In all that she’d learned in her 40 years of working in higher education, Lori White had found herself in entirely new territory when DePauw University’s Board of Trustees chose her as its next president. It would be White’s first time heading an institution, and it would also be the Indiana liberal arts college’s first woman and person of color as their leader.
A week after her appointment—in March 2020—White’s world turned upside down.
“The kind of presidency I thought I was going to have turned out to be completely different,” she says. “I had to lead the university through a pandemic.”
Green and quarantined, White quickly acquainted herself with board members via Zoom, a space she also shared with faculty, students and alumni to piece together DePauw’s five-year strategic plan. And in the fallout of the pandemic, the pressure was on White to ensure DePauw could retain its relevancy amid cooling student enrollment nationwide and heightened skepticism toward the value of a degree. It’s the kind of whiplash great new leaders must endure, a lesson she’s learned from reading the autobiographies of U.S. presidents.
Mulling over presidents’ legacies has provided her with more than a hobby and a creative way to connect with community members virtually. They’ve proven to be a well of resilience that she can depend on when navigating a changing higher education landscape, filled with new student demands and a still-unspooling 21st-century economy. Being well-read and forward-thinking are the skills White hopes DePauw will continue to cultivate in its students.
The time to reinforce that at DePauw is now.
“We have to think about not only the impact of our decisions for today and tomorrow, but the impact of our decisions for generations to come,” White says.
Leveraging an untraditional path to the presidency
White came to DePauw University as the exiting vice chancellor for student affairs at Washington University in St. Louis. Her leadership experience, primarily in the non-academic side of higher education administration, would traditionally classify her path to the presidency as odd. However, as someone tasked to lead a college at the height of the pandemic and its fallout, White describes it as one of the best preparations.
“Certainly, in my 40-plus years working in student affairs, I had responded to all kinds of institutional and student crises,” she says. “And so I had the skill set to help lead the university.”
Higher education has had to quickly adapt to a surge in demand for mental health resources and wraparound services for students struggling with basic needs. It’s a demand that came swiftly and has tested counselors and faculty ever since.
Bold & Gold 2027
The pandemic informed White to prioritize student wellbeing as a key pillar in DePauw’s five-year strategic plan, Bold & Gold 2027. But to quell the public’s skepticism toward the value of a liberal arts degree and its potential for workforce development, President White is helping breathe fresh air into its academics, poising its students to be prepared for a world drastically changing thanks to AI and other technologies.
“It’s important, particularly as we recruit students of the 21st century and their parents, for us to be very clear that, at DePauw, education will lead them both to be successful in the jobs of today and the jobs that we can’t even imagine for tomorrow,” she says.
One way it’s doing that is by broadening its academic programs beyond the liberal arts and sciences. Bold & Gold added the School of Business and Leadership and the Creative School. Students from different schools will be incentivized to pursue minors in different areas to broaden their interests and skills, says White.
DePauw also plans to deepen its workforce connections with alumni to make graduating students preferred employees in the community.
Listening to alumni
President White didn’t have to focus on guiding DePauw alone. Aside from her “wonderful” board of trustees, she thanks DePauw’s healthy alumni base for providing invaluable input. Alumni reminded President White that, as crucial as it is to prepare students for an emerging economy, DePauw must continue to connect to its core as a liberal arts institution.
“People ask me what some of my surprises were upon taking the presidency of DePauw, and one of my wonderful positive surprises was the strength of our alumni,” she says.