Macalester welcomed Donna Lee as the new Vice President of Student Affairs this August. The former Vice President for Student Life & Dean of Students at Agnes Scott College, Donna’s focus has revolved around diversity, leadership and inclusion, and other varied areas. Lee graduated from Boston University with her M.Ed. in Counseling and has a background ranging from experience in the military to working with the Anti-Defamation League and the National Conference for Community and Justice. The Mac Weekly sat down with Lee to learn more about her transition into her new role.
TMW: Can you tell me a little bit about how you came to be here and what first attracted you to Macalester?
Donna Lee: It was such an unexpected part of my journey, it really was. I was at Agnes Scott College, [which is a] small private liberal arts college for women. I came there from Rollins, which is a private liberal arts co-ed institution. I had never heard of Agnes Scott, [but] a colleague of mine reached out and said, “This is a place you need to look at.” I went and looked and just being in that environment—I’d never been in an environment where it was all about women’s education. So, I loved the place, and had every intention of being there this year, to the point that I had already picked out the senior gifts, this summer. Because I’m so last minute, so, okay, “this year I’m going to be on top of it.” So I got the senior gifts. Except, you know, life has a funny way of taking turns and dips, and doors opening when they’re supposed to open, and I pay attention to that. Over the past year, I had received notices from search firms or from other colleges, saying “hey, we have this position, and are you interested?” and I always ignored them. So this position at Macalester came open and […] for the first time, I did notice. And there were a lot of things happening all at the same time. I noticed that there was a position, and I did pay attention to the fact that I noticed. I ran into Lisa Landreman. We were at a conference together. She said, “Hey, we have a position at Macalester.” So there was that. Then I got a phone call, it was from the person who was working with the college on the search, [they] called and wanted to talk about it. So here are now three times I’m hearing about Macalester, and I’m listening. So something has told me I needed to follow up. I started looking at the college. I became intrigued, I really did. There was something—first of all, I would only work at a liberal arts college. I attended a liberal arts college, not intentionally, I kind of stumbled upon it. And there really is something very liberating to be at a liberal arts institution […]. I had opportunities to take classes I would have never taken before, dabble in things that I never would have even dreamed of. But there was the space and freedom to do that. So you get this breadth of exposure, and then the depth that you can go into around the areas that you’re interested in. And my experience then, when I decided I wanted to go into higher ed, I knew that would be the only place that I’d want to serve. So that, being in the liberal arts, I knew that was going to be part of it. There was something about the way in which the community came together. There is a special connection among the people who both work here and attend college that you don’t see at a lot of places. There is a common care, love, and passion for this place. A commitment to students that I think is very genuine across the board. In each one of my interactions, no matter who I was talking to or what they represented, what part of the college the represented, it was about the students and enhancing the student experience and deepening the students’ learning. That all spoke to me. It was interesting, because I was kind of conflicted, I really was. It was tough being in a position where I thought I was committed to this other community and suddenly now—I kind of felt like I was cheating on them. I had to talk to my president about it, too, because I was not comfortable doing a secret search or anything like that. It was just this process of really being in touch with what my spirit was speaking to me. I think I was ready to move to a different community where I could be a part of a very special experience. I think that I will learn and grow a lot here, and I think in turn my hope is people will learn and grow from me. I had to make sure, though, that my son was on board with it, too. He’s a senior in high school. So I was honest with him from the start, too. I was like, “Jonathan, I’m looking at this potential job. I never would have thought that I would be looking now.” If anything it would have been after he graduated. The funny thing, though, when he was looking at colleges, some of those colleges we were looking at were right here in Minnesota. But I said, “You’re in your last year of [high school], I don’t know,” and he was like, “Mom, you always just follow your spirit. Just take the first step.” Just do that. So I took the first step, and the first step was turning in my application. But at the same time, I [was] kind of hoping that they were going to call and say “Thanks, but it’s not going to work.” And then [there] would be no pressure. So I get a call and it was like, okay, “Can you do a Skype interview?” But even in the Skype interview—oh my gosh, how do you connect with people digitally? But I really did. Listening to them [students on the search committee] speak about their experience, listening to even the way they saw themselves as students here, and then listening to everyone else on the committee—someone from Athletics, Civic Engagement, faculty, there was staff from the division. The President chaired it. You don’t normally see the president chairing a search committee. I really did connect. I really did. […] I hung up and I was like, “Wow, that was really cool.” That is a neat group of people and I could really see being a part of that. But they’re going to call and say, “No, it’s not going to work out.” Well, they called and said, “Come for an on-campus interview.” Well, the interview took place over a weekend, so I’m thinking, “Well, gosh, no one’s going to come out.” [But] people came out on a weekend—faculty, staff, and students—came out on a weekend. That said to me, this is a community that is so committed to each other, to this position, they take this place seriously. This is phenomenal. And just the feel on campus too. And interacting with some of the students made me realize how much I missed working at a co-ed institution too.
