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New Hamline U president grabs the reins

Posted on 09 September 2015 by Calvin

Dr. Fayneese Miller aims to apply her own life’s lessons to her new post as Hamline University’s 20th president

By JAN WILLMS

Dr Miller Hamline U 2New ground is being broken at Hamline University. For the first time, the college has selected an African American, Dr. Fayneese Miller, as its president. She is also only the second woman to achieve this post.

For Miller, being a trailblazer is not a new role. She was the first African-American woman to get her Ph.D. from Texas Christian University (TCU) in Fort. Worth, TX. And she was the first African-American woman to achieve tenure at Brown University in Providence, RI.

“When I was at Brown, I would work day and night because I had to be better than, rather than as good as,” Miller reflected in a recent interview in her office in Hamline’s Old Main. “I made sure I had the publications, made sure they were good publications and that they were in the right places. So you do work hard.”

She said she also worked hard as a student at TCU. “I didn’t have the luxury of failing, because if I failed,” she said, “the probability that another woman like me would come behind me was not very high, and I knew that.”

Miller said she sacrificed a lot in graduate school, only going home to see her family at Christmas. “The rest of the time, I was studying and doing everything I could to have what I was able to do be recognized because I knew it mattered.”

Even in high school, Miller recalled that she was on a path of hard work. She was one of only two black students who was a member of academic clubs, and the only black student who went to the meetings. She explained that the high school she would have attended had been shut down during desegregation, and so she attended a high school with a population of primarily white students.

“We had the academic meetings in homes, and I would go because I needed to make sure the other students became familiar with someone like me at the clubs. I would sit in those living rooms and be extremely uncomfortable,” she recalled. “You have to keep making that effort, because if you don’t not just open the door, but knock down the door, you’re not able to show that you belong.”

“I don’t know if I’m so much of a trailblazer,” Miller noted, “but I felt as if I didn’t have a choice. We weren’t going to change things or move forward unless someone stepped up and said ‘I’ll do it.’ I’ve always been working as hard as I can to move to the next level. As I do that, I always make sure I’m reaching behind me and pulling someone else along. It’s never about me, but about so many more people. I’m just one person trying to make a difference; that’s all.”

Miller praised her parents for being excellent role models. Both were active in the civil rights movement, and they also emphasized the importance of voting.

“My parents thought the only way you could make a difference was to vote, and voting was like part of a religion in my house.”

She said that when her son, now 22, was an infant she would take him with her into the voting booth so he could get used to the actual action of voting.

Miller, who arrived at Hamline after serving as dean of the College of Education and Social Services at the University of Vermont, has a background as a social psychologist. As an undergraduate, she wrote a research paper on self-esteem and later wrote her dissertation on this topic.

“My research showed that black people didn’t like who they were, and I couldn’t understand that because I loved who I was. I decided to do research to counter that and show that not all blacks have low self-esteem,” Miller said. “We were comparing apples and oranges, comparing whites in higher socio-economic groups to blacks in lower socio-economic groups rather than comparing those coming from the same type of background. When you do that, you get different results.”

Miller said that because of her research, she became interested in understanding identity and how persons form a sense of who they are.

“I also became interested in political activism and how politics can help shape your sense of self and encourage you to take risks that you wouldn’t normally,” she added.

This research spiked her interest in working with college students and how she could help them think about themselves in a different way. She wanted to assist them to develop the skills and the knowledge they need to go out and do the work they want to do.

“When you look at your students and see what they have accomplished, it is one of the most rewarding things,” Miller said. “I do think my work in psychology—understanding motives and attitudes and beliefs—has been very instrumental in my wanting to be a part of students’ lives.”

Miller explained that to her, education is preparing a person for not only the world of work but for membership in a civil society and all that entails. She said that teaching is more than standing in front of a classroom imparting knowledge to students. “It is encouraging them to think critically, be creative and learn how to generate knowledge they can apply in different situations. Education is more than opening up that brain and shoveling in knowledge. We have a responsibility to help our students understand that they’re members of a civil society, and what that means.”

Miller started her position as Hamline’s president in July. In the short time she has been here she said she has found the college’s greatest asset to be its faculty and staff who care so deeply for the students.

“Many of them could be at different institutions where the salary might be higher or the position more prestigious, but they chose to be here at Hamline because of what Hamline is all about. Its focus is on the student and social justice. Many faculty members have been here a long time, and they are still growing and learning.”

Miller said she considers the greatest challenge, not just for Hamline but for all higher education, is to remain relevant. “We have to make sure we do,” she said, “and understand that the students who come to us are different, and not like us when we were in college. This is a challenge for all of higher education.”

A challenge for the community as a whole is race relations. Miller said she thinks great strides have been made, but not enough. “I look at the number of black women who are university presidents or school superintendents or CEOs, and the number is very small,” Miller said. “We still have a long way to go because we don’t always make it out of the pool. We might get invited to the interview, but there’s a glass ceiling there that hasn’t gone away.”

“I’m amazed and impressed that Hamline had the guts to select me because it’s not the norm. I find it disturbing that black women are always viewed as threatening, and we’re not. Those of us who have gotten both feet in the door still have lots to do. It’s assumed we got the job through affirmative action or we got the job for some reason other than our ability and our hard work. So we still have to deal with it.”

Miller said that stepping out of the field of higher education; she is truly saddened by what she sees around her.

“I’m saddened by the fact that so many parents have to tell their children to be careful of the police. I’m saddened by the belief that our kids are bad, and that they’re automatically ready to attack. In that sense, we’ve taken several steps backward.”

Miller said she recognized that some states are trying to impact negatively higher education, trying to defund it. And the fact that people’s right to vote is being threatened in some states. “That’s not just race, but looking at our elderly citizens who don’t have the credentials required,” she said. “I’m also saddened by the fact that we have someone like Donald Trump {running for president} who is making disparaging comments about people of color and women.”

Miller said she is encouraged about some things, however. “We have made some strides. Look at my family. My husband is white, and my son is biracial. My family would not look like it does if we had not made strides.”

But Miller worries about the achievement gap, wondering why it still exists. “All kids start on the same track, but we see changes in the third grade,” she noted. “What is happening in that grade that is impacting children’s ability to learn? Something is happening, even to kids who start off with early advantages. I think that something happens that negatively affects kids, some concept, not their self-esteem but how they see themselves.”

Miller recalled that as a child, she had teachers who were her champions, who taught her more than just reading and writing. “They taught me about who I am, and they were incredible. They were critical in those formative years,” she said. “You won’t hear me criticize teachers because I had some very good ones. I just hope teachers realize the impact they have. It is so important they make students feel as if they matter and can accomplish whatever they want.”

Miller said she is hoping that Hamline students will have a major voice on campus. She plans to have office hours just for students and is currently on a listening tour of Hamline. “That is just the beginning. I’m going to student events, letting them know I support them and respect them, and I’m glad they’re here,” she said. ‘I want them to know who I am,and I want to know who they are.”

Miller added that she doesn’t feel a president gets to know the institution until he or she is on campus. “I’m getting to know the staff, the faculty, the students, the person who is mowing the lawn,” she said. She is also starting to identify donors and people who want to make it possible for very deserving young people to get an education.

“I love what I do,” Miller stated. “That’s where I get my energy from. I see myself as a servant leader. Some would say that might be a derogatory term, but I don’t. I enjoy seeing the smiles on our students’ faces when they know they’re succeeding.”

“I am so thrilled and humbled by this opportunity to be president,” she said. “I never thought when I was young this is what I would be. But I certainly feel this is the right thing, and Hamline is the right place.”

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