Susan Gardner describes herself as “a first-generation everything,” from graduating high school in four years to enrolling in college. It’s the lens through which the youngest of six views higher education.
When Gardner — whose single mom worked three jobs — started college in St. Paul, Minnesota, she sometimes felt out of place navigating the world of post-secondary education.
Now, as director of the University of Maine Rising Tide Center, Gardner strives to create equitable, supportive environments for all to learn and work on campus.
The center, guided by the premise that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” was launched in 2010 with a $3.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation ADVANCE Institutional Transformation program. Its purpose was to eliminate organizational barriers that impede full recruitment and participation of women faculty, and thereby increase their representation, satisfaction and advancement in academic science and engineering.
UMaine earned the funding on the first try, says Gardner, in part because it was honest about its imbalances and issues. Rising Tide initiatives have connected researchers in higher education, psychology, sociology, business and women’s studies “to create a multifaceted understanding of contexts and cultures that facilitate or impede the recruitment, retention and advancement of women faculty at UMaine.”
Involving multiple campus constituencies in decision-making is imperative to break down hierarchical power imbalances and structures, says Gardner.
The university has helped institute policies, including “stopping the tenure clock” during the probationary period for tenure track faculty who are experiencing childbirth, adoption and other exceptional life circumstances.
UMaine has met or exceeded several targets for recruitment, retention and advancement of women faculty in STEM fields. For instance, in 2010–2011, there were 21 female professors in STEM, 22 female associate professors and 14 female assistant professors. In 2016–17, there were 24 female professors in STEM, 27 female associate professors and 22 female assistant professors.
In 2015, surveyed female STEM faculty also reported increased job satisfaction compared to 2011.
While the NSF funding has ended, the center continues to evolve with financial support from the university and oversight by Jeffrey Hecker, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost. The center offers faculty professional development opportunities, encourages use of family-friendly policies, conducts workshops about inclusive practices, and supports a targeted mentoring program.
In 2011, for instance, nearly 26 percent of UMaine’s assistant professors noted they didn’t receive mentoring from senior colleagues about the tenure process. That percentage had been reduced to 17 percent in 2015.
The center also provides best-practices training for administrators and search and peer committee members.
Gardner, who earned a doctorate in higher education, explores the intersectionality of individuals within organizational environments at academic institutions. Her research areas have included partner accommodations; mentoring millennial faculty; and the role of academic disciplines in doctoral student success.
In order to stop sexual harassment, Gardner says hierarchies and accompanying power differentials in higher education need to be dismantled.
One power differential relationship is between advisers and the graduate students dependent on them for sponsorship and recommendations. Gardner experienced the dynamic as a doctoral student.
Her adviser — a popular and admired professor, mentor and role model — leered, touched her and made sexually inappropriate comments. His harassing behavior continued after she confronted him, so Gardner got a new adviser and filed a complaint with campus officials.
She also wrote an autoethnography that wove her personal experiences with an analysis of cultural constructs. “Coming Out of the Sexual Harassment Closet: One Woman’s Story of Politics and Change” was published in 2009 in the National Women’s Studies Association Journal.
Words that Kathryn Mangus and Janette Kenner Muir wrote in 1994 helped inspire Gardner to pen the essay. The George Mason University educators had stated: “In essence, we are learning to tell stories, and as each story is told, it is added to the collective voice which, in turn, will ultimately have an impact on public discourse and policy actions.”
That sentiment is similar to the one expressed in Alyssa Milano’s October 2017 tweet that invited women to tweet #MeToo to “give people a sense of the magnitude of the (sexual harassment/assault) problem.”
While Gardner’s experiences occurred at one institution, she says there are “many lessons to be learned about culture and change for all of higher education.” When she visited her alma mater a few years after graduating, the adviser who had sexually harassed her was gone — he hadn’t earned tenure. She also noticed posters throughout campus advising people of actions to take if they’re harassed.
“It made me feel like it was worth it,” she says. “It was a different place.”
At UMaine, in a recent Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies seminar, Gardner says seniors talked about being exhausted by the ugliness revealed by disturbing #MeToo testimonies and responses.
Gardner, who has wanted to be an educator since she was in kindergarten, told students they would be catalysts for changing culture and making the world a better place.
“Innovation comes from differences,” she says. “I see the waves created and I take a lot of hope from it.”