Is the vibe different?
The vibe is just a little different. I don’t know what it was. But I was actually a little nostalgic. But there’s just a sense of—I don’t know how you can describe it. It’s just community. And I know there are issues and challenges, every place has that. But the commitment. And then, you know, so since I’ve been here, I had the opportunity to be at Slam. And things just right away stood out to me as so different. It’s Sunday morning, 8:30 in the morning. People show up on time. And then I got the spot after lunch, and I thought, “Who’s going to be awake?” But they were all engaged. So people take their own education seriously, they are committed to their own process. I think there’s a shared responsibility for the education here that I just really find exhilarating and inspiring.
That gets to my next question: How has your first month been on the job been?
I will say that I’m a little “deer in headlights” at some points. I’m learning a whole new culture, a whole new way of doing things. But what I have found is that the community is so welcoming and supportive. They knew it was my birthday! [But] what I will say has been my biggest challenge for me: My calendar is a nightmare. And so what I was sharing with Emily [Stuber] is that I want to find a way that I can open up the calendar. Because I don’t even have time to walk across campus. I’d like to walk across campus and eat in Café Mac, go over to the Leonard Center. I feel like I had that interaction with the student leaders at slam, and now I just really want to be able to engage with everyone else, too. And it’s cool when I do get to walk across and I recognize some faces and I say hi, and I’ll do things like walk my dog through campus. But think they’re paying attention to him and not me. But I really want to find ways that I can really get immersed in the campus. So programs that I can go to—I do have some programs that are already on my calendar. But just to be a part, because I think that’s going to be the best way to get to know people and for people to get to know me. So a lot of it’s been going out to departments and getting to know different departments and how they work and who the staff are. It’s been a lot of meetings, I’ll say that. But it’s been good. I’m just taking it all in and learning. And it’s interesting too, because when you’re the new person on the block people want to hear your ideas. But it’s also important for me to kind of take some time just to listen and watch. Yes, I have ideas, but I think it’s also important that I honor the culture and history here too, because I do think my ideas, if they’re not contextualized, they might not be valid.
Going off of that, what are some goals you have for your first semester?
So definitely, the watching and learning. Another key for a tangible thing is for the CDC [Career Development Center]. There have been a couple of things that have come up. I actually heard from some students, but also from staff, that there are some needs in Health and Wellness and I think that having a person who has to manage two major departments probably feeds into that. So getting the right person in that position [Director of the CDC]. Because I do think, one of the challenges at a liberal arts college is projecting and highlighting those skills and those gifts and all of that learning that you do have, that you are able to go out and in so many ways, you are so much more equipped. The person who’s gone to just, say a state school, and I’m not slamming any other school, but you know, there are a lot of schools that are just focused on just career and getting a job. I think the fact that someone who’s gone to a school like this, your ability to interact on teams, across difference, your level of confidence, your ability to communicate both in written and oral form, are off the charts. But how do you package that and articulate that as you go out and look for a job? So, getting that position and getting that person is going to be key in helping to pull together all of those wonderful experiences that our students really do get to engage in. But I think sometimes we kind of take for granted, “Okay, I’m on the Mac Weekly and I do this or I do that,” but not really recognizing how that does synthesize into your ability to then get a job. So that’s a tangible thing. I think providing leadership within the division that I was hired to be a part of, so really examining the structure, the staffing, the resources, are we best set up to provide the best support to students? That might be a year-long [goal], but definitely engaging in that now.
