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Dr. Charlotte Frank Moderates Secrets of Success With President Jennifer Raab, Dr. Louise Mirrer, Vickie Tillman (Standard & Poor)
By Sybil Maimin

Moderated by education guru Dr. Charlotte Frank, whose many accomplishments include executive director of curriculum and instruction for NYC public schools, senior vice-president for research and development at McGraw-Hill Education/McGraw Hill Companies, and New York State Regent, a panel of three very successful women told a rapt audience at Sutton Place Synagogue how they reached the top of their professions.  Dr. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the New York Historical Society, Jennifer J. Raab, president of Hunter College, and Vickie A. Tillman, executive vice president of Standard & Poor’s and head of its Rating Service tackled questions about early ambitions, detours along career roads, and skills needed to meet challenges.

Mirrer explained that as a youngster she often went on hospital rounds with her physician father, admired “Candy Stripers,” loved biology, and planned to study pre-med in college. Illustrating Frank’s point that, “Nothing happens without a good teacher,” Mirrer was detoured by a class in medieval history and “a great professor.” Fascinated, she changed her goal from medicine to teaching others about the medieval world through literature. She earned a PhD at Stanford and taught and served as department head at several universities. As she explains it, to remedy the absence of women in executive roles at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, she “leap-frogged” over several men to become vice provost, a job that “set me on the course of academic leadership.” She ultimately became executive vice chancellor of the City University of New York (CUNY) where she enhanced the place of history in the curriculum, helped raise academic standards, and oversaw the widely praised Honors College. Of the changes she brought about, she says, “I like to take risks, not stupid risks, but it is important to take risks.”  She came to her present position as head of the New York Historical Society “through a connection,” and has used her experience and ties in academia to broaden the institution’s educational mission. “Always a good student…curious, serious, and disciplined,” she explained this skill has served her well in her career. She also advised listening to people, recognizing and learning from good teachers, and seizing opportunities.

Jennifer Raab grew up poor and was the first person in her family to go to college. Taking the train from her Washington Heights home to Hunter College High School (“an incredible public high school”), she passed through Harlem and determined she would seek a career in public service in order to help people. With a graduate degree in Public Affairs, she found work in the South Bronx but decided knowledge of jurisprudence would be helpful and earned a law degree from Harvard. After time as a litigator at two top New York law firms and two unsuccessful runs for public office, she was appointed chair of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Committee and seven years later, in 2001, she became president of Hunter College, the largest college in CUNY. Raab sees similarities in the Landmarks and Hunter positions. Both are “privileges” that allow her “to make a better city,” and both were controversial appointments due to her inexperience in the respective fields. Without a background in preservation, she had to prove herself in the Landmarks community to people who, by definition, “are opposed to change.” At Hunter, her opponents questioned her lack of a PhD and inexperience in academia. To prove her worth, she drew upon two sets of skills acquired as a litigator. To be effective, a lawyer must learn everything about a client (“That’s what I did in Preservation. I learned everything about the business”). In addition, a litigator must be a convincing advocate, a “verbal warrior.” She says, “I am a passionate advocate for public higher education” and, at Hunter she “spent lots of time learning everything about the school” and showed she is willing to “fight for resources to push the institution forward.” Like Mirrer, she has found that “change is not easy” and instituting new policies at CUNY has been “very controversial.” Also, like Mirrer, she has learned that being in the public eye and facing negative media coverage “can be very painful.”

Tillman made practical career choices. As a youngster, she wanted to be a baseball player but realized there were no women in the game. Her interest in archaeology was blunted by the need to make a living. At the University of Pittsburgh she attended the Graduate School of Public Affairs, learned Russian, and studied foreign relations only to realize, at graduation, that the field was overcrowded. There was a job for her at Standard & Poor’s and now, over thirty years later, she explains how she rose in this “male-dominated world.” She confesses, “I am incredibly stubborn. I wouldn’t let any kind of ceiling get in my way.” She learned “diplomacy” and was willing to “listen, be flexible, and take risks.” I was called “the change agent” at S & P, she reports, but was careful to present new ideas in “acceptable terms.” Making changes can be “incredibly difficult,” she reports as “some people are committed to no change and sometimes they are very formidable people in your organization…Bring people along with you as you make changes.” She suggests finding a mentor to “teach ways to get through political hurdles” because, “There are politics in every organization, whether in your face or behind your back.” Tillman advises being “passionate” about your work and monitoring relevant developments, even when on vacation. “You must believe in yourself” but also need “competencies and a little help along the way.” She sees that, “Women are always afraid to ask for help and think they have to prove themselves.”  She hopes the next generation “will learn to say what they believe and ask questions.” Saying, “There is no straight line in a career,” Frank summed up: know your discipline, keep learning, take risks, be flexible, consider acquiring new skills, and have confidence in yourself.#



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