After 33 years, and untold influence, Julie Belle White-Newman bids farewell to people and an institution she loves.
JULIE BELLE White-Newman turned 65 in January. It's a natural transition point, the customary age when people step away from their professional lives and sashay toward the golden years of retirement. Have no doubt: Julie Belle (no one calls her Julie) will break that mold.
In her 33 years with the College of St. Catherine, White-Newman has made a name for herself as an extrovert and an innovator, pushing at boundaries and challenging the academic establishment to put the needs of students first. She helped birth Weekend College in 1979 and the Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership (MAOL) in the mid-1980s, when MBA programs were exclusive boys' clubs.
Her 11-page résumé is a testament to the life and work of an educated, forward-looking woman who has taken seriously the College's mandate to lead and influence. And yet she comes across in person as genuine and down to earth, a woman who is generous with her time and insights. "She is an academic, a good teacher, by all reports, and an effective committee presenter," says Ruth Brombach '60, longtime director of the Alumnae Association at St. Catherine's. "She has the ability to walk effectively with all kinds of persons and in a lot of worlds."
White-Newman envisions retirement as a chance to volunteer and entertain, to spend more time with her family, to plot the next adventure or allow the open road to be her guide. Until then, she is wrapping up her work and reflecting on the high points of a remarkable career.
Q: Are you tired? Do you feel ready to retire?
A: Actually I'm not tired. There's a sense of completeness. It's been a gift to be able to do so many different things over the years, all within the realm of education — and especially at St. Kate's. I've had the opportunity and flexibility to teach and to administer and to be out in the community giving presentations. I've worked on new-program development and on celebrating traditions.
If I'd been in a large research institution, I would have been on such a narrow path compared with what I've done here. I've been allowed to meander some. Describe the path that you've taken. I've had at least four careers here in 33 years. I was a department head in our undergraduate program. I served in a joint department with St. Thomas, where I was one of the first female department heads. I was director of continuing education in the early 1980s, as well as a teacher. I was director of the Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership for 20 years, off and on. And now I'm finishing my career here as a senior administrator.
Q: What has been the common thread throughout?
A: Teaching has been the strongest one. I've known since fourth grade that I wanted to be a teacher. I never considered another occupation or calling.
Q: Would you have made a good entrepreneur?
A: I come from a family of entrepreneurs. My family owns Hubert W. White's men's clothing. My first job was gift wrapping at Christmas, in the stock room. I think of myself as a risk taker, and that's what entrepreneurs do.
This year you co-chaired the president's task team that examined whether the College of St. Catherine should be renamed a university. How did that influence you?
Working on that task team and its convergence with my retirement have made me look more at the history of the College. Working on the Centennial celebration did that, too. Not only have we been growing in size, but more importantly we have been growing in multiple ways in which we're able to best serve the needs of students.
That has made us very complex but positively so. It just makes sense to think not only in terms of the content — the education, the curriculum — but also how we deliver it. We have to understand the current lives of people: what they need and what they can do.
Q: Are you contemplating what your own legacy might be at the College?
A: I have thought about that multiple times. I would love to have on my tombstone that I was a mother of Weekend College or a mother of MAOL. It doesn't seem very humble, maybe, but I leave happy to know that certain contributions have made a difference at St. Kate's. I have never done it alone, of course. I've always worked as part of a team.
Q: What were the inspirations for Weekend College and MAOL?
A: There's the old adage, "It's not the answer but the question that's important." They both came from really good questions. Weekend College was a response to an administrative question: "How can we best serve women's educational needs that aren't currently being met?" It took us 15 minutes to say, "Not night school, not continuing education." We wanted unmet needs.
It was the same with MAOL. The question was posed to us from women outside the College: "What can you do for women in leadership?" We looked at the continuing education models and realized that women who are in leadership need graduate degrees. Most have undergraduate degrees.
Q: Was the master's degree in leadership also a response to what traditional MBA programs were overlooking at the time?
A: Oh, yes. I remember reading a book by a woman who attended Harvard Business School. She described a place that I wouldn't have wanted to be — a competitive culture deliberately set up to have students in conflict with one another. The content of business school programs in those days essentially was devoid of any emphasis on ethics. The assumption was that if you went to Harvard Business School, you would go to work for a for-profit corporation and rise to the top. Be a guy and live like a guy.
Q: Did you get any pushback about your "3 E's" model of organizational leadership — ethical, effective and enduring?
A: People told us it was untenable to be starting a master's program around leadership. They said you either have the leadership gene or you don't. They said you can't teach ethics, that people are either good or bad.
My model of effective, ethical and enduring leadership is still embedded in the MAOL. I'm proud of that. When I look at statements across the College and see those words, it gladdens my heart.
Q: You could have turned those concepts into a bestselling business book.
A: I probably should have, no, I should have written more about that. By nature I'm more of an oral communicator, a storyteller. It shows in the way I've spent my time.
Q: Why is storytelling important?
A: My father was a wonderful storyteller, a great raconteur. I was raised with the theater and with mythology. I still love good novels. I strongly believe that the best leaders tell stories that allow people to understand the world in a certain way, that help them see certain values in practice and be able to identify with life in action. One of the most important ways we can know the world and know how to act is through stories. But if a leader is not willing to share his or her story, and can't give coherent meaning to an organization's culture through stories, that person is not fully exercising good leadership.
Q: When did you first see yourself as a leader or a public person?
A: When I was in fifth grade I spoke up at a village council meeting in Wisconsin opposing a proposal to limit water skiing hours on our little lake. It never occurred to me that I didn't have the right or responsibility to speak up about things. That comes from my family. We have a tradition of leadership and a strong emphasis on public service.
Q: How do you operate as a leader yourself?
A: I can tell you how I hope I operate. At this stage of my life, I try to take the long-range view. I believe very much in having a vision and making sure it's a shared vision, that there is a team commitment to working together on that vision. I've always believed in leading from the middle — that leaders are followers, followers are leaders.
Q: What changes have you seen in women's lives during your decades at St. Kate's?
A: In the 1980s and '90s I was giving lots of speeches related to women and power, when we were working so hard for equity. It limited my ability to see things holistically. It was too absorbing, that fight, that focus. Today, I think we've come into an era when things are so much more open. I know there are limitations and barriers. But whether it's realistic or not, I'm very taken with the attitude of young women who are thinking of their lives and work on a global level.
I think it's a good, positive direction. It's a more holistic, integrated perspective on the world. When my mother was born, women could not vote. That's amazing! Things have changed dramatically.
Q: And how have your priorities changed since that time?
A: In 1985 I was much more concerned about the collective and making change within the collective. Today if I can touch one person and make a difference in her life, that's important.
Q: You've served since 2006 as a special assistant to our president, Andrea Lee, IHM. Have you been close to other presidents at St. Kate's?
A: It's interesting. I've been closer to all the presidents than the average individual. I don't mean this to be immodest, but at various times I've been kind of a kitchen cabinet person to senior administrators. Partially, I suppose, it's because I've marched forward and said: "Excuse me, pay attention to this."
Q: You came to Derham Hall for high school in 1957. How are you dealing with the prospect of leaving this place?
A: The grieving and the letting go are harder for me before the fact. Once I leave, I'll have wonderful memories and will stay connected in many ways. But then it will be time for the new adventure.
I'm not a person who has been bored much. So I assume I won't be bored in retirement.