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Powerful Women: Let's Talk - 67: Dr. Philomena Mantella

Dr. Philomena Mantella, President of Grand Valley State University
Grand Valley State University
Grand Valley State University
Dr. Philomena Mantella, President of Grand Valley State University

Dr. Philomena Mantella, President of Grand Valley State University, is our guest on this edition of Powerful Women: Let's Talk

We're joined by Dr. Philomena Mantella, President of Grand Valley State University. Mantella is the first female president at GVSU; taking the helm just before COVID gripped the nation and changed the face of college education. Is she enjoying the journey? We also talk about the future of education, her unique initiatives, overcoming obstacles along with what makes her laugh.

Powerful Women: Let’s Talk is created by WGVU NPR and made possible by WGVU NPR sustaining monthly donors. Become a sustaining monthly donor now at wgvu.org/donate to support WGVU NPR’s local programs, including Powerful Women: Let’s Talk.

>> Produced by women about women. Powerful Women, Let's Talk is a series of interviews with women who are trailblazers and have helped shape our world, transforming who we are and how we live.


Jennifer Moss: Hello, everyone, I'm Jennifer Moss. It is time for Powerful Women, Let's Talk but, today we greet you on our new format-actually on set. So instead of just audio, we are now streaming both audio and video and it's something that we're very excited about and we are even more excited to kick this video podcast version off with our very own president of Grand Valley State University Dr. Philomena Mantella. So, I want to thank you for joining us today.

Doctor Philomena Mantella: Well, of course.

Jennifer Moss: Thank you for being here for our inaugural video podcast.

Doctor Philomena Mantella: Thank you, Jennifer. I'm proud to be here for your first one.

Jennifer Moss: It was pretty exciting so, we've been looking forward to this conversation. I know I have and I want to start by giving folks a little background. We, of course, know you and know a lot about you here at Grand Valley but, with this podcast we never know who's listening or who's watching, so we want to give a little back drop. So, you came here to Grand Valley State University in 2019, and then we moved quickly into this world of the pandemic in 2020 but, at the core of it all, you have been implementing your drive, you know, for innovation in education and looking to expand the university's reach to underrepresented and nontraditional students and we will, of course, talk a little bit more about that shortly but, I first we want to add that you were no stranger to Michigan when you first arrived here as you have your PHD in College and University Administration from MSU, right and your Masters and Bachelor's degrees from Syracuse University. Prior to your arrival here you were the Senior Vice President of Enrollment and Student Life at Northeastern University. You’ve got more than 30 years in higher education and served on many, many boards and you’re currently serving on the board of directors of The Citizens Research Council, The Right Place, Spectrum Health Systems, President's Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, and The Michigan Education Trust Board of Trustees as a governor appointee. We know that was a big deal because we covered that story when you were appointed. An amazing career and you're doing some amazing things here at Grand Valley. I wanted to give some background as we have listeners from all over again and I think it's important for people to know where you've been and what you've done as we talk about powerful women, right because then people can kind of see the trajectory of your career. Our conversation, then we'll reveal how you move from Point A to Point B, it kind of creates that full picture. So again, we want to welcome you to Powerful Women, Let's Talk. So, let's talk right?

Doctor Philomena Mantella: OK.

Jennifer Moss: We've got a lot to talk about. So, you came again in 2019, you’ve been here for a couple years heading up the state's 4th largest University and the pandemic is unfortunately raging on. You’ve got a full plate doing some great things. Big question, how’s the journey going? And the bigger question is are you enjoying the journey? Despite all that's happening in this world right now.

Doctor Philomena Mantella: So, I'll start with the second part. Which is I'm thoroughly enjoying the journey and I think part of really the context where we're living in is you have to grab your joy where you can and keep your eye focused on your purpose in life and for me, it's all about, you know, education's relevance in the 21st century and the important work that we've done as educators and that we have to do. So, I’m totally enjoying the journey and I would say that West Michigan and Grand Valley is a great community to be in a leadership role in and among wonderful people. So, it's hard, it's stressful you know, it's making decisions with incomplete information each and every day but, you’re doing that among people you respect and for a purpose that's really at your heart and in great need in this country.