Obviously, you’re coming to Mac after a year where a lot of folks in higher up administrative positions left Macalester to retire or to start new chapters in their own careers. How is that affecting your approach to your role and how you’re going to be building your relationship with the college?
You know, in one way, for me, it’s probably easier to build a relationship with [Provost] Karine Moe, who’s also new in her role, because there’s no history. So in some ways it’s easier to build that relationship. But on the other hand it could be a challenge, I guess, because there is no history. What I’ve found, though, it’s such a collaborative campus that I don’t see a lot of barriers to people opening doors and looking for ways to build those connections. Because it goes back to, again, that student interest at the center. I’ve typically been used to having to really push in to get at the table, where [here] the chair has just been pulled out for me. It’s been really refreshing. I also think that the way that the president has created the senior staff team, and calling it a team, has kind of reinforced that sense that we have to work together. So a lot of it is about relationship building, so I’ve been intentional and she [Moe] has too, about reaching out and scheduling time to get together and connect and kind of talk about what’s going on in our worlds and where are the intersections. There are a lot of committees. Even being at the table with people from across campus in different leadership roles does help with that too. I think there are enough people who have been here that there is continuity, so it’s not like we’re starting from scratch, which is really good. So I don’t have many concerns there.
I’m sure you know that Laurie Hamre, your predecessor, was in the role of Vice President for Student Affairs for 15 years. How are you going to take her legacy and build off of it, or change it, while also making the role your own?
Well, you know, I think any time you walk into such big shoes like that, you honor the gift that they’ve given to you. I do really see it as a gift. And so my hope is that my gift to the person who then would follow me is that I have built on to the legacy that she has left. I do feel that I stand on her shoulders. It really is about what leadership is, you know. You serve the community that you are so privileged to be a part of. Planting the seeds that you can while continuing to water the ones that have already been planted for you. Sometimes pruning is needed, but it’s not because of anything wrong or bad, it’s just that in order for the fruit to continue to grow, you’ve got to do some pruning. That’s how I view it. So I very much honor and treasure that gift.
Maybe thinking beyond this first year and after you’ve acclimated to campus a little bit more, what are some long-term goals that you have?
What I would say is that I would like [to] feel like student needs are being met. So if there are gaps, that they are filled. For instance, if students are feeling like the wait time at Student Health is too long, [that] we’ve figured out a way to meet that need. Is there something wrong in the structure? Do we need to provide additional services? Is there a student population that perhaps isn’t being retained at the same rate? That’s a gap. So if there are gaps, that we are filling those gaps. So that I have a sense for what the student needs are, and that we are able to responsive and nimble with that.
What’s so interesting about your background is that you didn’t take a direct path to higher education. You were in the military for nine years and you worked with humanitarian organizations like the Anti-Defamation league. What do you think you can bring from these varied experiences to Macalester?
