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‘Education is hope’: How Lawrence’s Laurie Carter went from first-gen student to university president

‘Education is hope’: How Lawrence’s Laurie Carter went from first-gen student to university president

Devi Shastri

| Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

In her first address to Lawrence University, Laurie Carter, the college’s first Black woman president, invoked the words of Ella Baker, mother of the civil rights movement.

“Ella Baker once said, ‘Give light and people will find the way,’” Carter said. “I have found my way to the light of Lawrence University and I am honored to serve as its 17th president.”

“Light” is a word that carries spiritual weight for Carter, the granddaughter of a Baptist minister. To her, light is hope. And so is education.

Carter has lived her life steeped in higher education, from growing up in the tight-knit, river-bound college town of Rutherford, New Jersey, to a three-decade-long career that boasts work as an educator, administrator and top leader of universities across the country.

She comes to Wisconsin this summer not only having broken a glass ceiling at Lawrence but also as one of the state’s few people of color to have attained the pivotal and public-facing role of being a college president or chancellor. Beyond that, she is the only Black woman leading a major university — public or private — in Wisconsin.

When she enrolled at Clarion University in Pennsylvania in 1980, Carter was among the first generation in her family to have access to a college education. Neither her father, who worked a dangerous job as a chemical plant operator, nor her mother, who stayed home to raise Carter and her four siblings after an injury left her unable to work, had the chance to pursue a degree when they were young. 

“From a first-gen perspective, education is hope,” Carter said in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last month. “It gives you opportunities. It gives you the chance to have the life that you dreamed of.”

The weight of being a ‘first’

Decades later at the executive level, Carter continues to often find herself as the “first.”

She was the first African American administrator at The Juilliard School, where over 25 years she taught liberal arts, launched diversity initiatives and co-created the jazz program. A year after starting at Juilliard, she took on night classes at Rutgers University, earning the law degree that then helped her go on to also establish Juilliard’s office of general counsel.

When she got to Eastern Kentucky University in 2014, she was the college’s first African American executive vice president. In 2017, she became the first woman and the first African American to lead Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania.

“I think my life was kind of preparing me for this moment and I understand what it means to be the first person of color in a role and to be the first woman in a role,” she said. “And it’s a different role than someone who’s not a first and I have to lean into that.”

Carter’s experience of firsts, as a Black person and as a woman, comes as colleges across the country lag in hiring diverse leadership, especially when it comes to women of color.

In Wisconsin, she joins a small but growing group of people of color leading Wisconsin universities. Those include the University of Wisconsin-Platteville’s Dennis Shields, who has served as chancellor for 11 years and is Black. President Jack E. Daniels, III, of Madison Area Technical College, is also Black. This year, UW-Stevens Point welcomed its first African American chancellor, Thomas Gibson, and Chippewa Valley Technical College hired Sunem Beaton-Garcia, the first woman and first Latina to hold the top job.

According to the American Council on Education, women of color make up only 5% of college presidents nationwide. 

Carter sees it as her responsibility to talk openly about her experiences as a woman of color, using them to fuel frank, organic conversations about race on campus. She said having people of color in college leadership is important because it means those perspectives are involved in discussions in a way that is not secondhand.

She is able to say, “If these are my experiences, then what are the experiences of our other staff or our students?”

What’s more, Carter said, “everyone deserves to see themselves represented at levels they aspire to.”

But the president sees the hiring of diverse leadership primarily as an issue of opportunity.

“There are qualified African American administrators all over the country, the world, who don’t get the opportunity before them,” she said. “And so Lawrence has said, we’re going to make this decision based on credentials, based on experience, and we’re going to embrace the fact that this person is different than anyone we’ve ever had here.”

No more excuses

Cory Nettles, former state commerce secretary, a Lawrence alumnus and board chairman, led the search committee that ultimately selected Carter.

Nettles said Carter stood out immediately as the top candidate, and stayed there round after round.

Her top qualities included: the fact that she was a sitting college president, her experience at Juilliard (which boded well for Lawrence’s highly regarded music conservatory), the fact she has worked at public and private colleges, and her “pitch-perfect” temperament.

Nettles is also involved in advocacy for the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a board member at the Medical College of Wisconsin. He said Carter’s hiring would hopefully send a message to boardrooms across the state that are “relying on excuses” about why they haven’t hired more diversely.

“It puts to rest the question, of one: whether there are qualified, diverse candidates in the marketplace. The answer, clearly, is yes,” he said. “And, second: Will they come to Wisconsin? The answer clearly is yes. And oh, by the way, she’s not coming to Milwaukee or Madison, the most diverse communities in the state. She’s going to Appleton.”

The uncompromising goal of the search committee was to find the best candidate, regardless of race, Nettles said. But after all that, the fact that Carter is an African American woman and a first-generation college student was “icing on the cake, and the icing on the cake matters.”

Lawrence, like all liberal arts private schools, is working to differentiate itself as the pool of traditional college students shrinks and universities try to reach students who have historically been underrepresented in higher education. 

That includes work by Carter’s predecessor, Mark Burstein, who not only conducted a $232 million fundraising campaign for the college but also began work toward making Lawrence an anti-racist institution. Burstein himself brought important representation to the university’s leadership when hired, as he is openly gay.

Representation matters when it comes to recruiting students who are choosing between plenty of great places to get an education, Nettles said.

“If you don’t have that sense of belonging, if you don’t get the sense that you can thrive, that you can be your full self, then that’s probably not a place that’s going to win the competition,” he said. “So one of the signals to the marketplace that we are such a place is that it just turns out that we have not only an outstanding president, we have a woman president who’s also African American and who’s also first-generation.”

‘It’s our responsibility’

In looking to the future of Lawrence, Carter said one important question will be the one she asks herself before making any decisions: “Is that in the best interest of students?”

The president’s student focus comes not only from her own life experiences but also from what she has seen her son, who just graduated from college, deal with as a dark-skinned, African American man in America.

“I think being a mother guided me in so many ways as a leader, and will continue (to) because I saw firsthand the intense impact that the decisions of people high up in the administration can have on a student without even realizing it,” Carter said.

In light of a rise in student activism in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, she said colleges must also help students understand how to be effective advocates for meaningful, lasting change even beyond protests.

She is also focused on giving students the chance to overcome differences and build community through kindness, like she did at Shippensburg University by creating “17 Days of Kindness,” a series of fun events that brought together the campus and the wider local community.

Ryshaun Brown, a recent Lawrence alumnus who served as a student on the search committee that selected Carter, said he believed the hiring was a huge win for Lawrence, the state and especially for Black women.

“Seeing President Carter just fight on and fight on and fight on, interview after interview just impressing us — with what she’s done, with what she wants to do, with what she says — was just a huge thing,” Brown said.

That fight is one that started well before Carter’s interviews at Lawrence, and even generations before she arrived for her first day of college at Clarion, bright-eyed and blissfully unaware that she’d missed student orientation altogether. 

Her parents had no idea of those little details that her peers seemed to have all figured out. But her family had prepared her for something greater, nonetheless.

“When I think about what my parents, my grandparents, my great-grandparents endured and how they put together a life that allowed me to get to this moment in my life, I feel I owe it to them to step into this role in a way that honors their courage and sacrifice,” she said.

“And so, I have to find my own courage. And yes, sometimes it’s exhausting to have to do that extra level of work that others don’t have to do. But if we don’t do it, what happens in our next generation? It’s our responsibility.”

Contact Devi Shastri at 414-224-2193 or Follow her on Twitter at @DeviShastri.

About this feature

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