Mantella empowers, diversifies university leadership

August 31, 2021 (Volume 45, Number 1)
Article by Mary Eilleen Lyon

Philomena V. Mantella’s tenure as president has been marked by tremendous appreciation of the essence of Grand Valley and the tremendous energy to innovate and engage with others at all levels of education. And remarkably, the massive presence of a global pandemic did not derail her focus. She has worked to include more faculty, staff and administrative leaders into university leadership creating a  diversified, talented and motivated team to plan for the future and do the work to make it happen. 

Mantella knows a key to success in any organization is the team. As she enters her third year as president, she looks at leadership opportunities at the university and believes they reflect her goals of broadening and deepening those seated around leadership tables and allowing more voices to be heard.

“My basic operating principle is that we want to invite more people into leadership,” said Mantella. “We want to say ‘yes’ to everyone who wants to lead at an enterprise level. That is reflected in the changes I’ve made to what we now call the President’s Council. Grand Valley is filled with talented, creative people and we want to give a pathway to those who want to contribute at a higher level.” 

In the past two years, Mantella expanded what was called the President’s Cabinet from 11 people, primarily the vice presidents and a few associate vice presidents, to the much larger President’s Council, which currently has 37 members, including academic deans, leadership of the University Academic Senate, co-chairs of Reach Higher 2025 and four Faculty Fellows.

“As a dean, I’m thrilled the academic colleges are at the table,” said Mark Schaub, dean of Brooks College of Interdisciplinary Studies. “The new President’s Council better represents the work of the institution. Having deans and faculty members mix with vice presidents and leaders from other units will help us in decision making. It forces us to look at the university as a larger ecosystem, and we all have to consider other units and the total plan for the future of GVSU.”

Schaub is also a co-chair of the Reach Higher 2025 Steering Committee, along with Janet Winter, associate dean for Undergraduate Programs in the Kirkhof College of Nursing, and Tara Bivens, senior manager of benefits in Human Resources. Bivens said she is grateful to be tapped for this leadership role.

“The direction the president is moving by adding new voices is truly appreciated,” said Bivens. “I love the way she is broadening leadership across campus to reach the untapped talent here. I am utilizing my critical thinking skills more now than in my 17 years of service. Before I was co-chair of Reach Higher 2025, I felt my suggestions stayed in my department, and now I know my voice is being heard at all levels. My job now is to communicate with everyone on campus that they are part of our planning and our future. It can be daunting to look at a whole strategic plan, but I tell people, just look at what you can do, then what your department can do and then how the whole university can work together.”

The burst of energy and optimism about the university’s future was exactly Mantella’s intention when creating new leadership opportunities. She recently appointed four new faculty fellows to work on university initiatives with senior leadership.

“Being a Presidential Fellow is an honor as well as a significant professional opportunity,” said Robert Talbert, professor of mathematics and faculty fellow. “The position will allow me to take some of the ideas I've long held about innovation in teaching and learning and build those into reality on a large scale. As part of the President's Council, I am able to connect that vision with those of others, especially those outside my area, who I might not otherwise meet. We're all working together on the same big, bold vision for GVSU, and it's tremendously exciting and energizing.” 

Felix Ngassa, professor of chemistry and chair of the University Academic Senate, said he appreciates the opportunity to serve on the President’s Council because it allows the faculty to be involved early in key decisions. 

“The faculty voice is incorporated early on as we work collaboratively with the administration to realize the values, mission and vision of the university,” said Ngassa. “The involvement of the leaders of faculty senate is a recognition of the important role of faculty in addressing the strategic issues and challenges facing our university. We are able to share the perspective of faculty and hopefully land at a place where there is common ground. Sometimes compromises have to be made, and this is the essence of shared governance. Ultimately, we are members of the same team – the Laker Team.”

Mantella also has been resolute about increasing diversity across the university and has been leading the way on her executive team and next level leaders, as people have retired and vacancies need to be filled.

“We continue to evolve to meet the needs of Grand Valley today and to make sure we’re positioned for the future,” said Mantella. “We welcome all voices, backgrounds and experiences from those who want to do the work with us. This truly is an exciting time, and to me, 'reach higher together' is not simply a slogan. It’s a motivator for the team leading and building the future of GVSU.”

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This article was last edited on August 31, 2021 at 3:20 p.m.

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