Jennifer Moss: And again, it's at heart at the very heart of the community, that's important because you're directly connected with so many and so many students here who look to you for that leadership and that's one of the things we talk about in Powerful Women is that leadership. You know, what are some of the leadership qualities you look for in people that you lead, work with, perhaps even mentor as you go along this journey?

Doctor Philomena Mantella: Yeah. Well, you touched on one which is not being afraid to lead with both your head and your heart. You know that is something that I think is a part of a woman’s soul in many ways and I think early on in my career when I was thinking about like how do you compete in a man's world, I was a little more timid to lead with my heart, my humanity and my compassion. You know, the things that we associate many times with women and coming into that fullness of leadership and I look for that authentic leadership. It's a common term and people who are comfortable with empowering others, which means if you're in a leadership role, you have to be willing to let things happen a little more organically because you don't have control of the journey at every level and figure out how to put up the right guardrail so the organization is moving in the direction that you intend as a course, but it will be imperfect along those blurry lines because you're allowing people to follow their passion and lead. So. I look for people who are comfortable in that zone and don't need just a full plate of structure in order to put their leadership to work.

Jennifer Moss: You kind of maybe let them learn as they go of sorts but, instilling those qualities and helping them kind of giving a little lift, but letting them discover some things along the way?

Doctor Philomena Mantella: Yeah. I mean, I think particularly as an educator one of the things we should be is continuous learners. Right? And I think probably if we as individuals are honest with ourselves. We think of those moments where we reflected on what we did and said, “How could I have done it better? How can I be stronger?” and that intuition to do that, that reflex to do that, I think creates a stronger and stronger leader over time and so I look a lot for that. You know, I look for the humility, I look for the willingness to say, you know, “I did this, I made some mistakes, I made this correction. I learned this,” those are all words that I enjoy seeing in education. You know, when people are coming with deep, deep roots in a discipline, many times with deep roots in leadership they’re experts by definition but, certitude can be a real problem. So, expertise and certitude are 2 different things, we can have an expertise but, if we become certain, we're really not making room for others and others points of view, which we know, of course, enriches our thinking and our direction.

Jennifer Moss: Allowing that room to grow.

Doctor Philomena Mantella: Absolutely.

Jennifer Moss: As you move forward. So, you know, a lot of times we talk about powerful women, you've got a lot of accomplishments, you've got goals, but, we all know it's not a cake walk. Right, and so in the midst of your journey, have there been any barriers that you encountered? You touched on it earlier when you're talking about how you didn't, always let your full self be known because you thought you maybe had to construct in a certain way because you're a woman and you do want to let that softer side show but, as you traveled along your careers path being a woman coming up in the ranks of higher education, have there been barriers that you've encountered along the way?

Doctor Philomena Mantella: Yeah, I mean, I the first thing that came to mind when you asked that was the barriers, we put up in ourselves this sort of imposter syndrome or the worries. Are we really capable enough or skillful enough to be a university president? In my case. I took a lot of years before I thought I was ready. People used to tell me literally probably while, I was changing my position to go from Syracuse University to Executive Vice President at Northeastern University in a similar role and I had a lot of outreaches for president. So, that was 20 years ago and I had to become fully ready, fully capable, and fully practiced and so I'm curious, when I look back now, if I had taken a risk would that be a good risk or a poor risk. So I think those self-barriers are number one. There are always barriers around you. Maybe it's a financial barrier, maybe you're in a situation where there's a scarcity of resources, maybe it's dominated by one kind of thinking, or one kind of approach, but, I think the most profound ones are the ones we put up ourselves.

Jennifer Moss: So, a follow-up then to that is how then do you create that barrier yourself? How then do you move forward? How did you get comfortable in your own skin and get comfortable and find that voice? That voice decision that you got this?

Doctor Philomena Mantella: Yeah, I think two things. One is reflection if I had to say to your listeners. What's one thing to take away is us make time for reflection and reflection can happen individually. You go home and say “I had this horrible meeting,” you know, what would I have done differently? But, it can also happen with a group where you invite critique at difficult moments and say “before we start the conversation, let's go around the room and talk about what happened and what’s your observations?”. So, I think without a doubt reflection is key to moving beyond those barriers and I say individual and collective.

