Laurie Burns McRobbie

Remarks on Founder’s Day, Kappa Alpha Theta

Introduction and Welcome

Thank you, Alisa, it’s great to be here with you on such an important occasion for Kappa Alpha Theta at IU, and to see so many current and former members gathered.

And it’s wonderful to be with so many students! It’s one of the great joys of my role and of being on a college campus, getting to spend time with people who have their whole futures ahead of them. I am always energized by seeing your commitment and your enthusiasm for improving the world, and especially now, with the many challenges we have facing us.

You are coming of age at a crucial point in time, and while it’s always important to be aware of what’s going on and to exercise your responsibilities as well as your privileges as citizens and community members, it’s perhaps never been more important than it is right now.

But Founder’s Day is also an opportunity to reflect on the past and celebrate those who came before us, while at the same time we celebrate what lies ahead for you and dedicate ourselves to supporting you in achieving your goals.

The Past Teaches Us About the Present

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you about Theta’s importance to Indiana University, as the first “female fraternity”, as it was called then, established in 1871, just four years after IU admitted its first female student.

Sarah Parke Morrison walked into her first IU class in the spring of 1867, almost exactly 150 years ago.

As we approach the university’s bicentennial – and Theta’s sesquicentennial – in 2020, it’s empowering and inspiring to remember that women have been part of IU for nearly all of its history.

And I know you cherish that history. I was delighted to see so many Thetas at the renaming ceremony for the Frances Morgan Swain Student Building last April.

As I’m sure many of you know, Frances Morgan Swain, IU’s 9th First Lady and a Theta here at IU in the late 1870s, led the campaign to build that building in the early 1900s.

Her vision for creating a Woman’s Building on campus, later expanded to be for male students as well, and her leadership of the building campaign, is one of hundreds of examples of contributions that women have made to the life and spirit of IU, but many of these examples are not well known.

Renaming the building for her is one of the first steps in an active effort we have underway as part of the bicentennial to bring the stories of IU women into the light and make them visible to current and future generations of Hoosiers.

Understanding how we got to today, and how women have worked within and around the constraints of their respective eras to improve the lives of their families and their communities, gives us perspective and insight as we think about what we can do today, and how we want our own futures to unfold.

That’s often hard to remember when we’re so focused on the here and now, and I can relate to this. I came of age during the second wave of feminism in the late 1960s and 70s, and several of my professors said they worried that my generation would rest on THEIR laurels and become complacent about the need for continued hard work that would ensure that their gains, particularly for women’s economic and financial lives, weren’t lost.

I remember acknowledging this but also just getting back to what I was doing and what lay ahead.

But of course, I benefitted hugely from those gains, as we all did. I certainly didn’t experience the kind of discrimination and restrictions my mother’s generation did. I expected to be economically self-sufficient and to have a career, even if I got married, and it seemed that I could do anything I wanted.

Everyone Has a Story to Tell

We’ve all got a story to tell about how we grew up – since I’m on the subject of the past, it seems like a good moment to tell you a little more about mine.

As you heard from Alisa’s introduction, I spent my professional career in IT, and that has informed not only my leadership experiences but some of my current priorities. I’m sure there are a lot of techie women in the room today, and in a sense everyone is a technologist now, given the pervasiveness of the digital world. So I think my story will be relevant regardless of where your talents and interests lie.

I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the daughter of a University of Michigan faculty member (my father) and community leader (my mother) who served on City Council and ran for Mayor in the 1960s, only the second woman in Ann Arbor’s history to do so.

Both of my parents were very community oriented, and their values and actions very much formed my own ideas about civic engagement and civic responsibility. And my mother’s example certainly blazed a path for me.

I was a history major at Michigan (hence my fascination with the past!) and actually planned to get my Ph.D., but instead, newly married to a self-described “computer guy” in 1980 and needing a job in order to support the family we wanted to have, I found opportunities in information technology, specifically in computer networking. My timing, as it turned out, was good -- the first PC had just come out and the TCP/IP protocols had just been standardized.

So I got caught up in this huge wave of innovation as the Internet came into being, and despite having never written a single line of code, I was hooked.

I went to work for the state computer networking organization in Michigan, and then to the University of Michigan campus in its central IT organization, where I was a senior director.

