Women to Watch at UA Little Rock: Amanda Nolen

Amanda Nolen. Photo by Ben Krain.

In this special series for Women’s History Month, UA Little Rock is profiling women leaders who are making a difference at the university. As president of UA Little Rock’s Faculty Senate and University Assembly, Amanda Nolen leads a busy life running UA Little Rock’s shared governing bodies and teaching in the College of Education and Health Professions.

Q. Tell me about yourself?

My discipline is educational psychology. I have my doctorate and master’s degrees from Baylor University and a B.S. in psychology from the University of North Texas. I started my undergraduate college career as a vocal performance major and was accepted into North Texas State. I was in that program for about 15 minutes and realized this was not for me. I found myself in an intro psychology course with 315 students in a large auditorium. The professor, Dr. Elliot, came out on stage with wild hair, suspenders and a bowtie, and started speaking about the human condition. I just remember feeling in that moment that this was it, this was my home, and the rest was history.

My mother is a singularly important role model in my life. She was a stay-at-home parent throughout my childhood. But in her youth, when she graduated high school, she and her older sister left home, drove to Kansas City, and enrolled in flight attendant school for Pan Am. She was a flight attendant in the 50s and 60s when it was quite glamorous and had amazing stories of traveling and seeing the world. She had this dream of what she wanted to do. She came from a working-class family with not a lot of resources. She decided she wanted to see the world, and she did it. She has been an inspiration for me for striking out, believing in yourself, and not being afraid to take your leap into the next adventure. I think she was a remarkable woman.

Professionally, I got my doctorate in 2002. I didn’t go immediately into academia. I was hired as COO for Holmes Partnership. It was a large national educational reform network. I worked with deans from across the country to reimagine school reform. Our philosophy was that effective and lasting educational reform must start in the way we prepare teachers. Working with these amazing deans from across the country who were leaders in their own right, they modeled for me what it meant to be a leader in academia. I learned from them the kind of temperament you need, the ability to connect with people. I learned from them that it is important to identify your own principles and be willing to defend them as they guide you in your decision making. I count myself as incredibly fortunate to have that opportunity before I even started my academic career.

Q. How did you arrive at UA Little Rock?

I came to UA Little Rock in 2005. I’d had my doctorate degree for a few years and had been working with Holmes Partnership for three years at this point. I’m an introvert and I’ve always seen myself as an academic and not this public person. I felt like my time at Holmes Partnership was coming to an end, and I needed to do what I was trained to do, to be an educational psychologist. At the time, David Imig, the then president of the American Association of Teachers of College Education, pulled me aside at our national conference and suggested that I needed to take a look at UALR. In his view, Dean Angela Sewell was doing some innovative things in the preparation of educational professionals.

Fortunately, they had a position that was right up my alley teaching ed psych courses. It was serendipitous that it all seemed to fit. Since coming here, I’ve never questioned or even had a second guess about that decision. I love Little Rock. I love the diversity that it represents and the rich history.

Q. What does UA Little Rock mean to you?

For me, UA Little Rock exemplifies the important role of a metropolitan university in an urban setting. As a metropolitan university, we offer opportunities in social mobility to folks in central Arkansas who might not have access to other opportunities. I think there is something very important about that. It represents opportunities for a whole region of people who might not otherwise have an opportunity to pursue college education and economic advancement opportunities. The knowledge we create through our scholarship helps us solve problems in central Arkansas that better the lives of people living in this area. It represents all the ways universities are supposed to improve the communities in which they reside. UA Little Rock certainly represents that.

Q. What is your current position at UA Little Rock? What are your duties?

First and foremost, I am a professor in the School of Education. In that role, I am an instructor, mentor, and a scholar. My other position is president of the University Assembly and Faculty Senate. My duties are organizing the senate, organizing the standing committees and the issues that come before the senate, and making sure that we are getting the business done and prioritizing the business that needs to get done first.

As part of my role, I have to make sure that all the voices are represented through shared governance, which includes members of the assembly that might feel like they don’t have a seat at the table. Sometimes, they need to be heard from the most. It’s important for me to seek those voices out. The responsibilities of the president include being the care-taker and the face of shared governance, engaging the administration on issues that affect the faculty, and attempting to hold people accountable for decisions that affect the academic enterprise of the institution.

