By Angela Walker Franklin as told to Christine Riccelli
Photographer: Duane Tinkey
Angela Walker Franklin joined Des Moines University as president in 2011, becoming the first woman and person of color to lead the institution. In the past year, DMU and Franklin have been in the news for the launch of a $25 million fundraising campaign and for the university’s plans to create a new 88-acre campus in West Des Moines. She and her husband, health care executive Thaddeus Franklin, have three adult sons and a granddaughter. In an interview condensed for publication, Franklin reflects on everything from dealing with self-doubt and discrimination to embracing opportunity and dreaming big.
I grew up in McCormick, South Carolina, a town of about 5,000 people. My father’s business was funeral homes—we lived across the street from one of them. My parents are both 93 now, and my dad still manages the last one.
Growing up in the funeral business is fascinating. I didn’t have a lot of sleepovers because people are afraid of death—it makes them uncomfortable. But my sister and I have fun memories of making playhouses out of the boxes the caskets came in. When I got older, I drove the hearse in the processional and also drove the truck with the gravediggers.
Being in that environment helped define me as a person. I always wanted to be helping someone because we were in a service profession. You’re connecting with people at the worst times in their lives so you learn to develop compassion. It’s interesting that my sister chose to go into medicine and I chose to become a psychologist. Fast-forward to now, and I believe in the principles of servant leadership. The golden rule is a big part of that, too; I grew up with the idea ingrained in me that you should treat people the way you want to be treated.
Don’t Be Afraid to Change Course
I started out as an education major at Furman University, a small liberal arts college in Greenville, South Carolina. My mother was a middle school English teacher, and I thought I was going to be a teacher like she was. But at one of my practicums, I was working with special-needs kids, and I became more intrigued with why they behaved as they did than how to teach them. So I changed my major to psychology.
I’d always been the go-to sounding board for my friends, so it made sense that I’d consider psychology. I didn’t initially choose that major because I didn’t know what job I could get unless I went on to get a Ph.D. My parents had told me, “You want to be employed right out of college.” When I changed majors, my dad said, “I don’t get it—if you become a psychologist, people would actually pay you to listen?” I think it was a radical move in their minds that I was going to apply to graduate school and become a psychologist. But even though they couldn’t quite understand it, they still supported me.
I was admitted to the Ph.D. program in clinical psychology at Emory in Atlanta in 1981. After I finished, my dad’s voice came back to me: I had a Ph.D., but who was going to pay me to listen?
Take Time for Reflection
As fate would have it, at that time Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta was looking for someone to teach behavioral sciences. That seemed like a good opportunity because teaching is something I had always considered and I could build my psychology practice at the university clinic. I figured I’d leave academics and be a full-time psychologist when my practice was established. But I enjoyed the academic environment more than I thought I would. It was fulfilling to see students whom I had counseled or taught overcome struggles and become physicians.
I started doing administrative work, and I eventually stopped teaching full time. I found I was being defined less as a psychologist or instructor and more as an administrator. That created a conflict for a while: I had a little bit of everything going on, and I realized I wasn’t quite what I thought I was going to be. I went through a phase of trying to understand my purpose and calling.
This was about when Rick Warren’s book “The Purpose Driven Life” was published. A lot of my friends and supporters were reading it, and they were trying to help me to figure things
out. I remember my sons saying, “What’s up with mom? She doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up.”
Around that time, I was encouraged to pursue an American Council on Education Fellowship, a leadership development program. For the program, your home institution has to invest in you because it still pays your salary for a year while you’re at a different university participating in the fellowship.
Louis Sullivan, then the president of Morehouse School of Medicine, had helped me as I moved into various administrative roles. He supported me for the ACE fellowship, but Morehouse didn’t have the resources to pay someone to do my job while I was away. I spent six months figuring out how to dole out pieces of my work to different people, empowering them to do other jobs. It was an exciting time but also scary because I had to juggle two roles.
