AL DÍA sits down with a president: Widener's Julie E. Wollman
On July 3, Widener’s 10th president visited AL DÍA to discuss her experiences as the university’s first female president, and her efforts of inclusion on campus.
When Dr. Julie Wollman was president at Edinboro University in Western Pennsylvania, she was the first woman to hold the title in the university’s history. One day early in her tenure, she met a group of women who were part of the American Association of University Professors in Edinboro.
She was there to connect and talk about her plans for the school, but a remark from an older attendee gave Wollman pause.
“You can’t be the president. You’re too small,” said the woman.
It was a trivial statement, but one Wollman says is very telling of the stereotypes still assumed about what power looks like in our society. Her predecessors at Edinboro were all men, mostly white, and she had to face those entrenched preconceptions of who embodied leadership, and how, when she became Widener University’s first female president in 2016.
“I said: ‘My brain is not small,’” Wollman recounted in a visit to AL DÍA on July 3.
Wollman is a trailblazer in higher education, but she doesn’t see her gender identity or the barriers she has broken as being the most integral aspects of her leadership.
During her visit to AL DÍA, Wollman transitioned from her personal story of facing stereotype to citing a June 30 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education that discussed what happens when women run colleges.
The focus of the article was whether or not women leadership brings anything new to the position. Wollman fought back against the common gender stereotypes that women were more “gentle,” “supportive,” and “caring” in their roles as presidents.
“No one’s ever called me gentle,” she said.
Rather than cite those stereotypes planted on many women leaders, the article explored the idea that women were more inclusive in their positions. Wollman pinned the reason on the fact that women are and have been excluded throughout history.
“They recognize the value of diverse perspectives,” said Wollman.
To follow up, she also recognized male counterparts that also see the importance of different perspectives, but said the female experience is slightly different because the exclusion is lived.
With those experiences in tow, Wollman created the Common Ground Initiative at Widener. The program, which has been showcased twice at South by Southwest, works to bring together students and faculty from varying perspectives for open discussions about their differences.
“College campuses tend to be the most diverse places people will ever be in their lives,” said Wollman. “It is the best place to teach people to respect others’ perspectives.”
She also emphasized the important distinction between “respecting” and “tolerating” others’ views. In the latter, differing perspectives are only recognized, but not appreciated as they should be.
“It sounds like you’re just ‘putting up’ with someone. And that’s not ok,” said Wollman.
The mission is a necessary one in today’s polarized times, and one that boils down to having a discussion.
“We get nowhere,” said Wollman, “if we can’t listen to each other.”