SPSU President, Dr. Lisa A. Rossbacher makes diversity one of her big "rocks."
SPSU President, Dr. Lisa A. Rossbacher makes diversity one of her big “rocks.”  (Desmond Hilson, Photographer)

When I walked onto campus in 1999 as an English faculty member, I became immediately interested in Dr. Lisa A. Rossbacher, the President of Southern Polytechnic State University.  She had been newly appointed as president in 1998 and (I’ll be honest) I wondered what kind of woman wants to lead a polytechnic?

Since then I have found out a bit more about the type of woman who runs a polytechnic university, and I hope this interview gives everyone a bit more insight into the background of our president:  her education, her leadership style, and her goals.

Let’s begin with the fact that Dr. Rossbacher earned her doctorate in the field of geology.  First of all, only 1.6% of the American population has earned a doctoral degree, according to 2012 numbers at the U.S. Census Bureau’s website.  Only 282 people earned a doctorate in Geology in 1983, according to The Digest of Education Statistics.  Dr. Rossbacher earned her doctorate at Princeton University in 1983 where she studied the role of water and water ice on Mars.  Prior to completing her doctorate, she completed TWO masters’ degrees in Geology: one at the State University of New York at Binghamton concerning sinkholes as a research interest and the second at Princeton University. Dr. Rossbacher truly rocks, doesn’t she?

That’s just the beginning of her story. Before coming to SPSU in 1998, Dr. Rossbacher was a finalist in 1984 for NASA’s astronaut selections process; she engaged in NASA-funded research at the University of Uppsala in Sweden in order to study landforms at high latitudes on Earth that are analogs for features on the surface of Mars; she was the Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs and Professor of Geology at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona; she was the Vice president for Academic Affairs at Whittier College, and she was the Dean of the Faculty at Dickinson College. You may be thinking that in order for Dr. Rossbacher to do all of this she must have given up on a personal life, right?

Wrong. While in graduate school at the State University of New York at Binghamton, Dr. Rossbacher met Dr. Dallas D. Rhodes, who at the time was an assistant professor of Geology at the University of Vermont.  A few years later while at Princeton University, Dr. Rossbacher and Dr. Rhodes met again when both attended the same conference.  Several years later they married.   Some would say that such a marriage must be “rock solid.”

When Dr. Rossbacher took over the helm as president of SPSU in 1998, she became the first woman geologist to be the president of a university in North America.  While serving as president she has earned the Woman of the Year Award from the American Association of University Women, Cobb County (2007) and the 2006 Glass Ceiling Award from the Cobb Executive Women (Cobb Chamber of Commerce).

What follows concerns what I learned from her in our interview.

NR:  Dr. Rossbacher, when you spoke at a leadership workshop for the University Honors Program in the fall of 2011, you indicated that you were originally an English major at Dickinson College, but that you changed your major to Geology.  You said that you chose to take that first class in Geology at the time because it was the only science class with an opening.   I purposefully chose to take Geology as a college student (as a child I loved to take a hammer to the rocks in our driveway to see if there were shiny, pretty elements of quartz and feldspar within the granite rocks), BUT neither the splitting of rocks or the Geology class created an interest in majoring in the field. What did you learn in that Geology class that fostered your devotion to the field?

LR:  Well, I liked that geology as a discipline provides context for other things in the world around us. Geology provides a concept of time, since the planet has been around for over 4.5 billion years—that kind of puts life’s minor annoyances in perspective.  I also liked that I could leave class, walk outside, and understand something about the world around me that I didn’t know before.  Dickinson College is located in Pennsylvania and has a lot of interesting geology around it:  It’s in the Great Valley and located a short distance from the Appalachian Mountains and the Blue Ridge Mountains.  That’s really a diverse geological area.

 NR:  When I was living in St. Petersburg, Florida, I dated a man who loved to search for Indian artifacts and fossils.  We would be driving down the road and he would spot a newly tilled field or a construction site, and the next thing I knew we would have stopped, gotten out of the van, and we would have started a search for arrow heads, pottery shards, and fossils.  In your Geological Column article for Earth Magazine “Let’s All Go Play Outdoors” you explain the need for children and adults alike to get outside and “play.”  Do you ever find yourself stopping your busy life to find rock “treasures” in an area that looks promising?

 LR:  Absolutely, since I am married to a geologist, every trip is a field trip. I recently traveled to a conference in North Dakota with my husband.  Since I had been to all of the states in the United States except for North Dakota and Nebraska, we decided to take a car trip down to Nebraska from North Dakota. On the way back we had to visit Sioux Falls in South Dakota.  The bedrock of Sioux Falls is the Sioux Quartzite, and it is quite resistant to erosion.  I made sure to pick up a piece of the bedrock before coming home.  This occurred just last Sunday (September 15).

NR:  All of your achievements are quite impressive.  I only named a few in my introduction.  I know that you would love to spark an interest in the sciences for children.  How do you keep them from worrying that you were able to accomplish all you achieved because you’re really, really smart and they may not be able to live up to what you have done?

 LR:  Interesting question.  I have two answers.  1) Everyone needs to figure out the “why” in their life—in other words, what motivates them.  They need to find their purpose.  They then need to start with their own motivation—what others have done is not a pattern they need to follow.  They need their own sense of self.  I have had an argument with a woman president from Pennsylvania who thinks that every woman in higher education should aspire to be a college president.  I think she’s dead wrong. If we understand our own goals, we will achieve what it is we want for ourselves.