Jennifer Moss: A lot of people don't want to do that though. To take that much reflection time, you know. Especially when you go around the room and to open that door, that window for people to reflect. That’s good leadership to be able to do that and take that time to reflect.

Doctor Philomena Mantella: Yeah. Yeah, well, and I think that's why we need mentors who can urge us to do those kinds of things and I remember mentors in my life. Many of them. Many I still have that would help me to think my way through what's working well. I remember early on in my career, I used to think I had to have the answer to anticipated questions and maybe even unanticipated questions and when I was making a presentation and what I didn't realize is how always having the answer just didn't invite the kind of exploratory conversation because people didn't feel safe. They raise a question. You get an answer, you know, and so I had a mentor who said to kind of untie the bowtie, you know, just sort of loosen it up. Let there be things you don't know and it was such wonderful advice. So, I think you have to have your reflection and you have to have those mentors that push you somewhere that you perhaps don't want to go. It is a vulnerable place, right. When you're sitting in a group of executives or colleagues and you say, “well, let's explore why it didn't go well,” and you're the one that led it but, you have to practice it to get comfortable and try it in a safe group and then perhaps open it up a little bit more and then do that growth again.

Jennifer Moss: Right. So, here at Grand Valley, you’re spearheading some incredible programs. You’re going to start with the National Alliance which you founded and five other universities are involved in this effort to elevate student voices. So, tell us about that program. What prompted you to come up with the program? Was it a great need to elevate those student voices?

Doctor Philomena Mantella: So, really the need that we started with was innovation in higher education and I think, you know, you could pick up a newspaper any day and it will talk about where education is doing its job, and where it's not, and where our pace needs to be faster, digital needs to be better, or we need to be in the industry 5.0, feels more aggressively always. You know, there's a conversation around innovation and where education needs to go. So, when I was coming to Grand Valley, I thought it would be interesting to pull together local innovators in education K-12, through higher Ed and to bring my network of East Coast and national innovators in education to see us at Grand Valley and also to have the sort of collective conversation around innovation. We invited undergraduate students and high school students because we really wanted to have them a part of the conversation but, when we left at half a day, I think everybody in the 100 people in the room would say that the most profound voices in the room where the youngest voices in the room and so we left that day with kind of five tenants of work we were going to do and the first was putting learners at the center, putting their voice as the centerpiece not and crowded by others but, supported by others and there were other objectives like this would be action focus, that it wouldn't be one institutional journey and be an alliance or collective because what we have to discover, which is equity in education is a complex matter, a systemic matter and so we created these five tenants and went to work. At that time, the alliance of those six institutions didn't exist. It was really the people that were most animated in that room, thought partners that came together and we worked on this and we ended up with a proof of concept, we said, well, why don't we empower 11th and 12th graders to talk about their lived experience and help to design solutions in education and what we discovered is two things, one is a little bit of what we're talking about earlier, right reflection. If you reflect on what you're nervous about in education ahead from your experience, one of the things you'll do is you'll discover more about yourself you know, you become more empowered. So, for the person participating, they became more empowered and for us, we got fresh ideas and so we took that proof of concept done at GVSU, 20 students who are partners from local schools and started to think well who is our collective and many times we gather like a group. So, you know, obvious might be well, how about the Michigan public institutions. So, I said let's not going that direction, let's get groups, and different contexts with different missions. The two things with similarities as we're all public institutions and we all have equity as a part of our strategic plan and then from there we’re beautifully different. You know, we have an HBCU, we have a community college in Texas, we have a state institution that's a part of the system in California situated right in Silicon Valley, etcetera, etcetera.

Jennifer Moss: So, vastly different?

Doctor Philomena Mantella: Vastly different and that's how we're going to learn from our differences, and what sticks, and innovation and what’s situated. So, the second year, which was the first alliance here we have five now. Just trying to remember the numbers. We had 250 students and we had 8,000 people watch it online to see what students were creating and now we're stepping into year three of deepening our commitment to the alliance and expanding. We’ll have 500 students this summer and we’ll be showcasing the work on a national platform. So, it's really exciting work. All five of those institutions brought their team to Grand Rapids in October for a future of learning conversation and we're so proud to show off our city and our university and have them take that back as well. So, that's kind of a collateral benefit as well. People see us here and the work we're doing.