In late 1999, I went to Internet2, a national consortium of research universities, government labs, and industry focused on next generation Internet technologies, where I eventually became a vice president.

I was fortunate and I loved it, and felt that I was succeeding at something important, something that was changing the world.

But as time went on, the advice of my professors, about not taking previous gains for granted, started to come home to me.

15 years into my career, there were still very few women in programming or engineering positions, and fewer still in management ranks, particularly at the top.

My own management career was not a technical one; I was in charge of user services, user relations, marketing, which is still where you find many of the women in the tech sector.

In fact, things have actually gotten worse for women in tech -- 25 years after I got my start, the number of women earning degrees in computer science had fallen dramatically.

In 1984, about the time I started out, over a third of CS degrees in the U.S. went to women. In 2007, it was about 12%. The numbers are inching back up, but we’re still not back to where we were a generation ago.

And I realized that, although there are lots of reasons for the falloff, a piece of it was that I and others in my generation hadn’t been intentional enough about reaching back to mentor younger women, or even to notice that fewer women were coming in.

So the more recent parts of my story are about how I decided to focus more directly on closing the gender gap in tech, which is also interwoven with how I came to Indiana University.

I told you about my career in computer networking and IT, and going to Internet2. Well, Internet2 was also where I met Michael McRobbie, who is now president of IU but who was then IU’s Vice President for IT and CIO.

In 2003, we were both widowed, each with three children, and as we came out of that experience we discovered we had a lot more in common than computer networking!

In 2005, I moved to Bloomington and we were married in Beck Chapel. In 2007, Michael became IU’s 18th President, and I became IU’s First Lady. It’s a good thing I’m comfortable with change – that was a lot!

I chose to retire from my tech career and devote myself full-time to Indiana University.

I had the good fortune to open this latest chapter in my life at the same time that several other visionary leaders were here, like the previous dean of Informatics and Computing, Bobby Schnabel and his assistant dean, Maureen Biggers, now head of the Center of Excellence for Women in Technology, CEWiT, both of whom deeply understand the importance of addressing the gender gap in IT and are wonderful collaborators and colleagues.

And I got to work with Gene Tempel and Dan Smith in the IU Foundation, both of whom saw the importance of expanding the Foundation’s efforts to engage the philanthropic interests of alumnae and shift the culture of fundraising at IU.

I had found myself being drawn more and more into learning about philanthropy and nonprofits even during my IT career, and I was able to pursue this interest here as I also sought to stay involved with the tech world. IU, as I’m sure you know, is home of the world’s first School of Philanthropy.

As Alisa noted, I helped found a service learning program in Informatics and Computing, as well as helping to found CEWiT, and both of these programs are designed to draw more women into computing disciplines and also to boost the tech skills of women in other fields. And I helped found the Women’s Philanthropy program in the IU Foundation, which has truly transformed the landscape.

So, my interest and experience in technology and my more recent interest in philanthropy may seem like an odd match, but both are inherently about creating positive change, and about finding solutions that improve communities and people’s lives.

I will confess that it’s taken me some time to work these various threads – my IT career, my commitment to working toward gender equity and social justice, and my interest in philanthropy – into something that feels like a complete whole.

But this is part of the journey. I’m sure that each of you will find yourself, from time to time, working to fit different things together into a coherent whole. It’s not always a comfortable process, but it’s where the real growth comes. If you don’t feel as though you’re there now, and even if you don’t feel like you’ll be there in another 20 years, keep at it – you will!

Weaving a Leadership Identity

As I was thinking about my remarks for today and knowing I would be talking with so many future leaders in all sectors, I reflected back to when I first thought of myself as a leader, as well as how my leadership identity has evolved and how it’s current shaped by my role as First Lady.

I wasn’t a super-involved teenager as I suspect many of you were, nor was I a super-involved college student, as I suspect many of you are. I was part of a few things, but not out in front.

My leadership awakening came in the workplace, when I was in my second job and the opportunity arose to join the campus’s Commission for Women. I became its chair shortly thereafter, and discovered that being out in front was much more part of my identity than I’d realized.

I remember being both excited and terrified – I really wanted to help change things (this was before we had things like job-protected maternity leave, or even very many women faculty or senior administrators), but I didn’t know how to do that. This experience of feeling clueless but also eager and excited followed me into my first management job, and even into later ones.

