Listening, Observing, Adapting, and Problem Solving

on August 25 | in Featured | by

New president Pareena Lawrence draws upon a lifetime of personal and professional experiences to inform her leadership philosophy.

by Jeff Hodges M.A.L.S. ’11

Pareena Lawrence

When Pareena Lawrence and her sister were growing up in India, their father affectionately compared them to two of the world’s most recognized women, trailblazers who took starkly diverse approaches to the betterment of society.

“My sister was much more competitive and focused on personal goals and achievements, while I was more concerned about what we could do to make the world a better and more equitable place,” Lawrence recalls. “My father would introduce us to his friends and colleagues by saying, ‘I have two daughters: one is Margaret Thatcher and the other is Mother Teresa.’ Today, my sister is an investment banker in Singapore and I’m a college president. We’re different, but I admire her competitive instincts and sharp focus on her goals and she admires my commitment to educating the next generation of change makers and collectively solving complex problems.”

Indeed, Hollins’ twelfth president has solved problems and overcome challenges by using her considerable listening, observation, and analytical skills. From growing up in a society where women were often treated as second-class citizens and then moving alone to America to get her Ph.D., to her transition from professor to higher education administrator, her ability to learn and adapt has played a crucial role in shaping the leader who will oversee and coauthor the next chapter of Hollins’ history.

“A Gendered Society”

Pareena Lawrence family

President Lawrence, and her family, growing up in India in the ’70s – top to bottom, left to right: Pratap Singh, Padma Gupta, Pareena Gupta, Sonali Gupta (sister).

Indian girls and women still faced formidable obstacles when Lawrence was born and raised in the 1970s and ’80s. “Girls are often assigned more household chores, while their brothers have more time to devote to schoolwork,” she explained. “At mealtimes, it is not uncommon, particularly in rural homes, for men to eat first and the women to eat later. Sometimes very little food is left after the men are done eating. I clearly recall while growing up, my parents, with two daughters, were constantly asked, ‘Aren’t you going to try for a son? Who is going to take care of you in your old age?’ The universal view was there was no return on investment in your daughters. One needed to have a son.”

When Lawrence entered college in the mid to late ’80s, different standards remained pervasive. “Girls had to be back in the dorms by six in the evening; boys could stay out until much later. Sexual harassment was widespread, but you didn’t complain because you were afraid your parents might consider withdrawing you from attending school or college. So you told yourself, ‘As long as I’m safe, I can tolerate and navigate through the verbal and sometimes physical abuse.’ In the public sphere, there never was a moment when I could ever forget that I was a woman. I had to dress appropriately and speak appropriately. It was part and parcel of growing up in a gendered society.”

Fortunately, Lawrence’s parents defied societal norms “and gave my sister and me every opportunity to succeed. We had limited resources. But my father stressed the importance of education and told us if we didn’t want the lives we saw other girls and women lead, we had to focus on our education and make a life for ourselves. My parents did everything they could to support us, even as some of our neighbors and relatives would say, ‘Why is your daughter wasting time studying? Why aren’t you teaching her how to cook and take care of the family? After all, that is what is going to come in handy for her someday, not all this education stuff.’”

Before Lawrence entered the seventh grade, her father conceived of a way to get her into a highly selective all-girls boarding and day school. A civil engineer in the Indian military service (he had completed a certificate program in engineering), he agreed to do some design work for the school in exchange for his daughter’s admission. Over the next six years, Lawrence thrived (an experience she discusses in her essay on page 2 of this issue). Lawrence’s academic devotion and her father’s ingenuity paid off: She went on to study economics at India’s top university, the University of Delhi.

“You Were Thrown In to Figure It Out”

Pareena Lawrence

President Lawrence received assistance from the campus community as she moved into Lorimer House in late June.

At age 21, Lawrence graduated from the Delhi School of Economics with a master’s degree. However, she faced a major dilemma. “If I stayed in India to get my Ph.D., there would be tremendous pressure to enter into marriage. I would most likely not have a chance to finish my doctorate. Intellectually it made sense to go overseas to study in the United States or the United Kingdom. But emotionally this was a difficult decision. I had no relatives in the U.S. or U.K. and knew no one there. My family had never traveled overseas before. In fact, none of us even had a passport, nor had I ever seen a passport.”

Ultimately, she accepted Purdue University’s offer of a full remission of tuition plus a teaching assistantship that covered her living expenses. These important financial benefits were offset, however, by other challenges: a graduate program with few women, a very competitive academic atmosphere, little community amongst her peers in the graduate dorms, and no mentors to help navigate what was expected of her academically. Lawrence’s academic survival depended upon her penchant for learning and adaptation that she developed during the first two decades of her life. “You were thrown in to survive and figure it out, so I just absorbed what to do by observing my American classmates and colleagues. It was all very different from India, and I had to learn mundane tasks such as how to operate a washer and dryer– I actually watched stealthily how it was done for over an hour – and more profound pursuits, including how to actively participate in the American classroom, how to study, and most importantly, how to write a research paper and make arguments supported by evidence.” Despite the initial culture shock, Lawrence’s patience and resourcefulness enabled her to begin achieving success at Purdue within a few months of her arrival.

