Professor Wendy Powers: “No university community is fully inclusive”


Professor Wendy Powers joined University College this August as Principal as the first woman to permanently take on the position, previously entitled ‘Master’. Palatinate spoke to Wendy about her experience of moving to England and taking on a new role during such a pivotal and unprecedented moment in history.  

From Milwaukee to Durham

Before moving to Durham, Professor Powers held the position of Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students at Alverno College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She said, “It was my first women’s college. It was wonderful.”

Her next logical step may have been to consider a presidency at a small private college. But, she explained, “I believe that takes me too far away from students. That’s another reason why this position really felt great to me. I’m leading University College which means I still get to be connected with students, but I also get to do some other things like fundraising and working with alumni.”

Having previously lived in Germany, Professor Powers was already considering employment opportunities in Western Europe. The Durham position was one of the first that appealed to her and, after a series of zoom interviews and a campus visit, she was scheduled to start in June. Covid-19, of course, had other ideas.

Due to Visa delays, Professor Powers had to wait three more months than she originally planned before moving to Durham. “I would say it was some of the most stressful months of my life. Knowing that I was needed here – not that the world was falling apart, everyone was doing fine – but the new Vice-Principal had started, and I wasn’t able to support her or the team in person. We were waiting on two governments to come back to life and get the visa processes going, with very little communication. Never knowing, from one week to the next, whether we were going to hear anything. It was very frustrating and stressful. There was a lot of sitting around and spending time with family. It was nice, but when something that big is out of your control, it’s really challenging.”

The University has more work to do around access and participation.

Now that she is finally here, Professor Powers is effusive in her praise of Durham. “It is such a beautiful city. The North East region – although we haven’t been able to explore very much at the moment – is just gorgeous and there’s so much to see and do. My partner and I are probably more country people than city people anyway, so we just can’t wait to get a car, learn the train system and go explore.”

The challenges of the pandemic

Professor Powers and her team are navigating an influx of new challenges on a daily basis. “It is constantly changing,” she explained. “Every day there is something new, from the government, from the University, from our students, from parents and families. This is an amazing team, and I’m not just saying that! I have been so impressed. The administrative and front-line staff here at Castle are so good.”

“I feel blessed to inherit such a wonderful community. It’s not perfect – no community is – and we’ve got our challenges. My hope is that, in time, we will lead the way around current issues of diversity and inclusion, and we’ll work toward that goal. But, for right now, in unprecedented times and unprecedented circumstances, we’re doing remarkably well and so is every other college. Everybody is working so hard.”

Professor Powers emphasised that the role has been challenging in good ways. She said, “I just love working with college students. It’s been my whole career. This community seems so tight-knit. Everyone here – from the house-keepers, to the catering team, to the porters, to the professional staff in the office, to the administrative staff – loves working at Castle. I haven’t always experienced that. Sometimes people just work somewhere because they need a job but the people here seem to really do it because they love Castle and they love the students. That’s really refreshing.”

New leadership

Professor Powers is the first woman to hold the permanent position of leader of the Castle community. Understandably, she feels pressure to be a voice for other women in Higher Education. “I would say it’s always in my mind, wanting to represent the various identities that I embrace. Being a woman, being gay and being from outside the UK. I’m married to a woman and I’m very proud of that. Same-sex marriage hasn’t been legal across the entire US for very long. It’s not always comfortable for everyone, but it’s who I am. I think about modelling or representing that community in a few different ways: if more women and more gay people can see role models in leadership positions, then I hope it is empowering.”

Generally, Professor Powers strives to be a role model of “strong leadership, compassion, and service orientation” for all students. “But, if underrepresented students in any kind of community can feel even a little bit more like that they have the ability, the right, the opportunity to step into a leadership role in whatever capacity they want to, then I’m very happy if I’m able to provide that little bit of hope for people as well.”

It’s always in my mind, wanting to represent the various identities that I embrace

Until Professor Powers’ appointment as ‘Principal’, the leader of Castle has historically been known as ‘Master’. Although the decision is reflective of a university-wide shift towards more gender-neutral terms, Professor Powers admits that the original title would have made her uneasy. “Because I come from the US with a horrific history around slavery, historically, ‘Master’ for me was simply not comfortable. I appreciate the concerns around Master being perceived as gendered as well, but the connection to slavery was a stronger force against the title. But it’s not really a question at this point, because that is the direction the University is going.”

Diversity and inclusion

Durham University has recently been accused of fostering an environment which may be hostile towards certain minorities, such as students of colour and working-class students. Diversity and inclusion are guiding issues for Professor Powers, as she explained, “Inclusion and social justice have been at the centre of my moral and professional compass. At each institution I’ve served, I’ve been a champion of diversity and inclusion efforts, from interrogating campus culture to developing plans for progress and implementing change.”

“No university community is fully inclusive, and some are further away from that than others. My core value is that everyone should be treated with dignity and respect, and have equal opportunity. Our systems and services ought to be equitable for everyone.”

“The reality is there is such a long way to go,” Professor Powers acknowledged. “Some days, it’s hard to feel like you’ve gotten any wins. But together we can make progress with each day, with each attack, and with each successful intervention. When the greater society at large is wrestling with these issues as well, you can’t really create a little Utopian bubble on a college or university campus – you have to keep trying and working at it because unfortunately it’s likely going to be a life-long, or generations-long, fight.”

Black Lives Matter

During Professor Powers’ period of uncertainty before she was able to travel to the UK and officially take up her position, the death of George Floyd triggered a stream of Black Lives Matter protests and a worldwide call for racial justice. She explained that this helped to put her situation into perspective. “Once the George Floyd situation ignited and the next wave of activism and anti-racism made its way around the world, that became so much more important. I think it reset things. It gave us a new perspective: okay, so we were waiting on Visas; we were going to move to England and we would get there eventually – there were much bigger, more important issues going on in the world.”

Professor Powers has labelled this period “a vitally important time in our history”, due both to the pandemic and the spotlight that has been shone on racial inequalities. “It is, though, a new megaphone for a generations-long challenge. I try to keep in mind that it’s not like this is just starting. These are issues – injustice, oppression, and murder – that have been going on for generations. I’m inspired by the fact that more people continue to get involved, and I have faith that the young people of today will make a better future for us all.”

It’s not just administration and management, it’s really education

In her role as Principal of a young community of students, Professor Powers intends to work towards a more equal future for all, as she emphasised, “I see my work as twofold – doing everything I can to help more more white people learn and grow in this area, because the reality is that systems are often created and fuelled by white people. So, I want to continue to educate and do anti-racist work. I also want to do everything I can to help as many students of colour, LGBTQ+ and other marginalised students know I am an ally they can trust.”

“We know that the University has more work to do around access and participation, and that I have some experience in that area, so I want to help however I can. But my first job is really to ask lots of questions, and listen and learn, and fully understand, as best I can, from my position and privilege, what the current culture and climate is like for people of colour, and other underrepresented folks. Nobody is going to come in with a magic wand and make things better, I just want to be one more person trying to help with this important agenda.”

Professor Powers stressed that she sees herself as an educator above all, not just an administrator. “That’s one of the things that I think sometimes gets lost when people talk about college staff or University staff that work in the extra-curricular world. It’s not just administration and management, it’s truly education. We’re teaching and learning with stu- dents just like faculty are. In different ways to be sure, but we’re educators in this learning community together.”

Image: Wendy Powers

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