff, for the students, for the parents who we were dealing with by day, for their young people that they were dealing (with) by night,” she said.
She added, “The reality was I knew that I had made a commitment that wherever those students were, I was going to be.”
Washington’s example came from her previous employment at the federal level as general counsel and senior policy advisor in the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. Washington, who had worked behind the scenes, was forced to assume a more prominent role when the federal government had to shut down for what she said was the first time in 20 years.
“I learned that I could go a lot of days without sleep and eating and that I could actually make tough decisions and stick with them and convey them in a way that ultimately people understood,” she said.
Beeson, Humphrey and Washington spoke to the importance of mentorship in their leadership roles.
“I think that it’s critically important to share with young people — women, men, you know, anybody who will listen — the advice of how we’ve done what we’ve been able to do, the mistakes that we’ve made along the way, ideas that we have for helping them get to the next level, and also to open doors,” said Washington.
Humphrey credited the role of mentors in her career moves, inspiring her to do the same for others. Beeson said that she did not immediately come into being a mentor, admitting that she did not think that others had interest in learning from her.
Drawing inspiration from an audience question, Kinloch asked about the University’s support of female leaders of color.
Humphrey said that Pitt has areas to improve in and pointed out that more diversity benefits the University as a whole.
“The reality is that when we are a more diverse community, we are a stronger community on all fronts, and the reality of us being a better diverse community also strengthens the messages that we are sending to our students in a subliminal way,” she said.