Q. Why is the Faculty Senate important?

Shared governance doesn’t take care of itself. It’s only protected when we engage it and when we participate in it. That’s the only way to protect shared governance. Faculty must engage through the Faculty Senate or other committees where we are engaging the campus. When faculty step away from these and say “someone else can do it,” that weakens the infrastructure for shared governance. We are fortunate at this institution that there is a healthy respect for the role of the faculty in the decision making and in protecting our legislative authority over the curriculum, annual review, promotion and tenure, etc. The challenge for faculty is the workload and the strain of participating. The faculty body is shrinking, so the responsibility of shared governance is falling on fewer shoulders. We are going to have to be more creative about protecting it and participating in it.

Q. How would you describe your leadership style?

I am really good at reading a room. What I have learned is that in order to do this I have to listen and put my own biases and suppositions to the side and just listen to what people are saying. I’m a pragmatist. For me, that means being very solution focused, identifying what is the problem, who is affected by the problem, and how do we solve it in a way that is in the benefit and interest of the university, students, and faculty. If I had to characterize my leadership style, it would be pragmatism.

Q. As a female leader, what has been the most significant barrier in your career?

The barriers I’ve experienced haven’t been related to me being a leader. They’ve been related to me being a female academic in a system that is privileged toward men. That has been the source of any obstacle for me. When I entered academia, I was a single mom, so I had to spend time focusing on my child who needed me in a certain capacity in her life. She was 11 when we moved here. I also needed to devote myself as an assistant professor to achieve tenure. This can be difficult for women, especially mothers, on the tenure track. This has to do with the social norms that are pressed upon women in the workplace. I wouldn’t call it a barrier, because I’ve navigated it, but it was an obstacle that I had to overcome. I was fortunate to figure it out, but I know there are many not as fortunate as I. In my role, I want to dismantle some of the systemic barriers that make it difficult for women, especially women of color to advance through the ranks.

Q. What woman has inspired you the most and why?

My mother influenced me in that she was clear minded in her approach to life. She wasn’t afraid to take that next adventure. The women deans I’ve worked with, who on the surface had very different lives from my mother, also had this clear headedness and this willingness to push the envelope a little bit. Dr. Mary Brabek at NYU, Dr. Mary Futrell at GWU, and Dr. Karen Sullivan at USC are three that really stand out to me. They had clear, guiding principles that gave them the confidence to push things. As a collective, those women have really shaped who I am now, and I am constantly drawing upon the lessons they taught me in my quiet moments.

Q. What advice would you give to the next generation of female leaders?

I can only qualify this in academic leaders. My advice for women academic leaders is acknowledging that academia is not a meritocracy, but is currently a hegemonic system. You should figure out early what your principles are, to define your own success rather than let others define it for you, and to measure your success by those principles and criteria you identified. Also, you should try to exhibit some kindness, compassion, and empathy along the way. That’s important in an academic setting. Recognize early on that perfection is not attainable, so achieving what is good is okay. Finally, don’t be afraid to say “yes” to challenging opportunities. Looking back on my career, the most important turning points occurred when I accepted a task that I feared would push me beyond my limit, only to find out that “limit” was not real at all.

Q. Name something about yourself that most people would be surprised to learn.

It’s the introvert thing. It seems contradictory to my role as president of the University Assembly. I have to build in time in my day where I can be still and quiet and be myself. It’s very draining to me. I think any introvert will understand that being publicly engaged with people is draining. It doesn’t come naturally to me. It’s exhausting. People who know me well know the introverted side of me, but I think the typical person wouldn’t know that about me.

Perhaps it’s not uncommon for people in academia, perhaps I am fitting the stereotype. I’m more comfortable in the pages of a book than I am in front of a crowd talking about the book. In my role, having clear principles serving as a compass, has allowed me to step out, to speak out on issues, to push back where I need to push back, and be vocal on important issues.

Q. What’s one leadership lesson you’ve learned in your career?

It’s important to listen, to reach out, question everything, and to not be afraid of having uncomfortable conversations. I think, for me, I want to hear as many perspectives and counter arguments as I can. I don’t just want to hear from people who agree with me. That’s too easy and that’s usually how you get it wrong. It’s when you seek out other voices, other parties, and other perspectives that you can competently reaffirm your position or be willing to change your mind.

Also, I think a leader should demonstrate humility. I’m up for reelection, and I haven’t quite made the decision if I am going to run again. Because of what I have endured the last two years, I know I am competent enough to do the job, but I’m not arrogant enough to think I’m the only person who can do this job. That gives me a lot of peace about it. I know there are really great faculty who can step into this role if and when I make that decision.

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