When I was a college student in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, there were few women leaders on the campus of the religiously affiliated school that I attended. Rooted in a church system that was very focused on the primacy of male leadership, you can imagine that it would take quite a woman to become a leader, or even want to be one. And yet, the Dean of my college was a woman, Dr. Colleen Durrington. As a college student, just seeing her in that position got my attention.
When I came back to teach at this university many years later, Dr. Durrington was the Dean who hired me. She had a reputation as a strong but caring leader. When I was interviewing at ACU, I had 1 and 3-year-old children, and wondered if this was really such a good idea. I wanted to teach, loved the idea, but also struggled with figuring out how to make my family my top priority, which I really wanted. Thinking back, perhaps it was blind naïveté that allowed me to bring this issue up with my future Dean, but when I did, I met a welcoming ear. Dr. Durrington was a mother and grandmother at that time, as well as a brilliant woman with leadership skills. She seemed to understand my struggle, and though she admitted that negotiating this balance was very personal, she encouraged me to believe that if I wanted to do it, she would support me. And she did. For the first years that I taught at ACU, Dr. Durrington remained my Dean. Later she retired and became a member of the Board of Trustees. Every faculty member that I know was thrilled to have Dr. Durrington sit on that Board. We knew that she would bring faculty concerns forward and bring her well-known balanced leadership to the table.
I had the privilege to work on a committee with Dr. Durrington just last year. I was struck by her brilliance, of course, but also by her fairness and strength. Dr. Durrington could smilingly push her point home in a way that few could. I loved watching her in action. I’ve seen several leadership styles, and some I just can’t identify with. I don’t want to be a loud, brash leader. I don’t want to feel like I have to bully people to get my way. And at times, I’ve wondered if that means that I can’t be a leader. But then I see someone like Dr. Durrington, and I am inspired. I believe this is why it is imperative for young women and girls to see different models of female leadership. As they say in the film Miss Representation, if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. Dr. Durrington, and other amazing women I know, have shown me a vision for leadership that is something I can relate to. Each of them has her own particular style, and I can learn and grow from being led by them.
I hope that I can bring this experience to my own students. I want them, both female and male, to see women as leaders who can bring their own strengths to the table, even when that looks different from the male leadership they may be used to seeing. I hope that some of the young women I work with may look at me and see someone like them.
Last night Dr. Durrington lost her battle with an 8-month long illness and passed away. She led a full and brilliant life, and she will be missed by so many. I hope she knew how much she encouraged the younger women around her. I hope that she knew that when I looked at her, I saw someone like me, and it inspired me, and so many others like me. In many ways she was a pioneer, going before us and breaking a path. She used her talents and gifts to bless the lives of many. Well done, good and faithful one, well done.