Be a Sponge
I spent the 2000-2001 academic year as an ACE fellow at Oglethorpe University, a small liberal arts college in Atlanta. While my experience had been at a graduate health sciences university, I had always loved the liberal arts and its holistic approach to education. I thought I belonged in a liberal arts college.
I spent a year with Oglethorpe’s president, Larry Large, and he really got granular in terms of helping me to understand what it meant to sit in his seat. I was a sponge, soaking up any advice I could get—not only from him but from anyone I could learn from. Later, every time I didn’t advance for a position, I’d pick up the phone and ask the search consultant what I could have done differently. People often don’t think to ask for feedback, but I learned something every time I asked.
I recently spoke at a women’s leadership conference, and I reminded the attendees that it’s OK to raise your hand. It’s OK to ask for help and feedback. It’s OK to ask for a mentor. I mentor three people now and have others who sometimes call me for advice. I want to make myself available to any aspiring university leader or anyone who’s trying to figure out their purpose in life. The idea of lifting while you climb or paying it forward—those phrases refer to passing on what you know.
I returned to Morehouse School of Medicine after the fellowship and focused on strategic planning. But after a while, I got stuck again. I was thinking, “My goal is to become a college president, but how do I get from here to there?” That’s when the doubt set in.
I thought I was supposed to be the president of a small liberal arts college, but search consultants didn’t see me that way because my experience was in health sciences. Yet presidents of health science institutions were always physicians so I didn’t think that job would be available to me.
So I started looking at provost positions. In 2007, I got a call from one of my former students who had become president of Meharry Medical College in Nashville. He asked me to be provost and executive vice president. I said yes, but because I still thought I belonged in liberal arts, I told him I’d give him three years. As second in command, I had a great opportunity to learn how the entire operation worked—it provided those finishing touches.
My husband and sons supported the move. My kids are quite resilient, and I often think it’s because they saw me struggle with what I wanted to be when I grew up. They learned that you don’t always have to have everything figured out but can go with opportunities as they present themselves.
My first experience as a finalist for a presidency was in 2009, at a small liberal arts school in Mississippi. When I arrived for an interview, I immediately felt the cold shoulders. I saw no other person of color among the faculty or students. That kind of environment typically doesn’t bother me as I’m used to being the only person of color. But this felt different.
As part of the visit, I gave a presentation with about 500 people in attendance. Afterward, a faculty member stood up and asked, “Do you know where you are?” I thought she meant the building we were in. She said, “No. I’m not talking about this room. I’m talking about the city.” And I said, “Oh, Jackson, Mississippi.” And she said, “Now, you’re an African American woman, right?” I said, “The last I checked.” And I laughed, but she just glared at me and said, “You know the majority of alumni are white and that the majority of people who have money to give to this institution are old white men. So what makes you think they would give you—an African American woman—money?”
You could hear a pin drop in that auditorium. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but it was along the lines of, “I like to believe that the alumni and donors love this university and what it represents. The skin color of the president shouldn’t matter to those who believe in the mission of this institution and the contribution it makes to this community.”
The chairman of the board stood and started clapping. Eventually, everybody stood and clapped. That was comforting, but I knew there was no way they would ever trust my leadership. I didn’t look like the kind of person whom they thought could raise money.
I ended that visit thinking that I not only didn’t belong in that school but in the South. I shifted gears to the West Coast, which I thought would be more open-minded about a person of color. In 2010, I was a finalist for the presidency at a graduate professional school in California. I got to the final round of two candidates, and was feeling confident.
But as the process dragged on, I became frustrated. I called Louis Sullivan, who advised me to withdraw from the search. He said, “You don’t want to go anywhere if you’re not celebrated as the board’s first choice. You don’t want to be the person they have to settle for.”
Go Where You’re Wanted
In May 2010, within a few days of withdrawing from the search, I got a call from a consultant about a new opportunity. But I said, “I’m going to lay low and lick my wounds a bit now.”
