By Ruth Herstek
It’s a beautiful, cool but somewhat fog-filled morning and a young college graduate launches her kayak at the access point of life. This former college field hockey star is in great shape physically and is educated and mentally equipped to navigate the waters ahead.
Fast forward from that scene 36 years and from those waters emerges a wiser, seasoned leader. Entering her office you will see that it reflects a few of her passions: education, teamwork, sports and friendship. There is a golf award, a coach of the year award and other sport/team related items hanging on the walls. There are shelves full of books and international decorations, some brought back from her travels and others from friends and coworkers. The first thing you notice is a round table with four chairs, not a desk and one guest chair, but a table where employees can gather as a team and solve problems together. This table also serves as a department lunch table where we often gather to share lunch, personal stories and weekend plans. At one glance, you get a sense that the person who sits in this office is a team player who has a wide variety of interests from academics to sports and travel.
The person sitting in this office is the chief academic officer for Penn State New Kensington. The official job title is Director of Academic Affairs. As the title implies, this person, Dr. Arlene Hall, is in control of everything academic on this thriving campus, and she helps carry the weight of the campus on her shoulders.
Dr. Hall was not always a high level academic officer, but she has been involved in academics her entire career. As her career in education is coming to a close and she plans to retire this coming June, it is an opportunity to look back over a successful career that lasted 42 years.
After graduating from Slippery Rock University with a degree in kinesiology, Dr. Hall, or Arlene as she prefers, worked in public education for six years, but she always aspired to teach at the university level. She grew up near Penn State University in Snow Shoe, Pennsylvania. Always feeling that teaching was a noble profession, she set out to achieve that goal.
While teaching in the public school setting, she enrolled in a master’s program with the goal of moving into higher education. With her background in kinesiology, she planned to teach a few years at a small campus then move on to a university that offered that major. However, after being employed at Penn State New Kensington a few years, she found that she loved the small class sizes, being part of a faculty body that kept her in contact with peers from many disciplines and developing relationships in a culture she agreed with. She decided to continue her employment at the New Kensington campus and continue her passion for learning by earning her PhD in 1991. Upon completion of her terminal degree, she was placed on the tenure track with the university. After six years of continued scholarship, research and service, she became a tenured faculty member and was promoted to associate professor. Arlene was well on her way across the waters of life, paddling her kayak swiftly and steadily to reach one goal after another.
During her time teaching a variety of kinesiology courses at the campus, she also coached three different sport teams, leading the women’s volleyball team through several championship seasons. Teaching and coaching played a large role in her developing leadership style. During her years of promotion and tenure, Arlene started to take on leadership roles within the faculty ranks. She became part of two CEO searches which sparked her interest in the leadership opportunities on campus. While looking to serve the campus more broadly, she was open to prospects that would help her examine the larger issues and university policies and procedures in a broader way. She was finding that she was not as satisfied just being afloat in the waters of the university, she wanted to become more involved in navigating and making decisions that could lead to improvements for faculty, staff and students.
During these years, Arlene also noticed the lack of women in leadership positions and felt that the campus could benefit from a more gender balanced leadership team. It was at this time that the CEO conscripted her to become the Special Assistant to the CEO. She worked at this position while still carrying a full teaching load.
This appointment provided her an opportunity to make a difference on campus. Not long after she began this role, the position of Director of Academic Affairs (DAA) became available. However, still a professor, Arlene was deeply involved in research and was part of a grant team working on the cultural influences on African American women and how those differences impacted their health, and she was unsure of the timing. She had to do some soul searching and decision making on the direction her career path would take. After twice being nominated for the position of DAA, Arlene decided it was time to apply and interview for the position which could provide her with an opportunity to improve the campus that she’d come to love and call home. It was during her preparation for the DAA interview that she realized there were several important things that she could accomplish that would have a positive impact on the campus.
