Working Hard and Showing Up – President Lynn Morton, Warren Wilson College

Written by Dannie Frey, Breedlove & Company

For many women, who are say older than 45, it is easy to remember how far we have come and how strong we had to be to make any kind of new path to follow. Men, particularly white men were commonly the demographic that accomplished everything because they were given much. That is until more than just a handful of women decided that they want what they want. These women worked hard, stayed strong, and showed up even when EVERYONE questioned them on why they wanted to do ‘this’ – whatever their ‘this’ was. Women who looked at the status quo and thought, I want something else, something more, something all my own.

On December 6, 2019 at the Economic Bruncheon, we had the privilege of meeting just such a woman, one who worked hard and showed up when it would have been easier to let someone else do it. A woman who challenged herself daily and possibly not realize the greater impact she has had on her self, family, students, community, state and nation. Yes, her impact is that great. She paved the way for all of us women by working hard and showing up. It is an honor to introduce Dr. Lynn Morton, President of Warren Wilson College and share her story in this blog. As of June 30, 2019 ONLY 30% of the college presidents are female. While using the word ONLY for the emphasis, one must also recognize that a few years ago, that number as around 5 percent. So while 30% appears to be rather low, it is a significant increase due to the hard work these women accomplish while showing up each day.

As we read about Dr. Morton from her own words, notice how many roles she had at any one time. We can certainly feel the weight she carried upon her shoulders. We can also celebrate her remarkable career juggling family responsibilities and the expectations placed on a wife and mother.

“It’s strange to think of my trajectory to being president of Warren Wilson College as a “path,” because honestly, there was really no path, just some intentional wandering. I began my career as a college professor at the tender age of 23, when I started my masters in English and was awarded a teaching assistant-ship. I was a terrible teacher. I owe my students for those two years an apology. But nevertheless, I loved it, and after a two year stint as a high school English teacher, I went back for my PhD so that I could make teaching my career.  I wish there had been a “path” to my tenure track job, but honestly, it was a matter of working hard and showing up. I was an adjunct for a while, and then I weaseled my way into a 3⁄4 time job, and then a full time gig with the title of Assistant Professor. During this time I was raising three children, and teaching on some level gave me flexibility, but in other ways I had zero flexibility — you can’t just cancel class every time one of your kids is sick or has a field trip you’d like to chaperone.

It’s important to stress that I worked very, very hard. I worked hard as a mother and a wife, as a daughter and as a sister, and in my job, keeping up my research in arcane topics in Renaissance and Medieval Literature, working at being an excellent teacher, being there for my students, showing up, showing up and showing up. Faculty meetings, department meetings, raising my hand for small leadership roles. My only ambition was to earn tenure and be department chair.

When I got there, I was totally happy.

And then one day I got a call from the Vice President for Academic Affairs, who invited me to join the administration in the administration building — the dark side. It was a really sexy job — accreditation. Hard decision, but I was curious. So I kept teaching a bit and did that job for 18 months, at which time I was asked to be interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and then permanent dean, and then four years later, provost. My first truly intentional job came with applying to be the president at Warren Wilson College.”

There is a belief that balance is something that must present at all times or one is not as successful as one could be. Dr. Morton tells us the reality as seen by a mother, wife, student and professor. “People often ask me how to balance family and career, and my answer is there is no real balance. Sometimes one takes precedence over the other.” There is a learning curve that goes along with each of these roles and being able to cut ourselves some slack is essential. 

“As a female, I had many instances of being left out of the professional network — for example, the male grad students going out for beers with the male professors, networking, and getting research advice (and most of my PhD professors were male) and being told it would “look funny” if the male professor talked to me about research over a beer. There is being mistaken for a receptionist when I was dean, and being asked as a president if my president is here at the conference. But those are pretty small potatoes overall. The real struggles were financial and personal — I mean, who goes to get a PhD in R and M literature while her husband is in law school. I kept having children I couldn’t afford. I tell younger women to believe in themselves, work hard, do what balancing is possible, ask for help when needed, and stop being so hard on themselves. I don’t see many working fathers berating themselves for missing a kid activity because they were at work, or feeling constantly inadequate because they can’t get it all done.”

 

“People often ask me how to balance family and career, and my answer is there is no real balance. Sometimes ones takes precedence over the other.”

Dr. Lynn Morton 

We’re seeing a renewed emphasis on career paths and outcomes. I think most people know that the liberal arts are not resonating for many people, and we can talk all we want about critical thinking, communication skills, problem solving skills, close reading, analytical skills — but it does not resonate for many people. I think higher ed was slow to respond to criticisms about outcomes and the value of a college education. So I don’t think this criticism was really a bad thing. At WWC, we are not just a liberal arts college — in fact, we sometimes don’t feel like a liberal arts college at all. Work program, applied learning, community engagement, integration and interdisciplinary work — we prepare students for careers and life after college in a unique way. We can’t stop these trends — we can respond to them productively and proactively. 

There are a few myths in higher education regarding women and women desiring to advance that we asked Dr. Morton to address. The first is the stereotype that an academic female can’t have a full life of family obligations — you know, hanging out in the library and all that. But I also think we have a lot of work to do in coming into our own in leadership style. What is seen as admirable collaboration in men can be perceived as weakness in women, not leading strongly enough. When women do chart the course, they can be called bossy or overbearing. It amazes me that this is still true after all these years. 

Her Role Models

Strong women in my family — grandmother, mother, mother-in-law, sisters. Pamela Davies for 15 years at Queens. One of the rare PhD instructors who advised my dissertation on women writers. I was raised by strong women — I didn’t know they were strong women until many years later. It was just who they were. 

Leadership Advice

Don’t sweat the small stuff. Don’t care what people think of you. I turned 50 and it was almost like a switch went on in my head — it’s okay with me if you don’t like me. I want you to like me, but really, I don’t care that much. I used to worry about what people thought of me ALL THE TIME. Well, when you are president, you kind of have to get over that.