Influential women: UMSL shows off its feminine side

UMSL deans (from left) Carole Basile, College of Education; Susan Dean-Baar, College of Nursing; and Jean M.K. Miller, College of Fine Arts and Communication

UMSL deans (from left) Carole Basile, College of Education; Susan Dean-Baar, College of Nursing; and Jean M.K. Miller, College of Fine Arts and Communication, joined the university since fall 2011 and oversee colleges enrolling nearly 4,000 students. (Photo by August Jennewein)

St. Louis Business Journal Publisher Ellen Sherberg received a warm welcome when she approached the University of Missouri–St. Louis in the late 1990s about sponsoring an event to highlight the outstanding achievements of women.

A longtime member of UMSL’s Chancellor’s Council, Sherberg was well acquainted with the university’s outstanding record in educating women and the influence its chancellor, Blanche Touhill, had attained in the business community.

As two of the region’s better-known female executives, Sherberg and Touhill understood, better than most, the need for an event that would recognize women leaders and inspire more women to seek similar roles.

Thus, UMSL became a founding partner of the St. Louis Business Journal’s Most Influential Business Women Awards. Dozens of women in wide-ranging fields from business, education and community service have since been honored – many of them UMSL alumnae.

The 2013 class of winners included four UMSL graduates: Leah Amir, president and chief executive officer of VantageView and VantageLinks LLC; Sue O’Leary, chief financial officer of Total Hockey Inc.; Christine Smith, vice president of Biotherapeutics Pharmaceutical Sciences, Pfizer Inc.; and Kathy Walters, chief financial officer of CR Metal Products Inc.

“Blanche’s involvement brought instant credibility to the award, but UMSL’s stature in educating and graduating women has been one of the primary factors in the award’s continuing prestige,” Sherberg says. “It’s an association that works well for everyone.”

UMSL Provost Glen Cope concurs.

“The University of Missouri–St. Louis is proud to be a founding sponsor of this event and is delighted to be associated with Armstrong Teasdale, Deloitte, PNC Bank and the St. Louis Business Journal in its production,” says Cope, UMSL’s first female provost. “It reflects our influence. No university has more women graduates living and working in the St. Louis region than UMSL.”

More than 50,000 women have one or more degrees from UMSL – representing an astonishing 58 percent of all UMSL alumni. These women are significant players in the St. Louis regional work force. Many lend their expertise to help guide the future of UMSL as well, including Sandra Van Trease, group president of BJC HealthCare, and Kathy Osborn, executive director of the St. Louis Regional Business Council. Both serve on UMSL’s­­­­ Chancellor’s Council and are recipients of the Most Influential Business Women Award.

Continuing involvement in the event also underscores a significant shift in women academic administrators and faculty at UMSL. Women account for more than half of th­e university’s full-time faculty today, as well as four of 10 academic deans. Women constituted about 40 percent of full-time faculty when the influential women awards were introduced.

Cope fondly recalls being interrupted during a meeting with current Chancellor Thomas George by a reporter from the Chronicle of Higher Education. A survey had identified UMSL as an institution with an exceptionally high percentage of female faculty, and the reporter wanted to know how UMSL had achieved its lofty ranking.

“There wasn’t a specific plan,” Cope says. “We weren’t even aware that we rated so well. We were just filling open faculty positions with the best candidates possible. Most of those top candidates just turned out to be women.”

One of those candidates, Sha-Lai Williams, joined the social work faculty this fall as an assistant professor. Williams has more than 10 years of experience as a licensed clinical social worker and clinical supervisor, as well as a master’s degree from Yale University and a doctorate from Washington University in St. Louis.

“I moved to St. Louis in 2008 to attend Washington University with the intention of returning to my home state of North Carolina,” Williams says.

But like many who come to St. Louis, Williams soon established roots and wanted to stay.

“I wanted to work at an institution [in St. Louis] that was known for its research as well as its work in the community,” Williams says. “Several people felt that UMSL would be a good match for me, and I whole-heartedly agree.”

UMSL faculty members Mary Lacity (left) and Sha-Lai Williams

UMSL faculty members Mary Lacity (left) and Sha-Lai Williams appreciate UMSL’s supportive environment. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Williams was not aware of UMSL’s record of attracting female faculty, but expressed her pride to be “part of an institution that recruits, hires, and retains female faculty.” But what has impressed Williams most, she says, is the general supportive nature of the institution.

Longtime faculty member Mary Lacity appreciates Williams’ assessment of UMSL. Arriving here in 1991 as an assistant professor, Lacity today is a Curators’ Professor of Information Systems.

“I was attracted to UMSL because Ashok Subramanian, a friend of mine, worked here as an assistant professor of information systems. He and I had been office mates while earning our doctorate degrees at the University of Houston,” Lacity says. “He told me I would love it here. Because I trusted him, I accepted a position and I have been grateful to him ever since.”

So, to be sure, quality and diversity are not new concepts at UMSL. Neither is treating people fairly. They are all just complementary strategies that have placed UMSL in a pioneering position in education and in the community.


This story was originally published in the fall 2013 issue of UMSL Magazine.


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