DePauw University President Dr. Lori White made history two years ago when she became the first woman and first person of color to be named president of the university. White says she had an “ah ha” moment while visiting campus that led her to accept the leadership role.
“I am African American. I am female. And I want all of our students to know what is possible,” said White. “80% of college presidents don’t look like me.”
In an interview on our special Indiana INfluential Women edition of Inside INdiana Business with Gerry Dick, White discussed what it means to lead the liberal arts school and facing the challenges of the pandemic.
“I’ve spoken often about the call that I heard in historic Meharry Hall on the DePauw campus, which is where all the portraits of DePauw’s previous presidents hang,” said White. “I am president number 21. And as I looked at presidents one through 20, and realized none looked like me, I realized that in order for the universe to see leadership as perphaps different than what had been historically the case for college presidents, I needed to say yes when the offer came.”
White says while the pandemic has defined her role as president thus far, she hopes it will have some long-term effects on how schools do things going forward. She says schools have to think about how they can make education relevant to the students of today and the students of tomorrow.
“A couple of things we learned from the pandemic is higher education has a reputation of being very slow to change, and we were able to adjust quite quickly to moving all of our classes online in record time,” said White. “While DePauw will never be a fully online institution, we certainly have learned that we can deliver aspects of the student experience using virtual tools. That’s certainly one lesson that we learned.”
Amid the pandemic, White says students missed having the opportunity to study on campus most. Among the challenges, a looming enrollment cliff has universities worried that fewer high school students will graduate and go to college.
“Well certainly all of us are conscious of the enrollment cliff,” said White. “It’s really important for us to reinforce the value of a liberal arts, residential education. At the same time, I think we have to be unafraid, as liberal arts colleges, to explore areas of study that perhaps traditionally we would not have offered at liberal arts colleges. Fields, for example, like business education and others that would not be typically offered at a residential liberal arts college.”
White believes institutions that are future-focused will “be the ones that survive most in this very competitive higher education environment.”