Assuming the presidency of a university during a pandemic brought challenges for which there was no playbook, but Dr. Lori S. White, the 21st president of DePauw University IN and the first woman and first person of color to hold the presidency, remains undaunted.
“I am so grateful for my previous experience as a vice president for student affairs. I can't imagine being in these challenging times without that,” says White, who became president of DePauw in July 2020. Her research and teaching have largely focused on the student experience in higher education and the preparation and mentorship of new, mid-level and aspiring student affairs professionals.
White says most women won't apply for a position unless they have 99 percent of the job requirements. In her case, the stopping point in pursuing a presidency was that she had never been tenured faculty. Although she had taught, her positions had primarily been administrative. Two women college presidents with whom White participated in a panel discussion the year before she applied for the presidency of DePauw told her she needed to focus on becoming a president.
“Hopefully, I can be a role model for others and create a pathway so that we no longer have to talk about the first, and we can focus on who is the best match for what a particular institution needs,” White says.
Path to the Presidency
White grew up around the world of academia but was a somewhat reluctant scholar. Her father, the late Dr. Joseph White, was a renowned researcher and professor known as the godfather of Black psychology.
“My dad encouraged me when I graduated from college to think about getting a job on a college campus,” says White. Soon after beginning her job at University of California, Irvine CA, she fell in love with working in higher education, finding her way into student affairs.
“I wanted to figure out a way to help students understand how to better navigate the university, so they could fully realize their hopes and dreams,” says White.
After a decade, she reached a point where she needed a doctorate to further her impact. White earned her Ph.D. in education administration and policy analysis with an emphasis in higher education at Stanford University CA.
She held administrative and academic positions at several prestigious universities before becoming the vice chancellor for student affairs and a professor of practice at Washington University in St. Louis MO in 2015. White has served on the board of directors for the Association for Sustainability in Higher Education and the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators Foundation. To bolster her skills and build her network, White participated in the Management and Leadership in Education Program at Harvard University MA.
White loved connecting with students and being their chief advocate on a college or university campus and wasn't sure if she could still have those deep relationships as a president. After being offered the presidency of DePauw, White says viewing the official portraits of the university's previous presidents was a crucial moment.
“As I looked at that portrait gallery…truly this voice from above said, ‘It's not about you; it's about what you represent for future generations, young women, men and women of color, who need to know that it's possible for somebody who looks like you to be president of a small liberal arts college in rural Indiana,’” recalls White.
Sense of Purpose
She accepted the presidency of DePauw a week before the nation went into quarantine mode. Within weeks of becoming president, she and her cabinet had to make decisions about how the campus would reopen for the fall 2020 semester.
“We made the decision to invite all of our students back and also let students choose as to whether they wanted to study on campus residentially, whether they wanted to be remote students and even created a new category that we never had before, which is commuter students,” says White.
To make this possible, creative classroom spaces had to be put together. Some big tents were erected on campus, which have proven to be very popular. In 2021, DePauw was the first college in Indiana to require all students to be vaccinated before the May 1 intent to enroll deadline.
“I wanted students and families to decide for themselves whether they felt comfortable with our mandate policy,” White says. “I didn't get a lot of pushback. In fact, most of our students and parents were very excited.”
For the fall 2021, with vaccinations also required for faculty and staff, the campus was back to almost full capacity.
“Historically, higher ed has been slow to change,” says White. “What the pandemic taught us is actually we can change more quickly than we imagined. We have to think as leaders, how do we not waste valuable lessons that we learned during COVID and figure out how we can continue to make our institutions more nimble, so that we can adapt to a rapidly changing world.”
White was one of the founders of LACRELA (Liberal Arts Colleges Racial Equity Leadership Alliance) that brings together nearly 80 liberal arts colleges to discuss diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) issues, share information and resources, and explore ways to more effectively partner in moving the needle on DEI. In 2018, she coedited “Transformational Encounters: Shaping Diverse College and University Leaders.”
One of the issues on which White has recently been focused is freedom of expression and helping people understand that it does not operate at cross purposes with DEI. She served on the Bipartisan Policy Center's academic leaders task force, which in November 2021 published the report “Campus Free Expression: A New Roadmap.”
“Universities have these really important values of free expression and being a place where all ideas are allowed to flow. We should be teaching our students how to develop arguments and counter-arguments for issues and ideas,” White notes. “At the same time, in allowing the free flow of ideas, we also understand that we want to create communities where all members of our community feel valued and affirmed.”
She will continue to advocate that institutions, particularly private institutions, need to be fully accessible for all who desire to be members of the educational community. White is addressing issues of access and affordability on a national level.
“There are a lot of students out there who traditionally have not been recruited by universities, by liberal arts colleges, by more selective institutions,” White says. “We all need to do more to create greater space for the wealth of students that are out there and should be able to take full advantage of educational institutions.
“Our campuses have to be places where all of our diverse students feel affirmed and have equal access to all of the resources and experiences that our institutions provide.”