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Women of Influence

Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022

IU President Whitten delivered the keynote address at the IBJ's 2022 Women of Influence awards ceremony.

IU President Whitten speaks at a podium that says, "2022 Women of Influence"

Influential women at an influential university 

I am greatly honored to be invited to speak today, and equally honored to be in the presence of such an extraordinary group of women. All of you gathered here today are such a vivid and inspiring demonstration of what an exciting and opportune time this is for women in leadership.

Your presence here this morning also reminds us that we have come such a long way – including in higher education. Though women presidents were rare when I started out as a young assistant professor, today nearly one third of U.S. colleges and universities now have female presidents—including six of the 14 Big Ten universities. Today women own 40 percent of all companies in America, with Black and Latina founders starting businesses in record numbers. And this year, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Title IX, which has had an enormous impact on the course of education for millions of women and girls in the United States.

As the first woman to serve as president of IU, I stand on the shoulders of countless women who have paved the way as students, as faculty members, administrators, trustees, and engaged alumni, and who helped IU to thrive and flourish. I know that a number a number of IU graduates are among the former recipients of the Women of Influence award, as are current and former IU trustees and administrators. 

In fact, how many of you here today earned a degree at IU? How many have at least one family member who did? I love to see that – it shows the reach, the influence, a great public university has on its home state.

Influence is what I would like to talk with you about today, as we celebrate women of influence in Indiana. I'd like to share with you our vision for the influence and impact we believe Indiana University must have on the Hoosier state so that we can thrive together into the future. And in doing that, I want to highlight a few of the women at IU who are having a great influence on all of us.

Long history of successful IU women

The history of women at IU is long, but not quite as long as the university's history. When IU was founded in 1820, those life changing opportunities were available only to white men. But we’ve continually expanded that range of opportunity. In 1867, we became one of the first state universities in the nation to admit women, and two years later Sarah Parke Morrison became our first female graduate. Then, in 1895, Marcellus Neal made IU history as our first Black graduate. Frances Marshall followed in 1919 as the first Black female to earn an IU degree.

Today, though there remains more work to do, the picture is dramatically different. This fall, IU enrolled the most diverse group of students in its history, and we've launched a seven-year, $30 million fund to increase the diversity of our faculty. In its first year, 54 new underrepresented minority faculty members been hired, 70 percent of whom are also women.

Opportunity and the role of a public university

Providing life-changing opportunities, and continually expanding those opportunities to underserved groups is the the central mission of a public university, and one we take very seriously at Indiana. Today, more than 20 percent of last year’s graduates across IU's campuses were the first person in their family to graduate from college. One out of every five. The influence this has is almost incalculable. It will change the trajectory of their lives and their family's lives and have an effect that will ripple through succeeding generations, providing them with widened opportunity and the freedom to aspire to even loftier achievements for their children.

The impact on our state is no less profound. We provide society with thoughtful, problem-solving leaders. We invigorate our state's economy with well-educated professionals. We improve and save lives by educating Indiana’s health care providers. And the research work of our extraordinary faculty benefits our citizens in countless ways.

The statistical evidence for this is astounding. Just a ten-point difference in the share of a state’s population with a bachelor's degree or higher correlates to a roughly one-third increase in average individual wages for the state’s residents. In Indiana, thanks to the Higher Ed Commission's research, we know that each class of Indiana public college graduates—from regional campuses to flagship campuses—contributes more than $13 billion to the state's economy.

Highlighting women and the Strategic Plan

Student success

To ensure we continue having that kind of positive impact at a time when the expectations of universities are changing and the value of a college education faces new skepticism, we’ve adopted a new strategic framework that rests on three pillars: the success of Indiana students, research that improves lives, and service that brings resources and expertise to bear on the greatest challenges facing Indiana communities. Today, I'd like to highlight the stories of three remarkable women to illustrate the significance of each of those pillars to our future and the exceptional influence these women have on all of us.

We are viewing student success through a lens of access, equity, and social and economic mobility. This includes an emphasis on affordability and a focus on degree completion. We have established the goal of ensuring that our graduation rates into the top 25 percent of our institutional peers. We want our first-year retention rates to also be in the top 25 percent, along with our career outcomes rate. We are committed to making higher education more affordable, and we've adopted several goals for financial aid and scholarships designed to ensure that we contribute to the social mobility that sits at the very heart of our public mission.

