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Women & Power 2023

What keeps Boston’s higher ed leaders awake at night? What gives them hope?

Shirley Leung sits down with leaders from Suffolk University, Bunker Hill, and UMass Lowell to talk all things education.

From left: Julie Chen of UMass Lowell, Marisa Kelly of Suffolk, and Pam Eddinger of Bunker HillCraig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Read more from the 2023 Women & Power issue.

Colleges and universities are turning to women to take the helm, especially here in Massachusetts where, according to the New England Council and New England Board of Higher Education, the impact of such institutions includes 280,000 jobs and a $13.5 billion boost to the economy. Globe columnist Shirley Leung recently sat down with three leaders at institutions that represent the diversity of public and private higher ed in Massachusetts: Marisa Kelly, president of Suffolk University; Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College; and Julie Chen, chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

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All three were among those named to this year’s list of the Top 100 Women-Led Businesses in Massachusetts, a project of The Women’s Edge and the Globe Magazine. The discussion — held at Suffolk’s Boston campus — ranged from their paths to the corner office to why college still matters and how they’re preparing students for a world shaped by artificial intelligence.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Q: In Massachusetts, a growing number of women have been tapped to lead colleges and universities. When you look back, what has made the biggest difference in your career path?

Marisa Kelly: Mainly two things: having the confidence to say yes to a lot of opportunities that were growth opportunities, and strong mentors who were probably part of how I gained the confidence to say yes.

Pam Eddinger: It’s really a whole series of things that shape your mind-set of being able to say yes. I have a lot of conversations now with younger women coming up and there is so much doubt about what their role should be as mothers, as women, as leaders in higher ed, that it is hard for them to sort it all out.

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I was really lucky I had good mentors who said, “Look, if you don’t like it, you can just turn back. But you really need to try this because you’re not going to get a second shot.”


Q: What do you mean, you’re not going to get a second shot?

Eddinger: If you’re a woman and you get that one shot and you turn it down, you get a reputation as being not brave enough, as being too family oriented. Then people don’t come and extend that hand again. Choices felt different 30 years ago. Today if I have someone who says, “Well, I’m not ready for it this year,” I will say to them, “I’ll come back at you next year when you’re more ready.”

Julie Chen: Three years ago, I never would have said that I would be the chancellor of a university. I was happy being in charge of research and economic development, but people started to say, “You should consider it.”

It wasn’t this whole long plan. It was like, “OK, I’ll try that and see what I learned.” You end up in a position where you have the experience that people are looking for.

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Q: How are each of you grappling with this existential threat facing higher education, where you have to make the case that a college degree is worth it?

Chen: College is not for everybody. But I think it’s a mistake for people to think it’s not worth it. Yes, you could get a job making $30 an hour as a bus driver. People might say that’s great. If you think about the long term, it’s not how much you need to live on when you’re 20 years old. It’s: Where do you want your life and your career path to be? College is what makes possible a much more upward trajectory for people in their lives and their careers.

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Eddinger: Everybody’s doing confidence surveys. Gallup Poll is the latest one. So higher education is losing the confidence of the nation. How many of our highly-placed public servants or private citizens who are living in the upper quintiles of income — how many of those folks will actually tolerate their children not going to college? So, to conflate what folks say about the confidence in education is really in my mind a classist and a socioeconomic kind of dissonance.


Q: Generative artificial intelligence such as ChatGPT is rapidly changing the world. How do you prepare your campus for this brave new world?

Chen: One of the reasons why we say it’s important for us to be a research university — not that every student is going to work on research directly — is just being connected and being in an environment where the faculty are involved in creating new knowledge. Our students need to be in that mind-set that you’re not just going to go and rinse and repeat, and do everything the same all the time. You need to be looking for what’s that new way of doing it, because otherwise AI can do the old stuff a lot faster than any of us as humans.

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Kelly: There’s a lot we’re trying to do around AI across Suffolk. Our business school has an intro business class, which has now been completely infused with major questions around AI.

