When you step into Dr. G-S's office, you'll see a vintage microscope sitting on a table. This was a gift from colleagues at Spelman College, her alma mater, where she was the Porter Professor of Physiology, Biology Chair, and Associate Provost for Science and Math, before she became Provost and Academic Vice President at Drew University. It shows her passion for science, as well as the value she places on maintaining connections.
Nowadays, she is busy making new connections as president of York College. Dressed in an elegant suit, she extends a warm welcome. "I feel so fortunate to be where I am," she says, with a broad smile. She has worked hard for her success, and appreciates the help given to her by her family and mentors. "I sit where I sit today on the shoulders of others."
Dr. G-S is committed to encouraging students to go forward when opportunities arise for them. In both her academic and professional career, she has taken advantage of doors that have opened for her, and asks, "When opportunities present themselves, are you prepared to walk through the door when it opens?"
She has been walking through a lot of doors at YCP and in the City of York, engaging in conversations about our mission, the student experience, and the College's role in the community. She relished greeting students and families on Move-in Day and at Orientation, and was delighted when York City Mayor Kim Bracey joined her in welcoming the Class of 2017.
She believes that being part of academia is a wonderful way of giving back. "You have such a great reach. It can have a long-lasting effect on society in ways that you may not have imagined."
Former student and advisee Theepica Jeyarajah majored in Neuroscience with a minor in Writing, and graduated from Drew in May, 2013. She says, "York is really lucky to have someone who is so passionate in what she does, and who is always willing to help without any hesitations." Jeyarajah adds that after each meeting with Dr. G-S, she "would always feel encouraged and driven to do more."
Dr. G-S's family background prepared her well for a life in academia. "I come from a long line of educators and administrators, scientists, and people involved in the creative arts." She grew up an only child in Nashville, TN, where both her mother and father were teachers. Her mother later became Dean of Urban Studies at Lincoln University, Oxford, PA, and Vice President for Development. Her father also ran the family business, a funeral home, with his two brothers. It was across the street from the local high school where her father was Band Director. She traces her early interest in the sciences to spending time there after school and learning anatomy.
Her grandfather had been the diener — the person who runs the anatomy labs — at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, and trained most of the physicians in Nashville.
"I had always wanted to be a scientist since I was 5," she says, "and I pursued that straight through my Ph.D. program, post-doc, and in my first job. I'm a physiologist by training. Human physiology, the study of organ systems, control mechanisms, the way in which the body functions, is the basis of medical practice and medical science. I've taught medical students from time to time, and that was the path on which I was headed. I found out very early that I was not destined to be a physician. I like thinking about those areas and those types of problems, but never wanted to be involved with patient care. It was not my calling, so I went in a different direction.
"At Emory, where I got my Ph.D., the program was such that for the first two years you went to medical school. I went to classes with medical students, and when they went to do their clinical rotation, I went to the lab to do my research. So I stayed connected to my interest in medicine."
Gunter-Smith holds a B.S. in Biology from Spelman College and a Ph.D. in Physiology from Emory University. She conducted postdoctoral studies at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. She is a graduate of the HERS Summer Institute for Women in Higher Education Administration. She was also an American Council on Education (ACE) Fellow at the University of Miami, FL, working with University President Donna Shalala.
She believes that building connections is an important part of professionalism. When she decided to do an ACE fellowship for a year with Shalala, her connections made a difference. Dr. Audrey Manley, who was president of Spelman at that time, had worked in the public health service and was Acting Secretary of Health under Donna Shalala. Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, former president of Spelman, had been at the same university as Shalala, so the door opened for Gunter-Smith. She has always felt a responsibility to open doors for others, just as mentors have opened doors for her.
Former president of Drew University Dr. Robert Weisbuch has high praise for our new president: "She always tells the truth and makes decisions based on the ultimate good for the institution. That may sound simple or clichéd, but these qualities constitute one definition of courage in a leader, and they are both rare and crucial . . . . She has an acute understanding of people and a real concern for their feelings and for helping them to reach their goals. She especially loves to work with students."
Gunter-Smith strongly believes that after reaping the rewards of education, we are obligated to give back. She is on the board of the Porter Foundation, which provided her with funds when she went to graduate school. She is also on the board of Higher Education Resource Services (HERS).
Dr. G-S is York College's first female president and first African-American president, but she is no stranger to being first and takes it all in stride, saying, "Generally, I've been first most of my professional life. At Emory, I was the first person of color to go into my graduate program. I got there because there was a joint program between Spelman and Emory where Emory professors came and taught in a Physiology class, so they had already met me." That door opened for her, and then SmithKline provided some funds for graduate school, which opened another door. She worked at the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute in MD for 12 years. "At AFRRI, I was the only person of color in my position. I moved up to be a project manager, and had a number of labs under me."
Dr. Weisbuch says, "I think one of the reasons Pamela Gunter-Smith is a great educator has to do with her own academic career. Not only has her research been stellar, but she also has worked outside of a college setting, and so she knows something of the wider world. She is invariably modest, always giving credit to others, but she is also quietly self-confident."
When we first sit down to talk, Dr. G-S had been president of YCP for about a month. "I get to work with exceptionally bright people," she says "I get to be cheerleader, to tell the story about who we are, and get to tell the story to all different types of people. Being selected to be president to lead students into the future, that's kind of the cherry on top of the ice cream sundae."
Chair of York College's Board of Trustees George Glatfelter characterizes Gunter-Smith's leadership style as "focused, engaging and forthright." He feels that she will be "an excellent bridge-builder with respect to different stakeholder groups within the College as well as the broader community."