“I Realized Education Was My Calling”

Lawrence’s ability to adjust when facing barriers was tested again after she completed her Ph.D. in 1993. “I thought I was going to make a difference in the world by working for an international development organization,” she recalled, but an economic recession froze budgets and hiring at several of these organizations. As a stopgap, she decided to take an academic position and hope for a healthier job market the following year.

Lawrence began teaching at the University of Minnesota, Morris, a public liberal arts college. Within three months, she was no longer considering jobs in international development. “I fell in love with teaching and mentoring students at a small, residential liberal arts college. I realized education was my calling. I could make a bigger impact in the world by teaching and preparing students to go out and make a positive difference in their communities and the larger world. I could see the indirect multiplier effect I could have.”

Indeed, many of Lawrence’s students have gone on to serve with international and governmental agencies in the United States and overseas. Her accomplishments earned accolades: She won the University of Minnesota, Morris Alumni Association Teaching Award in 2005 and the Horace T. Morse – University of Minnesota Alumni Association Award for Outstanding Contributions to Undergraduate Education the following year. In 2008, she became a full professor of economics and management.

The classroom environment was fulfilling, but Lawrence discovered that she could have an even more profound impact at the institutional level. Many of her experiences as a junior faculty member led her to conclude, “If you want to change the system, you have to join the system.”

“While I am a Problem Solver, Planner, Innovator, and Strategic Thinker, I am also a Very Good Listener

Pareena Lawrence

Pareena Lawrence at the announcement of Hollins’ 12th president on November 29, 2016.

The University of Minnesota system gave Lawrence the standard six years to earn tenure. To succeed, she was bluntly told: “Don’t stop your tenure clock if you want to be considered a serious academic.”

“If you had a child or adopted a child while you were a tenure-track professor, you were eligible to stop your tenure clock to take the pressure off from research and publication. You were still expected to teach and serve the institution. They called it ‘stopping the clock,’” she explained. “When I became pregnant with my firstborn before I had earned tenure, I was told, ‘Nobody has stopped their clock in our division. Even though you’re allowed by policy, you’re going to raise eyebrows if you do this. You won’t be taken seriously as a scholar or a researcher.’ So I didn’t. But later on, I thought, ‘Why did I force myself over that year to push forth with my scholarship when I had a newborn child? I shouldn’t have had to do that. Somebody has to start changing the system.’ So, when I had the opportunity to become the chair of the Division of Social Sciences, I strongly encouraged my female and male colleagues to consider stopping their clocks. ‘This is your right as a parent, and no one will hold that against you when it comes time for tenure or promotion,’ I told them.”

Lawrence decided that she could affect positive change on a macro level as an administrator. In 2011, she was appointed provost and chief academic officer at Augustana College in Illinois. Her leadership draws heavily upon her experience as a professor and as a researcher. “My leadership, just as my teaching and scholarship, is informed by data, evidence, and context. But it’s also inclusive. While I am a problem solver, planner, innovator, and strategic thinker, I am also a very good listener. I strongly believe that the best solutions come when a participatory and inclusive approach is used. At Augustana, we brought the entire community together as part of the strategic planning effort to explore our strengths, opportunities, aspirations, as well as our realities. We were able to implement our strategic plan much faster because people had ownership of the plan, the broad strategies and the tactics.”

“‘You’ve Got to be a College President’”

Lawrence with search committee

Judy Lambeth ’73, chair of the Board of Trustees; former President Gray; President Pareena Lawrence; and Linda Koch Lorimer ’74, chair of the presidential search committee

Lawrence believes her leadership style complements Hollins’ mission. “My more recent research, both as an economist and as a chronicler, looks at individuals and how they impact their communities. (Her new book, Life Histories of Women Panchayat Sarpanches from Haryana, India, was published this summer by Cambridge Scholars Publishing.) One of the things that I’ve learned is that if you want to make a positive impact on a community, you must educate and empower women. My empirical work conducted in Northern India shows that women have a much greater interest than men in issues related to health, the environment, and education. I’m not downplaying men’s role, but men are more often engaged with priorities such as income, trade, and transportation. Women are more interested in fundamental societal change that will affect the quality of life not only today but also for the next generation.”

Along with what she has drawn from her scholarly work, Lawrence emphasizes the part colleagues and family have played in her personal and professional life. The late Brenda Barnes, the first female CEO of PepsiCo and later president, chairman, and chief executive of Sara Lee, became Lawrence’s mentor while Barnes was an Augustana College trustee. Barnes was the first person to tell her, “You’ve got to be a college president.”

Lawrence advises young women who are thinking about starting a family and career that “the most important choice you’re going to make is who you pick as your life partner and how they will support your career. I have a tremendous partner in Todd,” her husband, who will join Lawrence in residence at Lorimer House next year after their youngest son, Josh, graduates from high school in Iowa. Aaron, their oldest son, is a junior at Augustana majoring in biology and public health.

“Aaron’s passion is to be a football coach and mentor young men. It gets him up at six in the morning excited about his day in a way that his organic chemistry lab does not! That’s what I’ve always tried to impress upon my students and my kids and have practiced in my own life: Where your passions intersect with the needs of the world, that’s your calling and that’s what leads you to live a life of consequence.”

Jeff Hodges is director of public relations.

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