The vast majority of questions the students are asking in that first-year class are around: What are you going to do for me? How are you going to help me transition to a professional trajectory that has a future, given the way AI is changing the world? It is incumbent upon us to be doing all we can at our institutions to be sure that we have an answer for them, and that continues to evolve as AI continues to evolve.


Q: We’re about three and a half years past the beginning of COVID-19. Are you still dealing with the fallout?

Eddinger: There are a lot of things we learned from that crisis that are actually benefiting us now. About 50 percent of our employees now work remotely or on a hybrid schedule. About 50 percent of our class schedule is either online or hybrid. What that mixture used to look like at Bunker Hill before the pandemic was different with employees on campus 100 percent of the time and fewer online classes. Years ago, we even had on-campus midnight classes before we were able to offer more flexible options.

If you imagine yourself working a late shift and you want to become an accountant, when would you do that? Now you take an online class. With online options, you can take classes when your children are asleep.

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The pandemic experience freed us from a lot of the ways we used to do things. We put 2,500 sections online in two weeks in March of 2020. We learned that we could do that and still deliver education to our students successfully. Now you have the ability to really focus on what it is that students want. Our students don’t want to be there Monday through Friday from 9 to 3, because they’re working.

Shirley Leung (back right) conducts a roundtable discussion with leaders Kelly, Eddinger, and Chen at Suffolk University.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Chen: We’re still catching up. Our junior and senior classes are low because of the pandemic, and our freshman class is way back up. But total enrollment is still down until we get those two classes through.

But on a plus side, [there’s] opening faculty up to the idea of teaching online. We now have a model for early college that we can actually scale because we have a team-taught approach between the high school teacher and a co-teacher with one of our faculty. The faculty member does most of theirs online.

Kelly: We’re absolutely seeing the learning loss of the newer students. They were in high school when the pandemic hit, and there are gaps that they’re having to work to overcome. The bigger gaps that I think we’re seeing across the United States are really on the social and emotional side. While there was a mental health crisis in this country and in higher education before the pandemic, the pandemic exacerbated it significantly. We’re putting more and more resources into counseling services, wraparound care, and support services. I don’t see an end to that for quite a long time.


Q: The US Supreme Court in June banned affirmative action in college admissions, which disproportionately hurt elite schools such as Harvard. What kind of impact has it had on your institutions?

Kelly: I worry a lot about the impact that it will have on the application rate for students who would have otherwise felt they might benefit from affirmative action. For Suffolk specifically, I worry a lot about the next shoe to drop about what other rulings might come down. If we lose the ability, for example, to track by race access of our services then we cannot be certain that we’re doing everything we need to do to support those students.

Chen: We all have lots of programs and scholarships that are targeted at groups that are underrepresented. If they start saying, you can’t designate a group for funding, that makes it challenging. The message of that is discouraging, because if we can’t get underrepresented groups to think about this as a place they belong, then we’ve already lost an opportunity for a group of students that really would help the country.

Eddinger: It is not about hand-wringing about the 3 percent of the undergraduates at selective schools. It’s really about: What are you going to do to support our public universities in terms of funding in order to allow for the continuing growth with our diverse populations? What do you do with the other 97 percent of the undergraduates so that we can have a more vibrant and more civically engaged and more inclusive student population?


Q: These are challenging times in higher education, so what gives you hope?

Chen: When you talk to this generation of students, they have such an empathy for wanting to have an impact on the world, whether it’s climate change, whether it’s racial and social justice. Our role as educators is to help give them the tools to act on that sense of wanting to make the world a better place. Because my office is essentially in the building that houses the student clubs, I love walking down at the end of the day to talk to students. That’s what gives me hope that offsets what we hear in the news.

Kelly: The richness of higher education in the United States has always been about this differentiation of institutions. It means that there’s a place for everybody who wants it in one way or another, whether that’s workforce development or a certificate program, a two-year degree, a four-year degree, a research track. It’s really important, and this does speak to the connection between higher ed and a strong democracy as well, that we keep focusing on ensuring that we maintain that rich diversity of institutions because otherwise, student populations will fail to be served.

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Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com.