Education

Retiring York College president discusses walking a fine political line

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Next June, Pamela Gunter-Smith will retire after 10 years as president of York College, a private nonprofit institution with about 4,000 students in south-central Pennsylvania. She was previously provost of Drew University, a private nonprofit college in New Jersey, and had a stint at Spelman College, a historically Black institution in Atlanta, from which she earned her bachelor’s degree. 

A headshot image of Pamela Gunter-Smith.

Pamela Gunter-Smith

Courtesy of York College

 

Gunter-Smith, who is Black, is the first woman of color to serve as York’s president. Steering the college, located in a conservative slice of the state, has had its challenges. In the last few years especially, Gunter-Smith has navigated speaking up about racism as the U.S. experiences a racial reckoning — and then contended with the backlash. 

The campus has also experienced race-centered controversies. The college in 2017 sponsored an exhibit on race but closed it to the public, an unusual decision in light of academe’s principles of free inquiry. And less than two years later, York was caught photoshopping students of color in place of White students in one of its advertisements.

The typical problems in higher education plague York College, too. Its enrollment has tumbled by about 1,400 students since 2012, a particular pain point considering the difficult demographics in Pennsylvania. The well of traditional high school graduates headed to college in the state is forecasted to continue drying up. 

In 2018, York’s enrollment and budget picture was so poor faculty mulled a no-confidence vote against Gunter-Smith after administrators moved to cut compensation. 

In an interview, Gunter-Smith talked about how the campus needed to “get over the expectation of what a leader is supposed to be” and also how she and her husband were ultimately embraced. 

Here’s more about what she had to say on her expansive academic career, lessons learned at York and advice for successor.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

HIGHER ED DIVE: What prompted your retirement from York?

PAMELA GUNTER-SMITH: I had planned to retire in June of this year, then I extended it for a year for two reasons. The first is I wanted to get us out of COVID. When I look back, I really lost about 2-1/2 years in terms of accomplishing some things because of dealing with COVID. I wanted to have more of a normal type of year.

The other reason is that we had just finished our strategic plan, which was the first plan that was really developed from the bottom up working with the community. I wanted to make sure that the institution had a direction moving forward that built upon what we had done in the past, but provided a framework for my successor. Putting all those things together, the timing was about right.

I saw one president who left after nine years and everyone was saying, “Oh no, what, you know, don’t leave.” And I saw some presidents that stayed a little too long. I had decided that I wanted to retire at a time when I felt the community appreciated the work that I had done.

You’ve worked at several distinct types of institutions, including an HBCU. What’s been the biggest difference between them and York, which is in a conservative area?

First of all, I am a woman of color. There’s more of us now at majority- serving institutions, but I’m the first one here. People didn’t quite know what to expect from me. I’m different from my predecessor who was a very tall, white-haired, White guy. 

And we had very different personalities. People have different things in mind about how a leader acts, what a leader looks like. And this other person had been here for 22 years, that was the only leadership style they knew. I wouldn’t say it was a challenge, but it was a challenge, and how did they see me in terms of my leadership style being effective?

I was told it was very conservative. You’re not going to be accepted, you have to be born there to be accepted there. But I found this community really embraced me and my husband here. 

Once we got over that expectation of what a leader is supposed to be, who the president is supposed to be, I think people welcomed the talents I brought. I love students, I love spending time with our students. On my inauguration evening, I was on the gym floor dancing with the mascot. That was definitely not something they were used to. 

But it’s interesting you bring that up because there is a segment of our constituent groups that are very, very conservative and concerned about colleges being left and liberal and my style. But to me it hasn’t been anything that’s been difficult to navigate. 

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