Good morning, everyone!
I’m happy to be here to celebrate the legacy of Doris Kerr Larkins and to visit with accomplished, civic-minded women like you who are making our state a better place.
Just a few months ago, I was here in Wichita to speak with about a dozen young girls in a group called the Katherine Johnson Scholar Sisters. The group is named for Katherine Johnson, one of the African American women who served as NASA mathematicians in the 1960s celebrated in the recent film, “Hidden Figures.”
Those of you familiar with Katherine Johnson’s story know her path to success was not easy. As I explained to the girls in the group that day — like Katherine Johnson, they too will face challenges in their lives.
For me, growing up in North Carolina in the 1950s and 60s, the challenge was funding for college. Neither of my parents attended college. In fact, when I applied to college, neither of my parents had even completed high school.
But even though they hadn’t gone to college, my parents emphasized the power of education. And it’s because of their support that I was a first-generation college student — and more importantly, a first-generation college graduate.
I knew from an early age that I loved learning and wanted to pursue a college education. That would be vital to my success and my ability to overcome challenges. And that’s what I emphasized for these talented young girls in the Katherine Johnson Scholars Program — that education will be key to success.
Now, these 4th and 5th grade girls were confident, talkative, and very enthusiastic about math and science. At one point during the event, we had technical difficulties with a computer and couldn’t get a video to play. As the adults struggled to play the video, one of the girls confidently walked up to the computer to help the adults fix the problem!
As I watched this episode unfold, I couldn’t help but laugh. But at the same time, it made me think: “How can we nurture this girl’s confidence and talent through adolescence and into adulthood?” In other words, how do we ensure that the young girl who fixed the computer eventually enrolls in a computer science class at KU and then goes to work for Spirit Aerosystems. Or more broadly, how do we ensure that every young girl has the opportunity to pursue a career, be a leader, participate in her community, and pursue a meaningful life — however she defines it.
Certainly, these are not easy questions.
One challenge, I think, is that our society remains rigid in how it defines “female” and “feminine.” Thus, young women must overcome social stigmas as they pursue careers or leadership roles — particularly in STEM fields. In other words: “Can you be popular and attractive and womanlike … and be a scientist or an engineer?”
I’ll always remember a conversation I had in graduate school. One of my best friends saw a picture of me from my college yearbook. It was a photo of me studying in the library as an undergraduate. When he saw the photo, he said: “No one would go out with you if they saw that photo!” According to him, I looked too scholarly.
Now, I think he meant it as a joke, but, still, there was a lot of truth to it — as I didn’t neatly fit into what society expects of a young, single woman. The reality is, a woman is expected to get married and raise a family, but is often judged as a less likely candidate for a leadership position — because she has a family.
In addition to social stigma and societal expectations, women today face challenges in access. Challenges in income disparity. Challenges in perception of our worth and value. Challenges in finding mentors and role models.
As a university chancellor, I believe that last challenge – finding mentors and role models – is incredibly important. I suspect many of you here today, either knowingly or unknowingly, serve as a mentor or role model, whether it’s in your family, your community, your workplace, or your civic organization.
At KU, we are fortunate to have some amazing women who are not only leaders in their fields, but who also embrace their role as educators and mentors to aspiring female scholars.
For example, KU Professor Alice Bean is conducting particle physics studies at the Large Hadron Collider — the most complex experimental facility in history — that could unlock mysteries of the universe ... and, she also leads a project to teach children about physics in a fun and engaging way.
Professor Joy Ward has received an award from President Obama for her research on climate change… and has also been recognized for mentoring undergraduates.
And Professor Susan Williams is developing technology to convert algae into biofuels… and is also one of our most devoted classroom educators.
I see first-hand the impact these women have on their colleagues and their students. They inspire them. Push them. Challenge them. And ultimately give them the confidence to know they can succeed.
This is why mentors and role models are so important. And I applaud each of you for the work you do as mentors, role models and leaders. Don’t ever forget that as accomplished women, there are always other women watching you — and you have the power to shape, inspire and embolden these women.
Of course, while society presents challenges for most women, the challenges are even greater for women of color. Earlier this year, I shared a message with our campus regarding the Martin Luther King holiday. In that message, I shared my wish that someday, Martin Luther King Day might eventually be “just another holiday.” Sadly, it is not yet. Not even close. In fact, this year, more than any I can remember in more than 30 years, King’s call for equal justice, and his aspiration to make true democracy a reality for our country, are needed.
During the past two-and-a-half years, universities have struggled to address issues of race, gender, sexual identity and religion — as if we must learn the lesson of equality for every group that is identifiable as different in some way. These struggles recall problems of our larger society — issues reflected dramatically in cities like Charleston, Dallas, Orlando, and others.
As Ford Foundation president Darren Walker noted, “The events of this year have tested any commitment to hope, and to the belief that equality can triumph over indifference and injustice.”
But this is precisely why our efforts to ensure that our universities – and our society – embrace diversity and inclusion are so important.
No single action can achieve our goals. We need to be comprehensive, systematic and unceasing in our efforts. And as universities, we need to be united in saying discrimination and racism will not be tolerated.
Thank you so much for having me today. Thank you for the remarkable work you all do in your communities and your workplace. And thank you for celebrating the legacy of Doris Kerr Larkins and this wonderful museum, which stands as a monument to the ideals of perseverance, endurance and human dignity.