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A Sense of Shared Vision

A Sense of Shared Vision
An Interview with Dr. Helen Giles-Gee, Ninth President of Keene State College

Photo: President Helen Giles-Gee President Helen Giles-Gee made time to sit down for a Keene State Today interview in early October, during one of the most challenging weeks of her first semester. Floods had devastated homes and businesses in Cheshire County, and the College was on a 24-hour watch for the possibility that a rising Ashuelot River might disrupt academic and residential life. Meanwhile, Dr. Giles-Gee was involved in efforts to lend assistance to families and organizations that hadn't been as fortunate as the College.

Did Keene State, as a community, prepare you for what you experienced when you arrived in July?
There are always some things that you can't be prepared for, but the feel of the community surpassed my expectations. The welcomes were more plentiful – the help in getting adjusted, the many kindnesses – were more than I ever could have expected. People have been wonderful.

New England has a reputation that you have to be here for a few generations before you truly feel welcome. That doesn't sound like the case for you.
I feel really fortunate. A nice thing about being president is that it's part of the job just to go out and walk down Appian Way and say "hello," go to the dining hall, go to the practice fields and games. I'm already good friends with the women's rugby squad. I went over to watch them practice and the coach asked, "Do you know who this is?" And one student said, "She's the president!" And I offered her tea in my office as a reward for answering the question correctly. Then the team asked for a tea party if they would win the game. I countered that they could get a tea party if they would get into the playoffs. They're in Division II for the first year and they didn't win the next game yet when I stopped by their game during Homecoming they won. Their cheer was, "We're gonna get a tea party!" And yes, they will get a tea party.

You often speak about the sense of community here, but of course every college uses that word a lot. Do you think "community" means more at Keene State than at other places?
I've seen some remarkable things here: the Katrina response, the efforts to help the Red Cross after the disastrous flooding here and in neighboring towns. I came in at seven yesterday morning, and a student came to talk about helping with flood relief. I invited him back with representatives from the Red Cross, and we sat with the crisis management team to see what else we could do to help the community deal with what was happening. All over campus, people are talking about raising money, raising awareness. There's a strong tradition here of helping others. The sense of service is at a high level here.

I realize that the primary community enterprise here is academic. This is where a sense of shared vision is most important. The more I learn about the academic program, the more I sense that it's just not being articulated as much as it should so that our excellence can be recognized. I'm excited that by 2009, the year of our Centennial, we can realize, articulate, and celebrate our academic excellence as a college.

Since you arrived, you've been meeting one-on-one with faculty and staff with the intention of talking with everyone who works here. How would you describe those meetings?
I think I've met with well over 100 faculty and staff so far. One thing the meetings have accomplished is that when I go out now and meet with groups on campus I'm not just a talking head; I know people in almost every meeting; people who work in all different venues across the College. It's been wonderful. We've shared information, ways of thinking that have been really rich. I've learned about common threads here – what people value, how they value each other, and the way they feel about coming to work. Those talks are some of the best times of my week.

Yes, I could lay out a plan, but it wouldn't be a plan that would be worthy of the College because everybody here has to contribute to it. Let's talk a little about what set you on your professional path. You grew up in Alabama; tell me a little about your family.
My father was brought up in Alabama. Some of my father's uncles died in a mine cave-in. He was a steel worker at United States Steel in Fairfield, Alabama, and retired from his job after working there for over 40 years.

My mother's family had been a bit well to do, had been property owners, her grandparents on her mother's side had been forced off their land, allegedly by the Klan, with no explanation. Her father's family had some land and wealth and so he went to college – Tuskegee, where at that time the majors were very limited. He earned a degree in carpentry and built houses, and he sent his kids to college. My mother attended Talladega College, majored in microbiology, and became a teacher.

She seems to have been quite an influence on you and your four sisters.
Both of my parents believed that education was the way for us to accomplish something, and it was pretty explicit that we would go to college; we never questioned it. They spent every cent they had on the all-black, segregated parochial schools we attended in Alabama, so we studied and any opportunities that would come our way, like National Science Foundation programs, we took advantage of.

My older sister Barbara was a National Achievement Scholar and wanted to work in research. One of the many college catalogs she received showed pictures of students in labs looking through microscopes and working on research. It was the University of Pennsylvania, and she figured why not? We didn't know it was Ivy League, but she applied and was admitted with a full scholarship and did very well.

I wanted to go to the University of Chicago, and I was admitted with one stipulation: Each student was supposed to earn $500 to contribute to the tuition. My dad said we didn't have it and I couldn't go. I had also applied to Penn and got in with scholarships. Chicago called me to find out why I wasn't coming, and I said we can't afford the $500 and I can't get a job here to earn the money. Chicago's Admissions offered, "We can waive that." So I was excited, and I went running to my parents saying, "Look, they're going to waive everything," and my dad said, "You're still going to Penn."

