CEW's director helps women retool.
by Eve Silberman
The same week Gloria Thomas's boss told her that the U-M Center for the Education of Women was going to lose funding for a popular program, she also learned that a former prof, Elizabeth Dusseau, who had recently died at 101, had bequeathed CEW $200,000. Though Thomas had never met the public health professor, the bequest affirmed for her the affection many local women feel for the pioneering women's center, which will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary in 2014. Noting that some clients have come back repeatedly at transition points in their lives--for counseling on returning to school, or for advice on dealing with perceived sexism in the workplace--Thomas says the center serves a "lifelong constituency."
CEW was one of the first university-affiliated women's centers in the country when it opened its doors in 1964. Thomas, forty-nine, is just the third permanent director. She worked there while earning her PhD in higher education at the U-M, and her predecessor and former boss, Carol Hollenshead, was delighted when Thomas returned from Washington, D.C., to take the top job. "Being director of the center is not simply a nine-to-five job," says Hollenshead. "One has to have passion about the mission. And Gloria has that passion."
Thomas meets me at the tiny Plum Market cafe; a natural multi-tasker, she wraps up some family business during the interview--making arrangements, via text, to pick up her ten-year-old son, Sundiata, a fifth-grader at Wines, to appear in a play organized by his French tutor. She has to text him again when she learns the casual production is canceled. "He's disappointed," she sighs. Her daughter, Saidah, thirteen, will start at Skyline in the fall (Thomas and her ex-husband have an amicable co-parenting arrangement).
With her blue blazer, dark pants, and matching bracelets and earrings, Thomas projects a graceful professionalism, somewhat offset by her soft-voiced candor. She doesn't enjoy shopping for clothes, she confesses, happily accepting donations from her five older sisters, four of whom still live in
their hometown, Chester, Pennsylvania.
Thomas "is able to empathize with the mission of CEW from a personal as well as professional point of view," says Hollenshead. The youngest of eight, Thomas witnessed her parents' struggles to make ends meet; her mother, a nurse's aide, "often worked double shifts." Encouraged by the federal Upward Bound program, Thomas was the first in the family to attend college.
Thomas's successes embody the hopes of the small group of U-M "faculty wives" who lobbied CEW into existence forty-eight years ago to support women returning to school after years of child rearing. The founders--who included Jean Campbell, CEW's first director--coaxed enough money from the university and donors to set up the first office and hire three part-time staffers.
Campbell, director for twenty years, greatly broadened CEW's scope. It now has sixteen full- and part-time employees, and its free career counseling draws about 1,000 clients a year, about 10 percent of them men. It offers scholarships to people returning to college and supports visiting scholars who study women's issues.
In addition, Thomas says, CEW is "the watchdog around the university for policies and practices that may not be in the best interests of women." Thomas is chair of the President's Advisory Committee on Women, which does everything from track statistics on women faculty--for example, how many receive tenure--to reviewing how the U-M responds to cases of sexual assault.
When CEW opened its doors, the idea of a woman presiding over the university seemed as remote as the possibility of a black president of the United States. Given the dramatic advances since then, where does a women's center fit in? Thomas's response, in brief: it's still not a level playing field. Yes, women now hold powerful and prestigious positions, but, much more than men, they often do double and sometimes triple duty--hefting most of the responsibility of raising their kids and, increasingly, assisting aging parents.
In the early years, Thomas reflects, CEW "served primarily a group of
women who were faculty spouses or graduate school spouses." Today, "we're seeing a broader constituency--not to mention males--but a whole lot more low-income constituency."
With a track record of research into the problems of women, particularly minority women, in academia, Thomas came to CEW eager to broaden its constituency, not just to minority or low-income women and men but to parts of the campus, like the medical school, that had little contact with the center (CEW has initiated staff programs there). But fundraising and finances have consumed more time than she expected. In recent conversation with her boss in the provost's office, Thomas was told that the U-M will no longer fund career counseling for clients who don't work or study at U-M.
While Thomas knows of just one other university women's center that counsels people outside the academy, she believes, as her predecessor Carol Hollenshead puts it, that the service is a "very critical link between the community and the university." U-M, however, is reviewing all nonacademic units, and making small, annual cuts in their funding. Thomas is philosophical; she understands the university's pinched finances and that its central mission is teaching and research.
Like her peers at other nonacademic units, she's working to increase outside funding. Struck by the fact that the 350 or so regular donors include more ninety-year-olds than forty-year-olds, Thomas is trying to reach more younger women. CEW also plans to use more U-M student interns in fields like counseling and marketing. That will not only help financially, Thomas says, but demonstrate that CEW is "really adhering to the teaching and research mission" of the university.
Thomas comes to work with her own sense of mission. Close to her siblings, she has witnessed their struggles to survive in minimum-wage jobs. In the spirit of CEW, she's encouraged them to return to school; one sister did and is now a registered nurse.
"There are still lots of women who fall through the cracks," Thomas says. At CEW, they can "retool."
[Originally published in September, 2012.]