Texas Woman’s senior Jennifer Romero landed the internship of her dreams when she worked two summers with Dallas-based LATINA Style magazine, conducting research and data analysis and ironing out logistics for a national conference in Washington, D.C. The networking and mentoring she gained from her professors helped make Romero a shoo-in for the job. 

Three hundred miles south, in San Antonio, Colette Shrader’s business making prosthetic body parts—such as eyes, ears and noses—received a major boost through a $10,000 grant from Texas Woman’s Center for Women Entrepreneurs that supported her company when it was struggling during the pandemic. The grant was one of 100 awarded to small, women-owned businesses in the state that encountered hardship in 2020 because of COVID-19.

Romero and Shrader have never met—and they work in distinctly different fields—but their common Texas Woman’s network has been critical to their professional growth. It’s the kind of influence Texas Woman’s has had on people’s lives for more than a century. 

Now the university is preparing to scale its impact on Texas in an even bigger way.

A HISTORY-MAKING NEW SYSTEM 

A new Texas law passed in summer 2021 established Texas Woman’s as the state’s seventh public university system and the first in the nation with a woman-focused mission. 

While the university still must contend with organizational and operational restructuring as it transitions to a system, Texas Woman’s is poised to expand programming, accelerate community and corporate partnerships, elevate philanthropy and have a greater role in preparing Texas’ workforce.

“The mission of Texas Woman’s remains the same—we are still about transforming lives, cultivating leaders and inspiring excellence in an inclusive, diverse environment—but now we have a bigger and better platform from which to achieve that,” said Chancellor Carine Feyten, whose role as president of the Denton-based university will remain in place even after the other two locations hire leaders and establish independent status. “This elevates Texas Woman’s stature as a university system committed to developing women leaders in business, health, education, science, the arts and public service.” 

Perhaps the most significant structural change will be the addition of new leadership at the Dallas and Houston campuses, which will allow those institutions to operate with greater independence and forge corporate and community partnerships of their own, Feyten said. Although it still may take years for the new leadership to come on board, becoming a system is a major step toward reaching that goal.

TIMED RIGHT FOR WOMEN 

The timing for this scale-up could not be better, some academic experts say, because the pandemic created widespread economic turmoil that was especially disadvantageous to women. 

In September of 2020 alone, four times as many women as men dropped out of the U.S. workforce, according to federal labor statistics. The toll on working mothers was particularly evident, as strains on the child care system became more acute.

That’s why woman-focused universities—with their unique environments that prime women to succeed—are needed more than ever.

“Women’s universities and colleges are intentional about helping students find their voice, speak up and advocate for themselves and for change,” said Emerald Archer, Ph.D., executive director of the Women’s College Coalition, a collaboration of higher education institutions in the United States and Canada. “And importantly, women’s colleges have a strength and focus when it comes to creating social mobility for women in the most at-risk populations.”

THE DRIVE TO DREAM BIGGER 

It’s imperative that institutions focus on women’s leadership skills, which builds a path to C-suite careers, said Mary Anne Alhadeff, executive director of TWU’s Jane Nelson Institute for Women’s Leadership. 

The institute oversees three centers aimed at increasing women’s roles in business and civic leadership. With Texas Woman’s operating under a structure that encourages more partnerships, philanthropy and programming, the new system will produce even more opportunities for women in the labor market, she said.

“Both men and women aspire to become executives, but far fewer women believe they will achieve this goal,” Alhadeff said. “Women’s leadership programs provide the critical education women need to build their confidence and attain those top positions.”

The state-wide network of women associated with the institute can pay great dividends. TWU helps women build a network of peers and mentors that will be beneficial long after they graduate, she said.

“The evolving work environment offers great opportunity for women to assume leadership positions,” Alhadeff added, “provided they are prepared to do so.”

 

SHAPING THE VISION:

Questions Answered by Chancellor Carine M. Feyten

What was the driver behind becoming a system? What’s the why?

An important why is being able to better respond to the local communities in Dallas and Houston. These are different cultures and different communities. So how can we offer programs that are of interest and needed in those communities—but also build partnerships with local entities like boards, community colleges, hospitals or other agencies?

We already have three distinct campuses in three geographically dispersed regions. We’re different from a university that might have a few branch campuses. Becoming a system is formalizing how most people already think of us.

So what’s the potential for growth? 

With the population growth and demographics in Texas, universities have to pivot to meet the needs of the various people who want to be educated. We have that imperative, especially when we look at who we serve—mostly women, a very diverse student body and those who qualify for federal student aid. That is a growing slice of the population in Texas.

But “growth” does not only apply to increasing enrollment. We can grow in research funding. We can grow in philanthropic investments. The best direction for us is to grow in all directions.

How will this help the workforce?
The economy and the market really are desperate for many of our graduates, especially in the health-related fields. But even sectors such as technology, cybersecurity and fields we haven’t ventured into—like aviation and engineering—need more women leaders with the required skills. The potential is enormous.

What’s an example of a financial benefit of becoming a system?
The philanthropic potential in Dallas and Houston is huge. Obviously donors want to give to an institution that is strong in their city. Therefore, in terms of philanthropic corporations, foundations, alumni and community supporters, system status will definitely raise our profile. 

What will you look for in the new campus leaders?
This is the best way I can describe it: somebody who has fire in the belly. Somebody who can be a champion for those campuses. Somebody who wants to build, to grow, to give the campus its own personality and culture. And somebody, obviously, interested in building partnerships with outside groups, whether it’s hospitals or other agencies.

How can we pull off a project that mixes bold vision with so many tiny details?
President Kennedy did not know how he would put a man on the moon in 10 years, but the endeavor to do so made the U.S. much stronger as a nation. The country had something to work toward. And similarly, there’s much work to do in order for us to establish Dallas and Houston as independent universities. But the path there is ripe with opportunities that will make Texas stronger—and our mission more valued than ever before.

You know what? The sky’s the “limit.”