Jennifer Moss: It also sounds like a win-win for the students.

Doctor Philomena Mantella: Yeah, absolutely.

Jennifer Moss: You also created a university wide response to increase inclusivity and equity with the founding partners in Action Against Racism and a network of advisers for racial equity. Was it the climate in America that kind of created the call for this or is this something that you just felt the need to create and to make happen?

Doctor Philomena Mantella: Yeah. It's a great question. It’s really both and I mean, one of the reasons I left a private university in the Northeast to come to Michigan besides that we totally enjoyed our time here in Michigan when we were younger and living in the area was that in public education. There's so much more of an opportunity to our mission as one of inclusion. It's one of opportunity, it's one of access. So, I wanted to move from sort of the model of exclusion. You know, how low can I get my admittance rate because that will lift our reputation. You know if you admit 10% of the students or 2% like Harvard. You know, people say oh, my god, you know, you got into blank institution. So, I wanted to be an institution that embraced inclusion and so that drew me here. That equity work to me here but, then the climate was just so profoundly disturbing that I thought we needed to really create two things. One activity where everyone could engage. So, the network of advisers grew from, you know, 20 people to more than 200 people that are working on various aspects and then action-oriented focus that it wasn't going to be simply talk but, each component has a focus on action.

Jennifer Moss: OK, and you're pleased with the direction which you are going with this?

Doctor Philomena Mantella: I am. I am pleased. I mean, in some cases the pandemic is an accelerator and some cases it’s a decelerator but, I am pleased.

Jennifer Moss: So, as you continue to have innovative programs here at the university, what do you see as kind of the future of education? Where are we going? We got a lot of technology over here. We've got metaverse, we've got all kinds of things happening. What do you see as the leader here of this university as what is the future of education?

Doctor Philomena Mantella: Well, I think during the pandemic, everybody saw how technology can be an enabler. So, we'll start there and I think we've got to sort of let more technology in and let the educator in us bring the best of technology. Technology is never technology for technology's sake, it's always been enabling something and so we all have to become more active to think about what is good and what is not so good about the delivery over a digital medium. So, I think that's really important. Rep four as you commented on is really an extension of thinking around the empowerment of students in the educational process. I would bet if we had a conversation on how you best learn that if you're active in that process, whether you’re hands on, or you're active in your reflection, or active in your choices, you're going to learn more deeply and you're going to have a better experience and more adaptable experience to another set of circumstances. So, a really big part of the future of education is learning how to relate to that more individualized approach and that it's not just the same model for everyone starting at the same place and then at the same place.

Jennifer Moss: Not a cookie cutter thing because everyone learns differently. So differently.

Doctor Philomena Mantella: Yeah. You know, in fact, on that very rich convening that we talked about that very first one in 2019 instead of a name tag, we asked people to put their learning approach down learning staff and you walked around that room and there was, you know, there wasn't 100. Some had a little bit of a repetition, you know, but there must have been 60 different learning styles for 100 people in that room and that just shows you. So, how can we all relate to the educational model the same way? And the 3rd is really identifying, what are the issues that are creating the equity gaps in education both at the front and in terms of students participating in education and at the outcome, students graduating from education and let’s deal with those equity gaps. So, I think our strategic plan at Grand Valley that we're building right now is focused in three domains. One is an empowered education experience, which is about the learner having an active role. The second is about lifelong learning, which is everything from using digital means to really embrace seeing how people who have life commitments as they're going through education have to have the educational model relate to them and the last us around equity.

Jennifer Moss: Okay.

Doctor Philomena Mantella: And we see all of that as the future.

Jennifer Moss: Absolutely, absolutely. So, you know, working here at the University at WGVU public media, I see the letters and the news releases that come from your office. You had a lot to tackle, but I always see this is something that I picked up is such a concern in carrying the crafting of your messages to your GVSU family and it seems to me you're a people person who cares about the people here and your students here. It's kind of like in your heart, I would imagine you may be a servant leader. So, you really care about this University and the core of it, which is the students and the people that you work with.

Doctor Philomena Mantella: Thank you. That's probably going to be the highlight of my day that you said that you could see that. I hope so, I really hope people do see that, you know, there is a humanity. I think that we all owe one another and it's so easy to get in particularly stressful times and not realize that people are probably largely bringing their best and just appreciate and listen and care for those around us and that's you know, it's the difference between writing your resume or writing your obituary is what we really want to write with our with our life. You know.

