Only Woman in the Room

November 1, 2019 | Martha D. Saunders, Ph.D.

dr saunders chatting with students
Dr. Saunders with UWF students

Students often ask me if I thought about being a university president when I was in college. My answer is always the same. No, I never thought about being a university president because when I was in college women weren’t presidents of anything! 

In fact, when I graduated in 1969, there were few career opportunities for women. Generally speaking, women only had three options: we could be nurses, teachers or secretaries. All of these were, and still are, noble professions, but the options were rather confining for women with other interests. We were at the front line of what is now known as the Women’s Movement and it took a number of years before we started taking our places at the top levels of leadership. 

So, when people ask about my career path, I just smile and give a quote from the King James Bible, Mark 14:8: "She hath done what she could." I didn’t have much of a career plan because the maps for women had not been illuminated. There were, however, little glimmers of light. 

My first real job out of college was with a large advertising agency in Baltimore, where I learned to work with a team and tap into my creativity. In between having my babies in the 1970s, I worked as a freelance writer and learned an important fundamental life lesson– you only get paid if you do the work. My next job as a high school teacher galvanized my organizational skills, conflict management abilities, clear communication and sheer stamina. 

It all came together for me when I ventured into higher education in my late 30s and joined the faculty at the University of West Florida. I tell people I was an affirmative action hire. I had been adjunct teaching for the university and my department was up for professional accreditation. They secured the services of a consultant to advise them on the process. The consultant made it clear they had better get women on the faculty if they expected accreditation, and so I was, rather inauspiciously, hired. There were surely more experienced people they might have picked, but I like to think I paid them back for the opportunity by doing good work and building a good program. 

I rose quickly through the ranks and was happy to accept new opportunities as they became available. I left the university in 2002 to become a first woman president at two other institutions. But, home called me back, and in 2013, I returned to the beautiful campus in the pines where it all began. I am ever so grateful to have finally succeeded a fellow woman, friend and colleague in former President Dr. Judy Bense—right here in the place where I got my start in higher education. It’s almost 2020 now, 50 years after the women’s movement, and I think it’s time that being a woman in leadership at an institution stops being a novelty. 

I never really had a mentor, but I did have a few encouragers who saw something in me worth cultivating. The dean I worked for as a work-study student in college, a professor at the University of Georgia where I earned my master’s degree and former UWF President Morris Marx made more of a difference in my career than they probably knew. 

In the 1960s, a woman couldn’t get a credit card or serve on a jury in some states. She could have been fired for getting pregnant and had little hope of a leadership position in her organization. We have "come a long way baby," but baby, there’s still so much to be done. 

I worry sometimes, that the pipeline of women in leadership is dwindling. My generation is getting ready to pass the fire batons. We may have broken glass ceilings, but broken glass can leave jagged edges. I believe we have a responsibility to smooth the way for those who follow, to serve as mentors and advocates for the next generation of women who are filling that once empty room.