And so, two more of my sisters have attended the University of Pennsylvania with the youngest attending Tuskegee University, as my grandfather had three generations earlier.

So all five of you attended college...
Yes, Barbara earned an M.D. from Temple University and is a physician in Washington; then there's me; the next, Deborah, with an undergraduate degree from Wharton and an MBA from the University of Pittsburgh, is a partner in her own investment/insurance company in Philadelphia; the next, Susan, earned a master's in urban and regional planning from Morgan University and a J.D from the University of Maryland and is a lawyer and an assistant city solicitor for Baltimore with expertise in entertainment law. The youngest, Veronica, is an engineer and plant manager in Charlotte, North Carolina.

I realize that the primary community enterprise here is academic. This is where a sense  of shared vision is most important. And you became a zoologist...
Among other things. I actually started out as a math major. From high school, I was interested in group theory and number theory but the department at Penn wouldn't allow me to take those courses until much later, so I decided to test out other courses and other possible majors, eventually developing my own major of psychobiology, which has since been institutionalized and is now one of the largest majors at Penn.

And eventually you became a professor of biology. What was your particular interest in that area?
Population biology – the characteristics of populations and how they are distributed over the territories of an ecosystem. I dealt with human as well as animal populations. I did studies in population behavior and aging; one was a look at morbidity rates to determine what factors were affecting minority health. Eventually, though, I changed my field from zoology to assessment and evaluation. I started to do consulting and evaluated tests by ETS – the PSAT and some others for the Armed Forces. Then, as an administrator, I evaluated how to improve practices within colleges and universities.

Your Ph.D. is in measurement, evaluation, and techniques of experimental research, and we've already seen at Keene State that you believe in careful planning and measuring results. With your experience and expertise, you could come up with a good blueprint for this college, all by yourself. But that's not what you're doing.
No, it's not.

Talk about that for a minute, please.
Yes, I could lay out a plan, but it wouldn't be a plan that would be worthy of the College because everybody here has to contribute to it. By listening to people across campus, alumni and other constituents, I'm hearing about the elements that need to be included in a plan. I'm also reading earlier plans and looking at the foundations that created this College. I've learned a lot of good things; people have been wonderful in contributing their thoughts about priorities and values, and the threads are starting to weave together. I'm in a great place to help frame the best direction for Keene State.

What is it going to take for Keene State to be in the place it deserves by our Centennial?
We are going to have to be a bit entrepreneurial. Some of our programs already are an example of that – Safety Studies is one, thanks in part to Senator Gregg and some others who have invested their energy, influence, and resources. Science and technology – thanks to our new Science Center, these are areas that will provide remarkable academic opportunities for students as well as expand our ability to serve this state and region with outreach programs and highly skilled graduates. But we are rich in so many other ways, and in programs that don't receive as much attention as they deserve in all our academic areas, arts and humanities, professional studies, the sciences. We need to tell our story better than ever, so that we can attract the attention and resources that will take our academic programs to a higher level.

Some of the major academic initiatives are moving toward implementation – the plan to establish four-credit courses as the norm and a new, ambitious general education plan. How have you been involved in those projects?
The toughest thing a president has to do is to keep her hands off – in my case to trust a very good interim vice president for academic affairs, cheer the faculty on with their very good work, comment on outcomes and expectations, but not micromanage how they get there. These are really good faculty, they are doing a great job, the deans are spectacular. I would love to get my hands in it, but I have to keep some distance. Instead I'm asking questions about results: How will the gen. ed. program be integrated with the major requirements? Do we know that four-credit courses will be that much more rigorous? At the end of students' careers here, what will these new approaches enable them to do? So I ask those questions and trust the faculty and the administration to keep them in consideration.

I don't think you have an easy job. But a description of your last position, provost at Rowan University, is very intimidating – responsible for the academic affairs division, including the Graduate School and five other colleges, not to mention information resources, 19 centers and institutes, and a separate Rowan campus.
If you look back through at the jobs I've taken, there've been some weighty responsibilities. For example the SUNY-Cortland position – that ad should have said Run Away. I was responsible for athletics, and they had one of the largest programs in Division III anywhere. Meanwhile, in addition to supervising off-campus sites, there was the recertification of 60 teacher-ed programs. We did fine. The people were wonderful; what they wanted, I wanted too. They wanted excellence. I said, "Are you willing to work for it, because it's going to be hard," and they said "yes."

And I feel the same here, that people want the excellence that's just a fraction of an inch away, and I feel that everyone here is willing to work for it. We know that there are some constraints and some challenges, but we will make the opportunities, because we are going to do what's necessary to get there.