A young woman who embodies this view of student success is Kadidiatou Diallo, a health services management major at IUPUI, who was recently selected as one of the inaugural recipients of the Obama-Chesky Scholarship for Public Service, also known as the Voyager Scholarship. She is one of 100 students selected from some 1,800 applicants for this prestigious new national scholarship. As part of the Voyager program, she plans to travel to west Africa and focus on addressing health disparities and nutrition, something she witnessed firsthand on a trip to visit family in Guinea. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Kadidiatou as a future Women of Influence honoree. Every day, on our campuses around the state, thousands of IU students are accomplishing amazing things and achieving their own version of student success.

Research and creativity

The second pillar of our strategic framework is research and creativity. The research and creative output of our faculty and graduate students, as well as our partnerships with governments, businesses, and the communities we serve, will be essential to the fulfillment of our public mission. 

There are countless examples among our faculty of how this is already the case. Take, for example, the work of Distinguished Professor Liana Apostolova of the IU School of Medicine, who is conducting groundbreaking research that focuses on the early symptomatic and pre-symptomatic stages of Alzheimer's disease. Her reputation as a world leader in Alzheimer's research led to her becoming the principal investigator on a $44.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, one of the largest NIH grants ever received by a scientist at IU. This project established a national consortium focused on early-onset Alzheimer's.

In the years ahead, IU has committed to engaging in high-impact research and creative activity that will improve the lives of people in Indiana and beyond. We have committed ourselves to reducing barriers to research, to enhancing facilities, and to increasing the diversity of our research community. We've also set some ambitious financial goals, including an increase of externally sponsored research funding from last year's $520.7 million to $700 million annually, and getting our School of Medicine – the nation's largest – into the top 10 of NIH funding for public medical schools.

Service to the state

The third pillar of our strategic framework is service to the state of Indiana. Of course, the success of our students and the impact of our research and creative activity are, in themselves, enormous benefits to the state. But we identified service to the state as a separate pillar because we recognize the unique obligations – and influence – that we as a public university have over so many aspects of life in Indiana. We have an enormous statewide footprint—from our flagship residential campus in Bloomington to our thriving urban campus here in Indianapolis to our five regional campuses that play critical roles in the economic and cultural lives of their regions.

Among our goals for enhancing IU’s service to the state in the future are enhanced workforce partnerships, alignment with the state’s economic development initiatives, improvements in public health, continuing investments in life and health sciences, and support for K-12 education. Choosing just one example of a woman at IU who embodies these goals is difficult; we have almost countless women who have devoted themselves to improving the quality of life for all Hoosiers, but one in particular comes to mind. Bernice Pescosolido, Distinguished Professor of Sociology at IU Bloomington, is internationally renowned for her work on mental health. She is the founding director of both the Indiana Consortium for Mental Health Services Research and IU’s new Irsay Family Research Institute, which is funded by a gift from the Irsay family and the Indianapolis Colts to help IU conduct evidence-based research and training on the stigma around mental health and other medical issues. Professor Pescosolido also led IU's "Bring Change to Mind" national pilot study to increase mental health awareness and reduce stigma on college campuses. Her work has had—and continues to have—a tremendous positive impact on the mental health of the people of Indiana and beyond.

So those are three women who exemplify, each in their own way, the three foundational elements of our vision for Indiana University’s future. There are so many others in Bloomington, Indianapolis, and at each of our regional campuses. I'm sure most of you have met more than one of our extraordinary IU women, and I hope they have influenced your lives as positively as they have influenced us.

Call to action

Still, there is so much more we're going to accomplish together, at IU and all over Indiana.

We're going to continue to make our Indiana businesses thrive, growing them through innovation and creativity and also making them great places to work. We'll invest in our communities and the civic organizations that enrich our daily lives. We’ll strengthen our schools and pre-K's and use our talents to mentor and guide the next generation so that all our Hoosier children have the opportunity to flourish right here at home in Indiana.

Each of us, in our own way, will be that person whose word of encouragement or whose timely example changes a life and whose impact ripples across generations.

We have gone from the outside looking in, to having a seat at the table. I know that all of the women in this room, and the men too, will continue use that influence to build a better tomorrow for all our people.

Thank you very much, and congratulations again to our honorees!

More about the Women of Influence award

Read more about the IBJ's 2022 Women of Influence awards.