I don’t know if want to make it about the fact that I was in the military, because even being in the military—I kind of stumbled into that. I had been essentially kicked out of school because I couldn’t pay, and that’s how I ended up in the military. And that was like I was almost at a point of desperation, I really was. But that turned out to be probably a defining experience for me. It was probably the first time that I thought about being a woman, being in an environment where I was the only woman. That taught me about the strength that I did not realize that I had, both inner strength and a physical strength, that I developed. And so, I was enlisted first, and then I went back in commission, that’s how I got my degree. Going back in as a commissioned officer, [then] I’m suddenly a leader. So I think that period when I was enlisted and then going in as a commissioned officer, I suddenly realized that it’s not about your title that makes you a leader, because I was the same Donna. A little older, but still really the same Donna. But I was never included when I was enlisted because of my label. My ideas were not valued because of my label. Now all of sudden I had brilliant ideas—[but] they were the same ideas. But that really did teach me a lot about the ways I lead now in terms of letting people know that they matter, and their voice matters, and the importance of inclusion. I didn’t use those words then, but it really was about that because I knew how I felt when I wasn’t included or didn’t feel like I mattered. So I definitely took that from the military. And then being in a situation where I was with people from all walks of life. I was in during the time where you could choose to go to jail or you could be in the military. So there was that. And then there were people [for whom] it was an escape. People who didn’t have families, people who did have families. People who were educated, people who were not educated. I mean, just the spectrum. And I was overseas, so being away from any source of support or family . . . I just gained this self-awareness, self-efficacy, self-confidence, that I just don’t think, if my journey had gone a different way, if I’d listened to other people’s advice, I don’t think I would have turned out in the same way. It was actually a mentor of mine at the University of Tampa, that talked me into going into higher ed.
[The Anti-Defamation League] was just part of the journey of figuring out what I wanted to do. … I was coming straight from the military into higher ed. I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do. I thought that I wanted to go into something like academic advising. My background, my graduate degree was in counseling, so I thought maybe counseling but more like an academic setting or a multicultural setting too. I was thinking about that. But no one wanted to touch me because I had a military background. I looked very different from all the other candidates who followed a very similar path. They all went to the same kinds of schools and they all had the same kind of assistantships. It was a very step-by-step process. I think that’s why now that I pay so much attention to candidates who don’t have a traditional background. There were a lot people who just didn’t see that I had skills that could be transferrable. I mean, I ran [military] companies. That’s another story. But this was nothing compared with what I had to deal with in the military. The military has a lot of stuff you’ve got to work out. That’s a whole [different] story. So I got into Rollins College. They were intrigued by my background. In fact, that’s what [they] said, [they were] s intrigued. [They] didn’t know quite where I fit in but [they] wanted me on [their] campus. [They] started me in residence life. Which was tough, because I, at the time, was married, and I had a home. And I was going to live in a residence hall in a double room that was converted into my apartment. It was such an immersion experience into student culture. Because I lived right there in the hall with the students, and the fraternity was on the bottom floor. I learned a lot. I knew that the leap of faith that I had taken to get out of the military was the right one. But while I was in residence life, I knew that that was not the path I wanted to stay on, because that was tough. You pretty much didn’t have a life. You’re there 24-7. My front door was right there in the hallway. It was like a constant at-my-door. The smoking area was right outside of my window so I was always smelling smoke. But while I was there—so Rollins is a predominantly white institution. And while I was there, I started working with the small populations that they had. Students of color—like three percent of the student body at the time. And I started to realize that it really wasn’t that the college was anti-diversity. It really was just a lack of awareness. I was seeking ways to get more education and more awareness on campus, but remember I’m in Res Life. That’s not my job. Nor did I feel skilled or trained at all. And I started looking out into the community for tools that I could get. Plus, I had these students that were looking to me for support and resources and I really felt at a loss. There were things I could do, but I really wanted a systemic change to happen. And so, it was actually a colleague of mine that actually got me connected to the Anti-Defamation League. I started volunteering with them, and then it just grew [until] I was actually facilitating things with them. I went there trying to learn from them—and I did learn a lot from them—but I became one of their facilitators, which was really, really