Hamline News

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'We're in this together’

By Julie Carroll

Students flock to Fayneese Miller like a celebrity as she walks across campus in late August. Everyone, it seems, wants to greet Hamline's new president, who appears just as happy to meet them.

Miller, who was dean of the College of Education and Social Services at the University of Vermont for the past 10 years, became the 20th president of Hamline University on July 1. She is the first African-American and the second woman president since Hamline was founded in 1854.

"Dr. Miller is a dynamic and inclusive leader with a strong commitment to diversity and deep experience in academic program development, fiscal management, and fundraising," says Bob Klas Jr., chair of Hamline's board of trustees. "She is a champion of collaborative governance and values voices of students, faculty, and staff."

From the day she was introduced to the Hamline community last spring, Miller has connected with students with her candid, genuine style. "What you see when I'm in front of people is who I am," she says. "I don't want to stand on ceremony. There is no me and them; it's us."

That collaborative spirit shines as she scoops ice cream and mingles with students at a mixer before the start of the semester.

On Old Main Mall, a student asks Miller to pose for a "selfie." Other students crowd behind them to be in the picture.

Later, in the Anderson Center, a football player stops to hug Miller. Another follows suit. Soon, she's swallowed up in a massive huddle as the rest of the team gathers around her for a group hug.


Standing up for justice

Miller was born and raised in Danville, Virginia, one of segregation's last strongholds during the 1960s. One of seven children of civil rights workers, Miller was exposed to the harsh realities of racial prejudice and segregation from a young age.

"Danville, Virginia, is viewed as the last capital of the Confederacy because Jefferson Davis was in Danville as the South was falling down and the North was taking over and winning the war," Miller says. "The reason I tell that story is because the building he was staying in became the public library, which was the building that I couldn't go to during my early years."

As a young child, Miller was denied access to the library near her home because of her race. Every day during the summers, she trekked miles to the "black library," where she found her "prizes": books. "When you're denied access to something, it becomes important to you," she says, "and reading became extremely important to me."

The library wasn't the only place Miller experienced hardship. She was one of the first black students to attend a desegregated high school, where tensions ran high. "Imagine growing up in Danville, Virginia, already know that you're at a disadvantage," she says. 'I went to high school with police officers lined up as we were walking in, with their belts off, buckles at the ready, in riot gear, with their dogs."

Such experiences might make a person bitter or resentful. They had a different effect on Miller.

"Those were defining moments for me in helping me understand and appreciate a sense of place, a sense of belongingness, and a sense of justice," she says. "I always said I have a right to do the kinds of things that I deserve to do, and that no one should be able to stand in my way. ...So I've always put myself in positions that might have been hard, but, in my mind, necessary. It might not have benefited me, but what about the people coming behind me? And not just kids of color, but all kids who saw someone taking a risk, saw someone standing up, saw someone who's willing to be counted. That's an important part of who I am."

Miller credits her late parents for instilling in her a strong sense of justice and courage. Her father was secretary of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and her mother marched for civil rights. Although her parents were denied many opportunities, they believed that education was the "great equalizer" for their children. Miller recalls her father reading encyclopedia articles to her and staying up late many nights to work on homework with her and her siblings at the dining room table.

Miller attended Hampton University, a predominantly black institution in Hampton, Virginia, where she earned her bachelor's degree in psychology. She holds master's and doctoral degrees in experimental psychology from Texas Christian University, where she was the first African-American woman to earn a PhD. She went on to complete post-doctoral work in applied social psychology at Yale University.


Servant leader

A social psychologist who specializes in the psycho-social development of adolescents, Miller comes to Hamline with 30 years of academic and higher education leadership experience. For 20 years, she served on the faculty at Brown University, where she was the first African-American woman to achieve tenure, the first coordinator of education studies, and the founding chairperson of ethnic studies. At the University of Vermont, the graduate education program under her leadership improved its U.S. News and World Report ranking by more than 75 places.

She has authored or co-authored seven books, served on numerous boards and committees, and lectured at institutions throughout the world.

Miller and her husband, Bob Biral, a high school English teacher who also taught in the Department of Defense's Naval Academy Prep School, have been married for 30 years. Their son, David Biral, 22, is a music producer in New York City.

Miller says she was drawn to Hamline because of its commitment to social justice, high-impact learning, and academic collaborations. She was also impressed to learn that the first two graduates of Hamline were women. "That said a lot to me about this institution," she says.

Diversity on campus will be one of her focuses. "I'm going to talk about inclusion and excellence and how we need to make sure that we're including all people," she says. "I really want to make sure that all of our young people have opportunities, and I'd love to see Hamline play a role in closing the achievement gap."

Miller describes herself as a servant leader. "In my opinion, I've been put on this earth to do good for others," she says.

In her first year as president, Miller will have many demands on her time, but a high priority will be getting to know people and building relationships.

"As a new president, you've got to take the heels off - and I'm someone who loves heels - put on the flat shoes, and walk the campus. By getting to know each other, it will become clear what my vision should be. It should be a collaborative vision. We're in this together, and that's the way in which I want to lead Hamline."


IN HER OWN WORDS

On Reading

“I love to read mysteries written by women with women as the protagonists.” Favorite authors include Janet Ivanovich, Langston Hughes, and Jane Austen. “Pride and Prejudice is one of my all-time favorite books. I love the books from that time period. ... I prefer to read books on my iPad now because it’s easy; it’s not heavy. ... But I own a lot of first editions.”

Recent Read

Reframing Academic Leadership, by Lee G. Bolman and Joan V. Gallos

Proudest Achievement

“When I was at Brown University in 1991, I started what I called a Research Apprenticeship Program for high school students to bring them to the university to teach them how to be researchers. While they were going out and learning how to do research, they were getting information on applying to college, applying for financial aid, what you need to do in order to move from the classes you’re currently taking in high school to some of the AP classes. It was a very diverse group of young people, and we were really beginning to put into their heads the notion of college. ... What I’m most proud about with that program is 97 percent of my young people went on to college.”

Advice to Hamline Students

“Believe in yourself. Believe in what’s possible. And, do what you think is the right thing to do."


THIS OR THAT? 

INTROVERT or EXTROVERT?

"I'm an introvert, but very few people know that I'm an introvert. I will go home on the weekend, and I will crawl into a corner and read a book. But I'm in a very extroverted role, and I can be just as extroverted as the next person if I have to be."

SPRING or FALL?

"I love the fall for the color of the leaves. I love the spring because it means I can get on the golf course again. It’s a way in which I decompress, and it’s just relaxing for me. I love the smell of spring, when the grass is growing again.”

CAUTIOUS or RISK-TAKER?

“I will take risks—calculated risks, informed risks.”

CLASSICAL or ROCK?

“I would say I’m probably more of a rock music person because of the stations I listen to in my car. But I love classical music too.”

DOGS or CATS?

“I’m a dog person, not a cat person. I have a bichon frise named Champ.”

INDOORS or OUTDOORS?

“The outdoor stuff that I do is basically golf. Indoors, I read. So it depends.”

SWEET or SALTY?

“I like popcorn. It’s my favorite food.”

PAST or FUTURE?

“I argue that there’s no future without the past.”