Photo of Berner’s discussion of “Women in Leadership” with students. Photo by Klarke Stricklen (C’22).
By Klarke Stricklen
As the latest speaker for the Bairnwick Women Center’s “Women in Leadership” discussion series, Provost Nancy Berner joined the Wick to discuss her experiences in leadership and how women could succeed. Berner taught biology for 20 years and previously served as the Title IX Coordinator for the University before becoming provost.
Eunice Muchemi (C’19), co-director of the Wick, began the event by explaining the importance of women in leadership and what Berner could offer students seeking these positions. Muchemi also gave a brief overview of her personal leadership experience in reference to the Wick.
She discussed that as a lower-classman at Sewanee, she saw a lack of diversity within feminism and women within the Wick. Muchemi explained, “I wanted to change the narrative of the Wick.” She sought to make the place she loved a safe space for all types of feminism and women. Read more about the Wick’s growth in diversity here.
Berner began the discussion by briefly explaining her story and transformation into leadership roles. She grew up on a farm in Idaho and eventually attended the University of Idaho. There, she continued her studies, until she decided that she needed time off. After a brief period away from school, Berner went back to her studies and discovered her love for physiology, in which she would eventually receive a masters and doctorate degree.
Through assessing the true meaning of leadership, Berner found that “leadership is not one thing and does not look a certain way,” which can be a common assumption of society when dealing with the vision of an ideal leader. Berner advised students to disregard the societal stigmas of leadership and lead in a way that aligns with one’s values.
In open dialogue with students, Berner stressed the importance of being honest with oneself, as a lack of honesty could result in failure to lead effectively. This caused many students to begin asking their own questions in connection with self and leadership.
Shade Shepard (C’22) asked, “How can you demonstrate effective leadership in a way that corrects ignorance?” Shepard went on to explain that as a leader, a person is obligated to lead in a way that is morally right, but what happens when these morals are challenged by pure ignorance?
Berner explained that the only answer to this situation would be to model great conversation. She explained that by leading in a way that addresses situations in a respectable and knowledgeable way, individuals have a chance to reflect on the information given. In return, they will want to participate in similar dialogues and confront these instances head on.
As the conversation continued and students began to dig into societal stigmas, Shomari Todd (C’21) asked, “What is the best way to address male dominance in speaking situations?”
Berner simply explained that in these instances, people have to be mindful of spaces and be sure to make room for everyone. This translated to the idea that if participants feel that a space is being overpowered by one individual within the conversation, the duty as a leader is to take a step back and allow others to add their input.
As the conversation began to come to an end, students began to ask, “What makes a true leader?”
Special Assistant to the Provost Karen Proctor answered, “You will bring yourself into your leadership, that’s what makes you authentic.”
In The Purple’s last word with Muchemi, she discussed the importance of the overall event. “It is important to create avenues in which people, in this case women, explore leadership and being a leader while female. Furthermore, it’s a time to learn from those who are breaking ground, for we know how easy it is for issues to be replicated under a new name or face,” Muchemi said.