This is where relationships, with your colleagues, friends and mentors, matter the most. I simply wouldn’t have been able to pursue that first leadership opportunity, nor those that came later, without others, both women and men, who were encouraging me and to whom I could turn to for advice or just to vent the inevitable frustrations.

But I would not be telling a completely accurate story if I left out the times when I ignored advice, or simply didn’t ask for it because I was embarrassed at not knowing how to do something.

I also left a lot of opportunity on the ground because I didn’t seek a mentor at the right moments, or because I saw their advice as a sign that I was lacking in some essential skill – they had seen through me, that I wasn’t really as good as I pretended to be.

These are common experiences, I think especially for women – we know them as “the imposter syndrome” and other ways that stereotypes trip us up. For what it’s worth, even the most seemingly accomplished leaders struggle with this. That’s cold comfort when you’re the one feeling incompetent and exposed, but it’s part of the process of growth, if you’re willing to embrace it and let yourself be a learner at the same time you’re the one in charge.

Fast forward to now, when naturally, a large piece of my leadership identity stems from my role as IU’s First Lady.

Being first lady is a unique position, to say the least, especially for a feminist with a successful career, and who has been interested in women’s equality and leadership all her life. Needless to say, this wasn’t part of my career plan – I didn’t exactly apply to be First Lady – and it was a jolt to adjust to not being fully in charge of own independent life.

But I discovered quickly that while the role can be constraining, it is simultaneously liberating.

It’s constraining in that there are certain limitations on what I can say and do, particularly during election season – we’re a public university, after all – and that can dictate where I need to be on many nights of the week and the weekend, and even what I should wear (good thing I like red!).

But the role is also freeing, in part because people don’t really know what I do, and don’t always know how to put me in proper context. I discovered early on that this ambiguity was a major advantage – I get to define my own agenda and pursue the things I truly care about.

And along with this freedom of choice, I gained something of a “bully pulpit” as First Lady. I wasn’t going to waste the opportunity! So the lesson here is that you don’t always get to choose your opportunities – sometimes they find you, and the question is just whether you recognize them, and capitalize on them.

The Woman of IU

I want to take just a few more minutes before I close to tell you about an important initiative that Alisa and I along with many wonderful colleagues at the IU Foundation are involved with, through our Women’s Philanthropy program, that it’s especially appropriate to be talking with all of you IU women about.

We call it “The Woman of IU”.

Through our work with IU’s extensive alumnae community, we have seen how passionately IU women dive into learning about the academic and service work going on at IU, and how committed they are to supporting and improving what goes on here.

Out of this we’ve developed a kind of framework to describe what it means to be connected with our programs and engaged in helping to build IU’s future, and to give the woman of IU an identity.

That identity turns on the belief that everyone, everywhere, should have the opportunity to achieve their dreams. The woman of IU is

  • Fostering health and well-being through her commitment to medical research and practice, public health, nursing, dentistry and other allied health sciences;
  • She’s shaping the arts and sciences through her involvement with the liberal arts, the humanities, and art and design;
  • She’s leading by giving of her time, talent and treasure, and committed to learning about the art and science of philanthropy;
  • She’s changing the world, through her interest in global issues, the media, study abroad experiences, and the perspectives from other cultures;

And perhaps most importantly, especially now in this time of upheaval and challenge, the woman of IU has a voice, and helps give others a voice, in standing up for the values of inclusion, tolerance, civility, and openness to the world. That is the woman of IU.

Call to Action

As I conclude, I hope I’ve given you a few bits of wisdom, gleaned from a lot of time and experience: To jump into new things even if you don’t know what you’re doing – you will figure it out.

To admit when you need to learn something new.

To make and keep connections and networks of friends and colleagues, starting with the ones you’re cultivating here – and to use them even when it feels embarrassing to ask how to do something you think you should know.

To find the opportunities in ambiguity, whether it’s in a job description, role in a group, or a time of transition in your work or personal life.

But I want to leave you with my most important message, which is to be a voice for others.

We understandably want the world to work for us, who have been so well prepared by our IU educations, but we also have to make it work for others who need our knowledge and skills.

We all need to be among those creating a world that is healthy, safe, inclusive and open.

It’s never only about us. So get engaged in something bigger than yourself. Be informed. Step up to your obligations as a citizen and a community member.

And welcome to your future as a woman of Indiana University.

Thank you.