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Women's History Month

Profiles in Leadership

Huntley, Deborah\

Deborah R. Huntley, Ph.D.

Provost & Vice President for Academic Affairs

Deborah R. Huntley joined the SVSU faculty in fall 1998 after 15 years as a research scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. She teaches the physical chemistry curriculum, a two semester lecture and laboratory sequence. She also teaches introductory chemistry to both majors and non-majors. Her research interests focus broadly on material science, and particularly on surface processes. Her predominant expertise is in surface chemistry, especially mechanisms of catalytic reactions.

1. What is your name and profession?

Deborah Huntley, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs. Prior to my role in administration, I was a professor of chemistry here at SVSU. I also spent nearly 15 years working as a research chemist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

2. What does Women’s History Month mean to you?

Women’s History Month is an opportunity to celebrate the myriad contributions of women in fields as disparate as the fine arts and the hard sciences. It is an opportunity for us to recognize that our achievements have been made possible by courageous women who blazed the trails and broke down barriers to allow us to be successful.

3. As a woman, in what ways have you struggled to get to where you are today and how did you overcome those struggles?

I earned my PhD in physical inorganic chemistry in 1983, when it was pretty rare for women to pursue careers in the physical sciences. I sometimes joke that at professional conferences, I was often the only pair of pantyhose in a room full of pin striped suits! Over the years, there certainly have been some situations that presented challenges, but I would not say my career was a huge struggle. I do recall some professors being surprised that I could do the mathematics required in my field or that I earned high scores on particular assignments, but I also remember many encouraging me to pursue my doctorate and helping me realize that I had contributions to make. As far as those who doubted my abilities, I simply focused on achieving my goals and let my accomplishments speak for themselves.

4. What advice do you have for young women who are aspiring to follow their dreams?

Focus on your goals. While there might be people who doubt your abilities or are surprised by your talents, you should NOT doubt or be surprised by your success. Don’t be afraid to speak up, although it is sometimes difficult to do so. In addition to developing a professional network, it is really important to develop a support network. Following dreams is never an easy path- in fact, at times, it may feel more like a nightmare than a dream—but perseverance pays off, and having the support to bolster your confidence when it is flagging is essential. Don’t let anyone tell you that you “can’t” do something. I have had students tell me that they are not “smart” enough to pass a science or math class, and then with a little guidance and time, I watched with joy when they proved themselves wrong and achieved the success they thought impossible.

5. As a woman in your position, how have you fought for equity in the workplace and for other women?

In 1998, I was the first woman hired in the Chemistry Department. At that time, there were no women in computer science or engineering. Now, there are women in all departments in Science, Engineering and Technology, an area where women are typically underrepresented. As dean and now as provost, I offer my ear to listen to the challenges that female faculty face, often juggling of the work/life balance, and offer my support and encouragement.

There is much more that I can do, and I am working with others to more systematically reach out to women on campus to hear their stories and identify ways to better support them.

6. Who was your role model and how did they change your life?

I had two aunts who lived very long lives. Eleanor Beyer died in early 2019 at the age of 100, and Doris Robsky died a few weeks ago at the age of 97. I often think of how much the world changed for women during their lifetimes. When Eleanor was born in 1918, women did not have the right to vote. When Doris graduated from college in 1945, it was unusual for women to even attend college. There were no female CEOs or CFOs. Running for national office? Unthinkable. Yet, Doris was a business major who pursued a career in Human Resources in New York City in the 1940’s—practically unheard of in those days. Despite prevailing societal expectations, Doris never married, focusing instead on her career, travel and the arts. Eleanor also graduated from college, later earned a master’s degree and was an English teacher for many years while raising two children. These two women were role models for me—women that pursued their interests and their dreams even when society demanded different roles for them. I don’t think I thought much about this as a young woman, but because of their experiences, my pathway felt really quite unremarkable.

In college and graduate school, I never had a female professor in math or science. In fact, as I think back over those years, I can not remember any female professors, although I did have a couple of female teaching assistants. Most of my professional role models have been men – and one that stands out is my graduate research advisor, Dr. Michel Sienko. Dr. Sienko was one of the few professors at Cornell that had a research group with a fairly even mix of male and female graduate students and post-doctoral fellows. He treated us like respected colleagues and taught us the importance of treating everyone well—whether it was a visiting scholar, the instrument repair guy, or a distressed student. He taught us that our research was dependent on everyone’s contributions; for example, without the guy who maintained the equipment, there would be no data, no discovery and no doctorates! His innate sense of fairness, inclusion, and respect made a lasting impression on me.

7. What is your hope for the next generation of women and girls?

My hope for the next generation of women is that the paths will have been forged, the doors opened, and the ceilings broken so that all women are able to pursue their dreams.