Women to Watch at UA Little Rock: Christina Drale

Dr. Christina Drale

In this special series for Women’s History Month, UA Little Rock is profiling women leaders who are making a difference at the university. Dr. Christina Drale serves as the first female chancellor of UA Little Rock. 

Q. Tell me about yourself?

I’ve been in Arkansas for 14 years. I’ve had a number of positions since coming here. I started out as an associate dean in the former College of Professional Studies. Then, I became an associate vice chancellor for academic affairs. I was hired by David Belcher just before he left. The first person I worked for in the provost’s office was Sandra Robertson. More recently, I became the interim provost and, after 10 months in that gig, I became the chancellor. It’s been a wild ride. 

Q. How did you arrive at UA Little Rock?

Before I came to Arkansas, I was an associate dean at Missouri State in Springfield. Angie Brenton called me up and said, “Would you like to come work for me in Little Rock?” I was ready for a change, and I said, “Yes, I would like that.” I applied for the job and got it. Angie actually worked at Missouri State for one year as a department chair. I had known David Belcher for years because I worked for him at Missouri State when he was dean there. We have a little Missouri State pipeline going here.

Q. What does UA Little Rock mean to you?

I view UA Little Rock as a vital institution for central Arkansas. It is a metropolitan, comprehensive research university. It plays a very important role in serving the needs of regional students and also serves the needs of industry, government, cultural organizations, and nonprofit organizations. We feed into that activity in a very prominent way. We prepare and contribute to the workforce, but we also contribute to the overall well-being and vibrancy of central Arkansas.

Q. What are your duties as chancellor of UA Little Rock?

There are several important things a chancellor has to do. The chancellor is where the buck stops. The chancellor has to be responsible for the integrity of the institution. That includes the financial integrity, the academic integrity, and the overall institutional integrity in terms of truth in advertising, being a good citizen, and serving the needs of the community. A very central part of what a chancellor does is have oversight of the integrity issues.

A chancellor spends a fair amount of time working on budget issues. The chancellor establishes the parameters of how you do that. One chancellor might do across-the-board cuts, while another chancellor might take a different approach. A chancellor has to set the rules for the major tasks of the university.

A big part of what a chancellor does is external relations. There is a surprising amount of that, at least it’s surprising to me. It’s way different than what a provost does, especially when you are new. Everyone wants to meet you and talk to you and find out what you are about. They also want to test you to see if you are up to the challenge.

I’ve had a lot of very positive support from external constituents. They all want us to be successful. A lot of it is getting out and telling our story. I work with people in communications and advancement and academic affairs to get that story told to a variety of constituents, whether it’s the Chamber of Commerce, the Arkansas State Legislature, or other groups. It’s very important for a chancellor to have a lot of face time in the community and to share the institution’s priorities, what it means to the city, and what we are doing and why.

The other part of the chancellor’s job is to communicate well internally. Communication is an important priority for any chancellor. The external communication is very important, but internal communication is equally important. If you don’t maintain that communication line with your students and employees, then people won’t be able to support you. Our faculty and staff and students are out in the community as much as anybody, and they are ambassadors as well. If you don’t communicate well with your ambassadors, you are losing out on that resource. Whatever our internal disagreements about method or strategy, we ultimately agree on the goals. We are essentially all rowing in the same direction. A chancellor’s job is to make sure that is happening.

Q. How would you describe your leadership style?

I would describe my leadership style as one of quiet strength. I am not naturally an extrovert. I am learning to embrace the role of a public figure, but, frankly, it does not come naturally to me. I have to work at that. I also have a pretty strong sense of direction, of what needs to be done, and I think I can communicate that effectively. My style is to really work methodically through my plans, to take a strategic planning approach. It’s not always fast or flashy, but it is effective. That’s how I work.

As someone coming from behind the scenes to in front of the scene, I still have the same approach to the work I do. I carefully plan, set priorities, and work toward the goals. I also think that, as a leader, I understand the value of communication. There’s never enough. Some will always want more than you can provide at any given time. I have seen what happens when communication is missing from the equation. I try to do a good job of it.