2) When I share stories concerning my experience, I try to be careful to explain that my path wasn’t a preordained one.  I try to talk about the challenges and the difficulties I have faced, as well as what worked for me.  I learned to do this because in one situation I was invited to talk about the steps I took in the process of becoming a university president.  One listener said that she felt it was so easy for me, and that made me realize that I needed to share some of the difficulties so people can realize that everyone faces challenges.  Not discussing the challenges does a disservice to those we want to encourage and mentor.

NR:  I know many women have fallen victim to the “Queen Bee Syndrome” that you mention in one of your recent posts to your leadership blog. What advice can you give women leaders on how to avoid becoming a “Queen Bee”?   What advice can you give on acting as role models and mentors to the girls and women following them?  (See Dr. Rossbacher’s blog for information on the Queen Bee Syndrome: http://higheredleadership.wordpress.com/2013/03/10/mentors-role-models-and-the-queen-bee-syndrome/).

LR:  To avoid becoming a Queen Bee may be a matter of not treating women with whom you work differently, and to support men and women alike, instead. The Queen Bee Syndrome focuses on how women treat other women. If we move away from the idea that there are only a few spots that women can fill in society, then we can get away from a sense of competition with other women for those spots—that kind of thinking is really unhealthy.  It’s easier to act as a role model and a mentor if the person you’re mentoring isn’t someone with whom you interact within the daily organization chain—it is tough mentoring people you are supervising.  In an ideal world, this would not be the case.  Creating the balance that allows you to mentor, role model and supervise can be successful, but it is tricky.  What can help women from becoming a Queen Bee in the workplace is understanding what makes the people you work with tick—in other words, understanding what motivates them is helpful whether it is money, recognition, caring about other people, the end game, and so on.  Madeline Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State, gave a speech to the Women’s National Basketball Association in 2006, and she said “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”  I think she’s right.

 NR:  Faculty and staff at SPSU are informed yearly about your five goals for the year.  Given your field of study, you have appropriately called these your “BIG Rocks.”  A big rock that made it to the list this year is for SPSU to “support a culture of diversity and inclusion.” The media sometimes stigmatizes diversity as a goal.  Why do you believe diversity is so important to a college community today?

 LR:  First of all, I think it’s important to focus on diversity in the broadest understanding of the word.  It’s not just about gender or ethnicity, but it’s a full spectrum of characteristics. Diverse politics, religions, ways of thinking, and communication styles are all parts of diversity. It’s critical not just to recruit a diverse segment of the population, but to also be supportive of that diversity—to embrace and to incorporate diversity into who we are at SPSU and how we function as a campus.  That’s why I have created a task force on diversity and inclusion. Diversity is important to college campuses because studies show that students who study in diverse environments are more successful after graduation because they have a better understanding of the diverse people and groups that make up the world.  Inclusion is important because all deserve to be included within the larger group.

We face an interesting set of issues at SPSU, especially as they concern the underrepresentation of women—very few schools have this problem since women outnumber men on most campuses.  Other campuses struggle to keep the number of men higher.  Gender distribution at SPSU actually mirrors gender distribution in the job market for the academic fields that we offer at SPSU.  SPSU has a responsibility to challenge that balance and to recruit and retain more women in the STEM fields.

Female students may still be told that women are poor at math and science.  If this is what we tell girls, then they think they can’t handle math and science.  Another problem we see is that woman who do well in STEM fields can’t see how a career in these fields makes a difference in the world.   We don’t articulate as well as we could how those working in the STEM fields help to impact the lives of people throughout society.

My hope for the task force is that they will examine issues like the campus culture, the academic curriculum, multicultural programs, co-curricular programs, and aspects of recruiting students, faculty and staff in order to assess issues of diversity on campus. We want to be as respectful of diversity as possible and to address all pieces as part of the whole and that we’re all helping to create a diverse community.

NR:  I know one way that you hope to build diversity is through helping women on campus and at high schools to understand what a polytechnic campus can provide for them.  What do you consider to be the most important reasons for high school girls to consider an education at a polytechnic university such as ours?

LR: One of the characteristics of a polytechnic university is that it creates a linkage between academic knowledge and the way that knowledge is applied to solve real world problems—a polytechnic education is uniquely set up to help connect education with the work world.  Women can feel like they are making a difference through their education at SPSU.  SPSU has a responsibility to help female students to see this connection.

We hope to get our message to younger women—middle school students are optimal so that we can work with students before their minds are set.  We can do this through the events we host such as the Science Olympiad and BEST Robotics.  We also hope that our education program will help to expand the pool of females interested in math and science careers as SPSU students graduate from the program and take jobs teaching math and science.

NR:  In what other ways do you hope to bring diversity to the campus?

LR:  I hope to have the task force on diversity come up with a definition of what “diversity” means for us at SPSU— a working statement that broadens our understanding of what the term means and initiates the conversation of how well we’re doing on campus of addressing diversity based on our definition.

NR:  Thanks so much for talking with me today.

LR:  And thank you for being willing to serve as one of the members of the President’s Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion.  I appreciated the chance to share some of these thoughts with you!