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.
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.
What are some of the lessons you’ve learned from incidents like the art exhibit and photoshopped advertisement?
Would I do things differently in those two cases? With the exhibit, no. Consider when it came to campus — it was right after Charlottesville. If you think about the mood and where we sit in south-central Pennsylvania, it was fine for our campus community, but in my deliberations, could I risk having some type of demonstration that was fresh off of Charlottesville? It was always about timing and I would do that exactly the same way that I did before.
The billboard situation I would handle differently. It was not meant to misrepresent, it was supposed to show the diversity of our institution, that we were welcoming to all students. But it was photoshopped and that was wrong and that should not have occurred. And I apologized for that and said that would not happen again.
It was one of the moments where the intent was good, the implementation was poor. The lesson learned from that was you can’t take the easy way out.
Those episodes reflect pressure on diversity initiatives and a charged political environment. How have you seen that climate affect high-ranking administrators?
It's a double-edged sword. And by that I mean you have the community of color looking to you to respond in one way, for me, in my case, you’re not Black enough in terms of dealing with something.
On the other hand, you have the conservative community thinking that you are only responding to something because you are a person of color. So it works both ways. When I have written articles about Black Lives Matter — which is a trigger point here — in my message to the community I talked about rights guaranteed by the Constitution, especially the right to peaceful assembly. I talked about how violence is never justified.
Conservative groups took that as I was saying, “OK, it’s alright to riot.” But that’s not what I said. It was about promoting change, raising empathy and understanding about other points of views.
But at that time, to some people of color I didn’t speak out forcefully enough and to conservatives in our area, I was condoning violence, which was not the case. I’ve learned to try to walk that line.
If I was at a different institution, my response would be a little different. But I am aware of who I am and certain perceptions. In these jobs, you have to have thick skin. And I’ve gotten splattered, so my skin is pretty thick. But for those of us in these positions, we have a platform from which we can talk about these things.
Have you ever seen the backlash you were describing affect your bottom line? Are threats of pulling donations real, for instance?
It’s very real. And on the part of some parents, they’ll say, “I didn’t send my student to your school to have their consciousness raised — I sent them there so they can get a job.”
Well, we’re about educating the whole student. We are here to make sure our graduates are informed citizens. They need to hear both sides. They need to be able to think in a rational way.
When you talk about where parents send their students — Pennsylvania has some challenging demographics, and York’s enrollment has declined. What do you attribute that to, how can you fix it?
It’s the entire higher education landscape. It’s much more competitive. And especially with COVID, when we had the big drop, students had choices and opportunities to go elsewhere, to experience things they might normally have. I don’t think it’s going to get easier.
For York, there’s two things we need to do. The first is that, we’re in south-central Pennsylvania, and this whole Pennsylvania Dutch culture, you’re very humble, you don’t talk about yourself.
We never really did a lot of marketing and we have to tell people who we are and what is distinctive about our institution compared to others. We used to talk about affordability, but cost is not necessarily going to be the only tagline. You have to talk about your results.
We’re going to have to learn to compete based on our outcomes and what we offer. We have to invest in that marketing. We have to get more information out, find more opportunities for our faculty to speak and be noticed.
We’re trying to get a greater share of students. We know that some in our area didn’t go to college last year. I think we have a very strong balance sheet that my successor is going to be coming into and the resources to invest. We have to manage our resources, we can’t cut our way out of this.
What advice would you give your successor?
Well first, moving into my final year, I’m not missing a beat. I told my cabinet to hold on because I have a real sense of urgency to get some things done before I retire.
What’s on my mind is that I have had a chance to lead this wonderful institution into the future, and I don’t think we were at one point prepared for the challenges ahead, but now I think we are well-suited for that.
As I think about it, I see myself as a servant leader. People don’t call me president. Students call me “Dr. GS” because you have to be over 40 to call me by my first name.
The thing about these jobs is that you’re going to get a lot of criticism. But if you think about it from the perspective of being a servant leader, that’s what’s going to be required. You have to do it for the right reason, and I know I’ve had an extraordinary opportunity here.