The consultant sent me information on the position, but I didn’t even look at it until a month later when he called again. I wasn’t familiar with Des Moines University. When he told me it was in Iowa, I said, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” I’d never been to Iowa and couldn’t imagine moving there.
Plus, when I saw it was a health sciences university, I thought they’d want a physician. But the consultant said DMU had had more Ph.D. presidents than physician presidents and even a former governor. He said, “The board of trustees is looking for someone just like you.” At that point Louis Sullivan’s words came back to me: “Go where you’re wanted.”
Within 24 hours of expressing my interest, I was invited for the first interview, in September 2010. I had no idea what to expect, but I remember seeing everyone smiling at me when I walked into the interview room—they had such warm, kind faces.
I came back in October for a campus visit, when they rolled out the red carpet. One thing that went way beyond expectations was a reception at the home of Duane Murray, who was the only African American on DMU’s professional staff at the time. I learned later that the board of trustees was afraid I wouldn’t accept the job because I would feel uncomfortable being one of so few people of color in Des Moines.
Duane’s living room was packed with people of color—Willie Glanton, Renee Hardman, Suku Radia, local ministers and others. As soon as my husband and I walked in, they all started clapping. Although I hadn’t been offered the job yet, they told me they were my cheering squad. Mrs. Glanton said, “We wanted you to know that there are people of color living here and we support you.” It was the nicest gesture ever.
Foster Trust and Collaboration
I joined DMU in March 2011. The board wanted me to do a deep dive to evaluate the university. After the honeymoon phase, the first two years were challenging. While the board knew why I was making some difficult decisions and changes, others on campus didn’t. Faculty and students were in the dark.
My predecessor here, former Gov. Terry Branstad, was often out and about, meeting people and shaking hands. He was more gregarious than I am, but I realized that staff and students wanted to get to know me. The phrase was, “We don’t even know if she has a dog.” It’s hard to follow leadership if you don’t know and can’t trust the person trying to lead you.
By the third year, I changed my approach and allowed opportunities for people to get to know me better. I started having faculty and staff lunches and established an open-door policy for everyone. I let it be known that if you have an idea to share, come share it.
I starting having a quarterly open forum that’s a free-for-all—everyone is invited and can ask me anything.
I also flattened the administrative structure. Leadership here is a team effort by design, with a core value of collaboration. Over time we’ve evolved to a place where team members can speak more honestly with one another.
The culture of a place is what really defines it, and I’ve worked hard to understand the culture and get everyone to coalesce around what we all believe to be true. That’s why our guiding principles are so important; they’re our rallying cries.
We launched the public phase of our Purple and Proud campaign last December to support students and faculty and to enhance our current facilities. We recently hit the $22.7 million mark. The board had told me that I’d been talking about dreaming bigger and imagining more since I came here, so the campaign was all about envisioning the future. We asked, what does the future hold, given how rapidly medical education and the delivery of medical services are changing?
We were trying to imagine the university in a way that would transform the organization. Initially, we were imagining that future here; I never even thought about moving. But we realized that with the limitations of this campus—the inability to renovate buildings to meet future standards, the lack of space and lack of parking—we needed to consider other options. On our current footprint, we’d be boxed in and restricted, unable to establish new degree programs, expand current programs or provide health education in ways that meet the needs and expectations of today’s students. My team and I came up with different scenarios to try to grow here, but ultimately decided none would work from a financial or practical standpoint.
That realization led to me to question if the university should buy land somewhere else, and I was pleasantly surprised to hear the board’s enthusiasm for a move. With building a new campus in West Des Moines, we have a more defined focus of what the future can be. We anticipate two years of planning and two years of building before moving in 2023. The effort to fundraise for the campus is beginning now.
We’re the only university doing something like this. The current president of the Association of Academic Health Centers is intrigued that we get to decide what a health sciences university of the future should be—and then build it. A lot of colleges are building new structures on their current campuses, but to build the entire university from the ground up is a huge opportunity. It’s both scary and exciting, but it’s the right thing for us.