Thursday, January 14, 2021

PLAYBOOK INTERVIEW: Fayneese Miller

 President Miller Horizontal Image


For our secondD3Playbook Interview, we feature Fayneese Miller, president of Hamline University and chair of the NCAA Division III Presidents Council. 

You have been a ground-breaker since your days in Danville, Va., continuing to TCU and through Hamline. What has been your driving force?
 

t was never my goal to be a ground-breaker. In fact, I never realized that some even considered me one until I became president of Hamline University. I simply tried every day to make sure what I do matters and that I am in a position to influence or bring about change. I believed that I could do this even in the face of obstacles. For example, one of my graduate school professors kept a toothbrush in his shirt pocket. Whenever we passed in the hallway he would put the toothbrush in his mouth. This was to keep from having to speak or even acknowledge my presence as a graduate student in the program. Such behavior made me even more determined to succeed. How dare anyone else determine my right to be in a program, especially once I was admitted, and attempt to make me feel as though I did not belong? I belonged. I had earned my place in the program. Fortunately, I had other professors who were very supportive. In fact, one said to me, “when you are in my office you can cry all you want, but once you step outside my door hold your head high and never let those opposed to your presence know it affects you.” I hold my head high to this very day and will continue to do so. Also, my parents believed that I could be anything and do anything, if I worked hard enough. My parents were civil rights workers and they impressed upon each of their children that we have a responsibility to make what we do matter, to be servant-leaders whenever possible.  If this means being a ground-breaker then I am honored to be described as such.


What lessons have been learned as an African-American woman in a leadership role? What do you share with students and colleagues?
 
As an African-American woman in a leadership role, I have learned that who I am matters not only to those with whom I work, but more importantly, to those who will come after me. I have come to better appreciate the fact that what I say, when I say it, and how I convey my messages matters. For example, when Mr. George Floyd was murdered, I knew I had to communicate my heartfelt feelings to my community. The same was true when our very notion of democracy was recently challenged. I try every day to show my authentic self to students and my colleagues. I want them to know I truly care about them and their futures. I am not afraid or embarrassed to share my feelings with my students and colleagues. I talk about how one's self-presentation matters. This is an unfortunate reality for all, but especially for students, and faculty, of color. I talk about the importance of being prepared, even in those areas where our experience and knowledge is somewhat limited -- so, learn as much as you can before entering a meeting. I talk about the importance of being effective decision-makers and problem-solvers. And, I talk about the importance of being a part of a team. More importantly, I frequently use John Wesley’s words to “do all the good you can.” I must also admit that I have learned that sometimes, silence equals complicity. So, I am no longer silent. I have a voice and I use it. I encourage my students and colleagues to do the same.


Your professional experience has leaned towards larger institutions (Yale, Brown, Vermont). What brought you to Hamline?
 
have spent most of my career at larger institutions. Each of those institutions, while larger, were all committed to providing students with a liberal arts education. Hamline University certainly does just that, and quite well. I was impressed with the fact that Hamline faculty know their students’ names, interests, and about their lives. At Brown, I made it a point to get to know all of my students. So, choosing Hamline was a continuation of what I did as a faculty member at Brown and a Dean at UVM, just with a bigger platform—as president. I liked that Hamline had so much untapped potential and wanted to be a part of the fulfillment of the institution’s promise to students—the potential to grow and to imagine and realize the opportunities of the future. I like that Hamline believes in civility and social justice and provides opportunities for students to learn first-hand what it means to be part of a civil society. I especially liked that I could be an active participant in one of my greater loves, athletics. I could sit on the sidelines, be a supportive fan, in ways that I never had the opportunity to do before as I was building a career. What I have shared is what becoming a candidate and, ultimately the president, afforded me. It was the search firm, one that knew me quite well, that encouraged me to take a look at Hamline. Having spent most of my career on the east coast at highly regarded research institutions, it was not a place I might have looked if the search consultant had not said to me, “Fayneese, Hamline would like you. It is focused on those things you hold dear and reflects the work that you have been doing for so long. “They were right. I am honored to be the president of Hamline University. 
 

Presidential schedules are always full. What led you to getting involved with the NCAA and the Presidents Council?
 
I am involved with the NCAA because of my scholar-athletes. I felt as though it was important for me to better understand the organization that helps define their athletic experience. My schedule is never too full when it comes to doing something that positively impacts my students. I must admit, however, that I never realized how much time I would need to devote to the NCAA. It is a lot! 
 

What challenges do small, private institutions face in the upcoming year?

Small, private institutions are never truly free of challenges, regardless of enrollment or endowment size. The bigger challenges right now are ensuring the health, safety, and well-being of our students. A second challenge is maintaining enrollment numbers, especially with changing national demographics and the fact that it is getting harder and harder to differentiate oneself from others. Once you come up with a brand or highlight particular programs, others almost immediately jump into the pool with you, thereby wiping out particular areas of distinctiveness. I believe institutions are much too competitive; while I understand the need to be so, I also believe we need to figure out how to be more collaborative. 
 

Tell us about working with other institutions in a conference setting such as the MIAC.

No offense to others, but I believe I am a part of one of the very best conferences in the nation. The MIAC has great leadership and the presidents respect and support each other. We take sportsmanship seriously, hold our coaches accountable for their behavior and have high expectations for our scholar-athletes. We have made some difficult and painful decisions. Yet, we stood together and did not let personal egos or agendas interfere with what we felt was right for all of our scholar-athletes. I am honored to work with my presidential colleagues and the leadership of the MIAC. 


Have you always been active in athletics? If so, what is your favorite sport/activity?


have always been interested in athletics. As a mom, I attended just about all of my son’s soccer, baseball, lacrosse, basketball, hockey, golf, and swim practices and competitions. At Brown, I was the faculty representative for the gymnastics team. My husband was a high school hockey coach. I was once a mediocre gymnast and track student. I am impressed by those who excel athletically and are able to balance academics and sports. I like all sports, even those I don’t quite understand. I am a golfer. When my son was four years old, Tiger Woods won his first green jacket. I watched this four-year old sit in front of the television and watch Tiger play each round. He was mesmerized by Tiger and noticed that Tiger looked like him. Shortly thereafter, I enrolled my son in golf lessons. Since I wanted to be able to play a sport with him and my husband already had activities he could do with our son, I decided to take lessons as well. My son eventually became a lackluster golfer—as he got more involved with other sports and music. I, on the other hand, continued to play and still do to this day. Prior to the pandemic, I had a 15.3 handicap. Now, my handicap is 18.1. I just do not have the time to play or work on my game. But, I love the game and have learned to be appreciative of the times when I can get out to play and no longer obsess over the quality of my game. 


What do you enjoy doing in your leisure time?
 
have two activities that I enjoy. I am a prolific reader. I am rarely without a book or two in hand. My other activity is golf. I enjoy the game. It allows me to get outside my comfort zone and accept that not all happens as we might like. It also reminds me that giving up is not always in one’s best interest, keep trying no matter how hard the task.


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