During the interview process, Arlene outlined several goals she’d pursue if she were in the position to create change. These included enrollment issues, the quality of education on campus and advocacy for faculty, staff and students. She summarized a plan to achieve these goals by increasing and creating new opportunities for enrollment, having quality be central to both new and existing programs, being prepared for change and recognizing that advocacy is everyone’s job. She knew there would not always be flat-water and rapids would arise, but she was well equipped and able to read the waters keeping herself and those she led on course and moving forward.
Arlene accepted the position as DAA in August of 2001. The campus faculty and staff quickly came to understand that above all she cares deeply about the people she works with and about the success of the campus. She soon became recognized as a service leader, one who served the needs of the campus, the faculty and staff and, foremost, the needs of the students. However, service is not her only leadership style; Arlene moves between styles when necessary. She can be autocratic when necessary, but generally her manner and approach is more participative. She delegates and empowers her staff, giving them more autonomy. When a situation dictates a change in style, there is a flexibility about her that few leaders possess.
She is not a top-down manager, and always asks for and considers the ideas and opinions of others. She advises other leaders to “hire good people and let them do their job.” She also often states that she has been lucky to have hired competent staff with “‘can-do’ attitudes and excellent customer service.” Over her tenure as DAA, Arlene has hired 30 faculty and 12 staff which included an assistant DAA to fill a void that she quickly noticed for advocacy of the adjunct (part-time) faculty on campus. Also, during this time, she has mentored and assisted three instructors to achieve Senior Instructor status, and moved one toward associate professor and one to full professorship. Another of her major accomplishments has also included promoting 21 faculty members through the six-year Promotion and Tenure process at Penn State. She will also see two additional faculty members complete this process before she retires, and will assist three others with their continued progress.
As a loving care-taker of the campus, the decision for her to retire has not been an easy one. However, one of her friends, who had retired from the University several years ago, told her that when you are ready to retire “you will just know it.” Dr. Hall has now come to the decision and knows it is time. She stated that she has reached many of the goals she set for herself during that interview 11 years ago. She has been able to improve the educational experience for students, and she has been a tireless advocate for faculty, staff and students. She has also successfully introduced international programing by empowering faculty and providing financial support for programming.
In addition, she formed a faculty cmmittee years ago, and they have taken charge of undergraduate research including an annual research fair. She has also mentored more faculty and staff to successful careers than she can count. Dr. Hall has a team leadership approach that produces an automatic response to every accomplishment that sounds as though she were only an observer in the success of those around her. This rare leadership ability is the culmination of years of experience and service to those who have been lucky enough to work “with” her, as she would say, not “for” her.
Recently, when asked what she saw for PSNK’s future, she replied with hope and pride for continued success with increasing diversity and international students, improvements to current budget issues, continued community engagement and sustained growth in enrollment with new two-plus-two options and new degree programs. She is also aware of, and has started to plan for, future faculty and staff replacement as she is part of a larger group of faculty and staff that have served this campus well for many years and may soon follow her into retirement.
For her life post-employment, Arlene jokes that her first goal is to reduce her golf handicap to around 12. She will have the time to improve her work-life balance into a more relaxed direction and spend more time with her family and many life-long friends. Arlene is planning to take more time to enjoy kayaking, cross-country skiing and traveling. She also plans to continue her passion for being a life-long learner and take advanced knowledge courses, and plans to give back by volunteering and doing consulting work. Lastly, she just plans to be “less tired.” This goal is one I am sure she will achieve as she has tirelessly served this campus for over 35 years and is well deserving of rest and relaxation.
As for those of us who are left to paddle the waters without her, I hope we have the patience, commitment and energy to carry out the important initiatives that Arlene has left in our hulls. Not only did Arlene feel she hired competent people, she then mentored and empowered her staff to deal with the future – as a team. While Arlene reaches the other side of her work-life journey, she will leave behind a capable team of rowers empowered and educated to keep the campus moving steadily windward, out of the fog and toward our ending access point of the campus’s successful future.