cool. And going into different communities and schools, different programs, and it really was about opening space for people to share their story and connecting with each other through that story, and kind of working through like a healing process. It was painful at times, though, to hear people’s journeys and why they do the things they do. It was like an “aha” moment that people hate because they really just fear. If you can get at that fear, the hate kind of goes away. I became committed to creating those kinds of spaces to a point that they created a position for me at the college that was in Diversity Programs. That was the first time they ever had Diversity Programs there, and it evolved into Multicultural Affairs. I still stayed connected with the Anti-Defamation League, and at the time, too, the NCCJ, partnered with us too, but then as my role evolved more at the college, I stopped facilitating with them but I would have them come to campus to do work with faculty and staff. So I kind of stumbled into that kind of diversity work, and I thought that was going to be my path, doing work in diversity and multiculturalism and social justice. The president at the time retired, and when she left, a new president came in who had a completely different vision for the college, and he came through and he kind of wiped out our leadership team, including my Dean of Students. And I reported to the Dean. The way I found out, he called me in, and he asked me if I would serve as the interim Dean. And it kind of knocked me off my feet, because I had never thought about being in that kind of a leadership role. I was kind of more—this sounds bad—I was like, “Anti-Administration!” But part of it was he wanted me to answer right there on the spot, that was tough. But I paused to think about why did I never see myself as that kind of a leader. And when I was honest with myself, I think it was because I never saw someone who looked like me in that kind of role. I think in my head, the image that I had was a white male in a suit. I think that just kept me from ever considering that kind of leadership. But what when I did take the interim role that I didn’t have to change anything about who I was as Donna. I didn’t have to put on a suit. Over my journey, I have experienced people who have been uncomfortable with the fact that I don’t fit the image, in lots of ways. Like my hair, to my nose ring, to how I dress. But it’s just been more important to me to show up how I am.
So a lot of your work has revolved around creating inclusive spaces where people can feel comfortable sharing their stories, maybe getting out of their normal groups, not creating an environment that excludes. How do you see some of that work potentially coming to fruition at Macalester?
I do think there is value and importance in allowing people to connect in their smaller identity groups. I think it’s important and empowering, I think, to be able to connect with people with whom you share experiences and share values. Where I think, the work of educators in my work is really critical is in ensuring then that those smaller groups connect outside. So it’s kind of a combination of letting those small groups be there—because I do think sometimes there is criticism around small groups. I think that if that’s what’s happening, that it’s the college’s responsibility to ensure that there’s some branching out there and then allowing space for them to get reconnected again. So where ever there are opportunities to have dialogues, I think dialogue is the strongest way to build those connections, but it sometimes it doesn’t happen as naturally as having a dialogue, and it has to be a practice. Although I will say, it does appear that Macalester does engage outside of small groups. I have not noticed a cliquishness. I don’t want to project something incorrect, but I would to continue to encourage the dialogue and the cross-collaboration. Social justice seems to be the core here of what students strive for and so, how do I ensure as a leader in a division of professionals, are we modeling that? How are we encouraging that? And how are we giving space for civil discourse, because I think sometimes while it’s admirable and so inspiring to see that passion, I think sometimes some voices might be silenced, because they don’t see a space for them to have a voice. And so how do I listen with ears to ensure that folks have [a] voice. Sometimes I think people read that as, all the dissention has to be aired. But it’s really just, there is space to dissent if you need to, there’s a way you do it without putting someone down, without judging someone. But it has to happen in ways that are consistent. So it needs to happen in the classroom, out of the classroom. Because I think it gets confusing if some rules apply when you’re in the residence hall, and then there are different rules in the classroom. I don’t have a good sense yet of the culture in the classroom, but my experience has been if that kind of philosophy is not supported in the classroom it becomes kind of a mess. So if someone makes a comment in the classroom that’s a loaded comment and it goes unaddressed, that same kind of comment someone would probably get jumped all over [for] outside. So how do we as a community buy into that?
Anything else that you want to say to the Macalester community?
I’m really just super excited. I don’t know if it’s normal for people to just come by and say hi. I try to keep my door open. Or if they see me on campus, to just come say hey. I will have Nigel [her dog]. He’s way cuter than me. I just want to connect and engage and I’m looking forward to getting to know people.