6 Tips For Career Growth From 1st Female President of School of Art Institute

Obviously her career move had nothing to do with the weather.As the first woman serving as president of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in its 150-year history, Elissa Tenny arrived in the Windy City in 2010 after serving as Provost and Dean of Bennington College in Vermont.The winters she experiences are still cold.Coming to SAIC in 2010 as Provost and Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs, Tenny moved up to the top spot of president at the school in July 2016, spearheading a two-year, $50 million fundraising campaign called Beautiful/Work.[bctt tweet=“Elissa Tenney is the first female president of saic_news in its 150-year history. #womenleaders" username="takeleadwomen"]The campaign established more than 30 new endowment scholarship funds that support undergraduate and graduate students, seven faculty support endowments and scholarships for nearly 90 Chicago Public High School students through scholarships and financial assistance.And while the student population in academia at both SAIC and elsewhere across the country has a majority of female students, leadership in higher education has not reached gender parity—far from it.“Earlier in my career I would hear, ‘You don’t look like what a provost looks like,'” Tenny says. “But I turn away from that and turn to my strengths. Still, higher education does a better job than corporations,” as far as the C-suite goes.According to the <a href="http://www.acenet.edu/news-room/Pages/New-Report-Looks-at-the-Status-of-Women-in-Higher-Education.aspx">American Council on Education’s</a> 2016 report, "While the number of women to hold the position of president has increased since 1986, as of 2011, women only held 27 percent of presidencies across all institutions of higher education. Though there are slight increases at both public and private institutions in the number of women serving as a chief academic officer (CAO), the percentage of women serving as a CAO has declined from 2008 to 2013 at public doctoral degree-granting institutions.”[bctt tweet="While the student population in academia across the country has a majority of female students, #leadership in higher education has not reached #genderparity—far from it." username="takeleadwomen"]Also according to another <a href="http://www.acenet.edu/news-room/Pages/Higher-Ed-Spotlight-Pathways-Pipelines-and-Institutional-Leadership.aspx">ACE report,</a> “Women in academia make up more than half of all college students, but slightly less than one-third of all full professors, and only 22 percent of women presidents lead doctorate-granting granting intuitions. Female faculty members still see a persistent salary gap—women made 82 percent of what male faculty made in 1975 and only 83 percent of what male faculty made in 2015.”A proponent of interdisciplinary education, Tenny models that agility and versatility in her own educational path. After receiving a Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration from Stockton University, she earned a Master of Arts in Media Studies from The New School in 1977, followed by a doctorate in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.Tenny served in a number of roles at The New School in New York City from 1977 to 2002, eventually holding the positions of Acting Dean and Vice Dean there, before moving to Bennington.“I think my being president is a very strong statement by our board,” says Tenny. She adds, “I am humbled to have the opportunity to carry on the school’s legacy and help pave the way for the next generation of thinkers and makers,” says Tenny. “I have learned so much from our students, faculty, and staff and I am looking forward to leading the School as we head into our next 150 years.”According to <a href="https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20170622005252/en/School-Art-Institute-Chicago-Closes-50-Million">Business Wire,</a> the SAIC has “1,325 faculty and staff and more than 3,500 undergraduate and graduate students. Alumni have artwork in museum collections throughout the world; work in communities as organizers and advocates; have designed remarkable objects, images and systems; and are scientists, scholars, mentors and cultural workers.”The legendary SAIC has notable alumni and faculty that include such artistic luminaries as David Sedaris, Elizabeth Murray, Richard Hunt, Georgia O’Keeffe, Cynthia Rowley, Nick Cave, and LeRoy Neiman. Leading the strategic plan for undergraduate, graduate and post-baccalaureate students centers on her approach to questioning, Tenny says.The prestigious school is affiliated with the renowned Art Institute of Chicago, that has 300,000 works of art, 1.5 million visitors per year, and is consistently ranked in the top three of museums in the world.“Artists are always probing, questioning and not only looking for the first seamless answers,” she says. “Those who function well in an unpredictable and changing economy are those who have this approach of skills and analysis and can synthesize these things.”Tenny offers leadership advice for educators, artists, designers and any one looking to be innovative in her career.[bctt tweet="Elissa Tenny, president artinstitutechi, offers #leadershipadvice for educators, artists, designers and any one looking to be innovative in her career.” username=“takeleadwomen”]

  1. Be honest with yourself. “This is particularly important for women who may have to compromise in the workplace. Pursue questions and probing as artists do.”

  2. Seek out the grey middle. “On one side are the naysayers; do not waste your time with them. On the other side are individuals who are open to working on anything. Most are in the grey middle and are open to change but skeptical. Focus a lot of attention there.”

  3. Keep up your professional development. “It is really important to get out to do new things, commit to your own professional development.”

  4. Avoid agreeing with people just to keep the peace. “That was a fortune cookie message I got once. For instance, something I initiated while provost was to change the structure of elected faculty positions and after I introduced it to faculty, it took four years. There was buy-in and pushback and I thought it would take six months, but I kept at it. I am thrilled with the outcome.”

  5. There is no one career path. “Early on I felt there had to be a particular career path that was pre-determined. I didn’t do my career with great intention. I learned not to close down my mind and be restrictive. Always talk about possibilities.”

  6. Mentors are very important. “Seek out advice from accomplished faculty or someone you trust to talk about the future.”

As president of SAIC, ranked #4 by U.S. News and World Report for best graduate fine arts schools, Tenny says her position matches her strengths and aspirations.As for comparing the weather in the cities of her recent positions, she adds, “It’s sunnier in Vermont.”Like what you see? Sign up for more and receive the Take The Lead newsletter every week.