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

From an early point in time, females aspiring for leadership positions are usually underestimated and undervalued. Early in life, I learned to use that to my advantage. It does mean that you have to work harder than many of your male colleagues. It means that you have to aspire to the highest standards. You have to be good at what you are doing. You have to make sure you can go into any situation and hold your own. If you have developed that level of talent, you will still be underestimated and undervalued.

There are ways to use that to your advantage and catch people off guard. The thing that is really important about that is to realize that even though it’s wrong and sexist, it’s not personal. If you can keep your emotions out of it and concentrate on the strategy, you are probably going to be okay. 

When I look at Ruth Bader Ginsberg, as brilliant as she was, she was still undervalued and underestimated until she proved that she was brilliant and able to hold her own in a court of law. She had to stay on course. She had to keep going back to the same people under the same circumstances and keep demonstrating her capabilities. I’m sure she was discouraged on a personal level, but she didn’t let that stop her or slow her down even. 

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

On a purely personal level, I would have to say it’s my mother. My mother did not have a professional career. She didn’t finish college. She was truly an inspiration for me. She is the rock of our family. In spite of the obstacles in her way and the culture in her generation, she was always her own person. She always knew exactly what she thought and wasn’t intimidated by anyone. She has this incredible strength. She’s 90 years old and still going strong. When it seemed like everyone else in the family was gnashing teeth and running around in circles, she is always the one who could see through the commotion to exactly what needed to be done, and she did it. 

One of the things I loved about our relationship is my mother always spoke to me like an adult and treated me like a person who had the capability of making important choices in life. That was a very good upbringing. She always made it clear that I could decide my own future. I think that’s where my confidence came from. I saw her confidence and I emulated that. She’s very proud that I’m chancellor, and she has no doubt in the world that I can do this, and she’s completely supportive.

My father was also an influence. I grew up in the 60s and 70s. It was still very much the case that women weren’t expected to have professional careers. No one ever asked me what I wanted to do with my life, but my father always assumed I would go to college, have a successful career, and be a self-made person like he was. That was liberating.

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

First, to get as many different kinds of experience as you can. That means stepping up and volunteering for different kinds of assignments. It’s those experiences that will open up possibilities. You never know when you will make a connection that will help you later on in life. It’s not just about networking. It’s about having shared connections with people. You should have as much as a diversity of experience as you can fit into your schedule.

Take advantage of mentors. Use them, find them, and ask their advice. Don’t limit yourself to one gender. Women leaders have unique perspectives, but, sometimes, male mentors can be insightful about different subjects. Find a variety of mentors depending on the topics you need help with and don’t be shy.

The third piece of advice I would give is to find your center. It’s okay if you don’t know where you will end up or exactly what you want to do. Find your center in terms of your moral center, your essence. That will help you stay grounded. It will help you make appropriate decisions about what you are going to do and what you will do. It helps you set boundaries. It’s an important thing to learn, especially for women. We tend not to say no. If you compromise your family and your health for your job, no one will thank you for that. It will never be enough. People will take as much as you give them.

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

One of the most important things I’ve learned is that honesty is paramount in your dealings with people. Honesty is connected to personal integrity. If you lose that, it’s nearly impossible to get it back. Once people stop trusting you, then you can’t lead. No one will follow someone they don’t trust, at least not willingly. I think that’s really of paramount value.

The second thing I’ve learned over the years is that you’ve got to maintain a combination of courage and emotional maturity. You need to have the courage to wade into whatever the problems are. You have to meet them head on, but you also have to have a level of emotional intelligence and maturity not to become a part of the problem. Even if people are very upset and emotional, don’t take that personally and understand that people have every right to have the reactions that they have. It isn’t about you. It’s about the situation. You have to have a good emotional balance to go into those situations and be effective.

Q. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Go Trojans!

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