‘Don’t Buy Your Underwear in Town’

As a participant in higher education leadership programs, one receives formal and informal training for a position as a senior administrator or perhaps even president. Case studies delve into real-life scenarios of budget crises, protests, deaths, votes of no confidence, et al. Aspects are debated ad nauseam in conference rooms until the lights are flickered politely, calling for a venue change, and then in hotel bars well into the night until slurry words threaten blows and regret, signaling time for sleeping.

At these gatherings, opportunities arise for one-on-one meetings with retired and current presidents who lead formal sessions by day and frank conversations by night in hotel lobbies over a glass of fine chardonnay or perhaps a Macallan 18. During those informal conversations, precariously perched on the most uncomfortable and démodé furnishings, one hears a different sort of sage wisdom.

During those minutes of extraordinary access, I often asked my momentary mentors the same questions, “What’s it like to be a woman president? What advice do you have?” Sometimes the advice was depressing, even if sadly relevant to the very real gender discrimination experienced by women executives: “Never go to dinner or drinks with a male donor alone—people like to gossip,” “Wear high heels when meeting with a group of men—they’re less intimated by you if you look less severe,” or “If you’re single, date out of town.”

There was one nugget of advice I heard, and one often repeated among women administrators, that I’ll never forget. “Never buy your underwear in town!” Even with a snort of laughter to acknowledge the ridiculous, this advice is strictly adhered owing to the overwhelming fear of being known as President Granny Panties or President Lacy Underalls. I never knew who evangelized the practice or the backstory that inspired it. However, recently a woman president I met said she knew who first said it. She claimed it was Nannerl O. Keohane, former president of Duke University (1993–2004) and Wellesley College (1981–93).

Since I had already planned to write a series of posts on presidents who were the first women to do so at their institution, this attribution sent me on a mission to interview Nan Keohane so I could 1) find out if the attribution was accurate, and perhaps more pointedly 2) ask her what it was like being the first woman president of Duke. Even since retiring from Duke, Keohane continues her formidable scholarship and work in higher education at some of the country’s most prestigious institutions. Despite her impressive schedule, she agreed to speak to me; I am grateful for the opportunity and the wisdom she graciously imparted.

First, I’m sorry to burst everyone’s bubble, but she ardently denies that she ever said or provided the advice “Never buy your underwear in town!” However, there seemed to be a momentary acknowledgment of the wisdom found in the directive and an ever-so-brief mention of an incident at Filene’s Basement. Feeling embarrassed to have queried such a no-nonsense, esteemed individual, I didn’t probe further and moved on to other questions about being Duke’s first female president. (I prayerfully thought to myself, “Please don’t hang up on me!”) Granted, I probably shouldn’t have led with this question.

As we talked about her time at Duke, Keohane reflected that it had made a difference to have already been president at Wellesley; otherwise, it would have been difficult. Nevertheless, Duke was different—larger, big athletics, a huge medical center, decentralized reporting and located in the South. She acknowledged that some trustees weren’t quite ready for a female president, and while they didn’t try to undermine her, they were often skeptical. Without detail, she noted that the experience of being the first female president wasn’t one big thing but perhaps several little unexpected things.

Keohane’s first major challenge was determining the fate of East Campus (originally the women’s campus)—what should be the purpose? People were divided as they often are regarding college campus landmarks and nostalgia. Making East Campus home to first-year students ended up as the best solution. I pressed her about whether people treated her differently as a woman. She said she was not surprised by the vehemently expressed pros and cons to this solution but by how the criticism was so disrespectfully expressed, including headlines such as “Nan is ruining Duke.” It struck her that male presidents would never be addressed by their first names.

We spoke about her success, and I asked to what it could be attributed. Keohane stated it was support from her family and the partnerships developed with people who really loved the institution. She also considered the importance of being the right leader at the right time for an institution, explaining that there are three types: founders, fixers and sustainers/strengtheners. Knowing who you are and what the institution needs from you is essential. Always question, “Am I a good fit?” and answer honestly. I wondered if higher education may need fewer sustainers at the helm in today’s environment than before.

While thoughtfully acknowledging there are more significant challenges in higher education today than when she led Duke, Keohane offered several guiding principles for success—find the key priority (avoid diversions), keep your compass steady (be principled, have integrity) and trust yourself (you’ve been appointed for a reason). Keohane considered that she never had ambitions to be a president. Perhaps that was key to her success; she kept her love of teaching and joy of scholarship close.

There is much wisdom in what Keohane offers (even without being the source of the underwear edict). Look for more words of wisdom, both formal and informal, as I relay stories from other women presidents who were the first at their institutions. Sadly, I’ll have to continue my quest to identify the Yoda of surreptitiously secured skivvies (leads welcome).

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