As College president, "you may wave the baton," Dr. G-S says, "but you don't make the music. Other people who are doing exceptional jobs, and working exceptionally hard, they are the ones who make the music."
Latanya Hammonds-Odie, Assistant Professor of Biology, Georgia Gwinnett College, describes how Dr. G-S encouraged discussion: "I joined the Biology Department at Spelman College as a type of teaching post-doctoral fellow, called a Scholar-Teacher in Biology. Not only was she my Department Chair, she was also my research mentor. One thing was made clear to me and the other faculty members of the Department who were not on the tenure-track, and that was that our voices and opinions about departmental policy and priorities mattered."
YCP was described to Dr. G-S as a good institution that was going to be great. "I actually think York College is already a great institution," she says. "It is important to acknowledge that. The question is how does YCP continue to provide the best experience for students? How can we continue to serve the students in the best way that we can, reflecting the realities of a changing world and reflecting the changing landscape of higher education?"
Gunter-Smith asks, "What is our value proposition at York College? Students and their families have to think about what is the return on their investment, the ROI. College education is an investment, an investment in the future. What is our mission, and how do we move forward?"
She thinks about the student experience at YCP and retention. "What kind of support systems do we need to have in place to retain those students that we have? I think that is something we need to explore." What is a good student experience? "Ultimately, there is a very simple answer — did we deliver on the promise that we made to them? When we recruit a student, we are obligated to help them successfully navigate their experience here. They must do the work, they must rise to the occasion, but we must deliver on the promise made to them."
She says our Center for Professional Excellence (CPE) is important because it transcends any one program or any one major that we have. "It is part of our value proposition." She thinks about philanthropy and how we bring our alums closer to our institution. "How do we talk to them about giving back to the College so that the College can continue to thrive?" She sees alumni as linking the past with the future.
It is her job to lead thoughtful conversations that will help take our institution to new levels. "When I talk about going from great to greater," she elaborates, "it is without arrogance. It is not being elitist. It is not saying we know we are great, and we are happy where we are, just maintaining the status quo." She adds, "I think it is important to celebrate who we are, what we are, and what we have been here. When you start thinking that you are great rather than just good, then you start thinking about more things that can be possible."
"One of the things that appeals to me about being president of York College is the relationship to the City of York," she states. "We are based on history from the 1700s and, even though we've moved away from the City per se, we are still part of that history." There is synergy between the City and the College. "How do we bring ourselves closer to the community in which we reside?" she asks. She's very interested in civic engagement. She'll be working with colleagues to see how we use this as a way to provide opportunities for our students, as well as enrich the City. "We are preparing the next group of leaders, who are going to take on some very weighty issues as they move forward. A strong city and a strong vibrant community beyond our campus walls makes it a better place for faculty, staff and students." She wants to strengthen the College's engagement with the community.
Dr. G-S asked YCP students what they'd like the new president to know. "Often students talk about housing, classes, food, but our students said they wanted to be more engaged with the community." When she thinks of the broader community, two things come to mind: how the presence of the campus here, not just the campus but the people of the College, make the City of York and York County a better place. Then she thinks about the things the City has to offer the College, such as a place where students can move their learning from the classroom to the practical world.
She is passionate about access to higher education because she sees that as the future of the individual, as well as the future of our country and the world. "Education is important to democracy and to ensure that we have a democratic way of life, so I'm very passionate about what education means to this country, and how we provide access; that speaks to women, to role models, to diversity, to ethnicity, gender, but also to point of view. Education is not just about preparing students for a job, but preparing them to be free thinkers," Dr. G-S says.
Dr. Audrey Manley says that Gunter-Smith is "a leader and a visionary. She sees beyond the horizon, and knows how to bring everyone else with her. She is honest to the core. As you know, she is a researcher, and researchers always go to the truth of the matter." She adds, "York is fortunate to have found her."
Dr. G-S laughs when asked what she does in her spare time. "As president and an administrator on a college campus, there's never a lack of anything to do," she says. "I just have to figure out what it is I'm going to do!"
She's looking forward to attending YCP sports events and becoming First Fan (after YCP's new mascot!). She says, "It is not so much the game as the way it builds community. The excitement is that you get to cheer on people that you care about." She feels it is important to support all students in what they're trying to do, both in respect to athletics, the arts, and academics. She says her husband J. L. will be very engaged at York College, just as he was at Drew. She affectionately refers to him as the "First Man of York College!"
They met when she was in graduate school, and have been married "35 plus years." He has a degree in Theatre from Antioch College and was an actor in the Academy Theatre. "His director was married to my classmate. I was the only African-American female in my program, and he was one of the few African-American actors, so they decided that we should meet!"
They have two sons. Lealand lives in Nashville, TN, and is a licensed funeral director. Philip, who lives in Auburn, AL is the artistic person in the family, and is a professional photographer who plays five instruments.
Dr. G-S likes to go out to dinner with J. L. when they have a date night. According to a former colleague, "All members of the York community should strive to get invited to her house for a meal, because she could win one of those Top Chef contests, especially in the category of barbecue."
She enjoys travel to sunny locations, and finds scuba diving and exercise relaxing. "I really enjoy the gym," she says, "I'm very much into lifting weights. You'll see me at the Grumbacher. I've got to get there as I'm quickly turning to jello! If I've had a difficult day, I put on my earphones, and whatever it was, it's over. That's what's so great about exercise, it's really a physiological response."
There's plenty of exercise in Dr. G-S's future if you take into account all the walking to meetings to conduct conversations, which she believes will help take the College from great to greater.
As Dr. Weisbuch says, "The more you work with Pamela, the more highly you value her. Some people are fast sprinters who then get winded. Pamela has cross-country stamina."