Jennifer Moss: Absolutely, absolutely. So, you're so super busy and there’s just so many things going on. What are some of the things that you do to relax it back, kick back, have fun?

Doctor Philomena Mantella: So, one of my routines I wish I could tell you I wake up and I go to the gym which used to be my routine, I’m still struggling to see exactly how to fit that back into my life but, you know, one of my routines is I have this little space in my house where I light a candle in the morning and I really think about things larger than me I think about God, I think about my faith in the world, I think about, you know, I ask for help in making good decisions and I actually I don't think it counts as fun, but it's calming, it's reassuring and it moves me forward in a positive mindset in the day. So, I really enjoy that. I do a little reading and then I get into my e-mails and, you know, kind of start the day usually somewhere between four or five in the morning and so, yeah, and get those three hours, before people are really up and about to have that time. So, I enjoy that. I do like to go to the gym, although I haven't fit it in as much as I’d like. I love biking and my husband and I both like fishing.

Jennifer Moss: Fun, fun.

Doctor Philomena Mantella: So, we have been in all water all around us in Michigan. It just is awesome.

Jennifer Moss: In the perfect spot. We also talked a quick second before we started this conversation. You said “whoops, let me make sure my ipad is off because those grands’ might call,” like also, that's got to be part of your fun stuff too.

Doctor Philomena Mantella: Oh my god, yes. Family comes first. Absolutely. I have three sons, all grown, all married and 5 grandchildren. All of the 2 oldest and so they're just life fulfilling and I mean, they're amazing.

Jennifer Moss: Wonderful so, my next question. They fit into some of that because my favorite question because they say it's good for the soul. Laughter. What makes you laugh? What are some of the things that you could think of or anything that you could think of that makes you laugh?

Doctor Philomena Mantella: Well, the grand kids definitely make me laugh. I mean, they just come up with, you know, God knows what. I don’t know.

You know, usually a good family game because like all of our personalities, when we were three to five come out, then, you know.

Jennifer Moss: Absolutely.

Doctor Philomena Mantella: Yeah, a good, you know, a good movie. Yes, a good movie.

Jennifer Moss: Good old movie. So, we've got a lot happening in the world today. We've been talking about that. People are often looking for a word of encouragement and so do you by chance have a favorite saying perhaps a motto or just something that you encourage yourself with that you kind of look at from time to time? That says this is kind of my little piece of what I'm leaning on.

Doctor Philomena Mantella: Yeah. I mean, what I think about what comes to mind there is, you know, lead from where you are and I often tell when I meet with students, they’ll, say, well, I'm not in a leadership role and I think that's a big mistake that we all have made. You know, we can lead from wherever we are and that encourages me so that whether I'm attending some sort of group discussion and I leave that I'm compelled by it I think well how even with a busy schedule like how can I lead from where I am in keeping this discussion going or, you know, on a volunteer board, it's the same thing. So, I think there's an opportunity to for everyone to lead and be themselves in that leadership journey and part of that is where I sit today and what my opportunities are.

Jennifer Moss: Love that, lead from where you are. Doctor Philomena Mantella, thank you so much for joining us. I really enjoyed this conversation.

Doctor Philomena Mantella: I did as well. Thank you.

Jennifer Moss: Thank you and thank you so much for joining us for another edition of Powerful Women, Let's Talk. I'm Jennifer Moss. Please do enjoy your day.


>> Produced by women about women. These powerful podcasts focus on powerful women and how their strength transforms who we are and how we live. Want to hear more Powerful Women, Let's Talk? Get additional interviews at WGVU.org or wherever you get your podcasts. Please rate and subscribe. Powerful Women, Let’s Talk is produced by WGVU at the Meijer Public Broadcast Center at Grand Valley State University. The views and opinions expressed on this program do not necessarily reflect those of WGVU, its underwriters or Grand Valley State University.


Jennifer is an award winning broadcast news journalist with more than two decades of professional television news experience including the nation's fifth largest news market. She's worked as both news reporter and news anchor for television and radio in markets from Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo all the way to San Francisco, California.
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