Simmons’ Drinan on Financing Education, Fighting Cancer and Being Born Female

Simmons University President Helen Drinan is an influential force for the advancement of women, health care and access to education. MASCO is pleased to share this brief interview with the popular college president as she enters her 11th year of leadership. 

MASCO: It was recently announced that Simmons will transition from a college to a university. What’s the significance of this change and why was it important to accomplish?


HD: Simmons has indeed transitioned from college to university status as of September 1, 2018.  We have been considering this change for some time.  We have actually met the definition of a university, that is, an institution with undergraduate, master’s degrees and at least two doctoral programs for a very long time, but there did not seem a compelling reason to make this change until now.  Our growth through online graduate professional education combined with our redesigned academic structure with four new colleges convinced us that it was time to name ourselves what we have been and truly are...a university.

MASCO: During your recent health battle with cancer, you were very public and open about your diagnosis and treatment because, as was written in The Boston Globe, “to share what (I’ve) learned about an affliction that affects roughly one in eight women in the U.S. On a mostly female campus, how could I do otherwise?” Nearly four years later, do you feel that we’ve moved the needle a bit towards greater awareness? 

HD: I do feel awareness of breast cancer has grown, but not as rapidly as possible to save more lives. Breast cancer is a complex of different diseases, some of which remain very hard to treat successfully, and I worry that we lose sight of that as the visibility of breast cancer treatment success grows.  I advocate always for self-awareness, vigilance about health, and all tools for early detection, especially regular mammograms, which I would not have had in time if my doctor followed government guidelines. I also am conscious of the fact that men get breast cancer, and we never really talk about that.

One year after my breast cancer diagnosis, I was diagnosed with endometrial cancer and treated for that.  I was decidedly not public about that until well after treatment, and there were two reasons for that:  I was truly exhausted by being a cancer patient, and more importantly, the reaction of even close friend, particularly male, to a gynecological cancer was very obviously uncomfortable.  When Simmons alumna Gwen Ifill died of endometrial cancer, I felt a new impetus to discuss my second cancer, and I now talk about it freely.  Cancer is a devious and deadly disease, and not talking about it perpetuates great suffering.

Gwen Ifill at Simmons' Commencement 

MASCO: During your tenure, the LMA has grown exponentially from approximately 44,000 in 2008 to over 57,000 today. What do you consider to be the greatest benefits of this growth? The most challenging elements of the growth?

HD: I think it is energizing and exciting to build a workforce in the dynamic neighborhood we have in the LMA.  The growth creates a sense of future possibilities, and the kind of neighbors we attract here adds to the luster of Boston’s reputation as an intellectual and innovative hub for the Commonwealth, the United States and the World.  The downside of course is how to ensure the problems associated with growth are managed.  That is a concern everywhere growth is substantive, and we are fortunate that all of us who work here understand the need to collaborate on these challenges.

MASCO: You’ve been president of Simmons for 10 years now. What have been the significant changes you’ve seen in the last decade in higher education, especially as it pertains to single sex education? Why is single-sex education important?  

HD: I believe that the two most significant changes in higher education over the last ten years are the growth of applied technology and the cost of an education. We are seeing a proliferation of technology in classrooms and with distance education, and the change is never over. I believe we're only seeing the early impacts today. The growing challenge of financing an education is the other significant change I've seen over the last decade. Today's financial model is not sustainable.

The single sex education landscape has changed significantly as well. There used to be more than 200 women's colleges in America, and today there are fewer than 40. Women's colleges used to be the best choice for highly competitive women to enter higher education, when they were not admissible to all male institutions. When those institutions’s became co-ed, many women who previously might have chosen a women’s college matriculated there.  Now of course we know that women are graduating from higher education programs at a rate higher than men, a fact consistent with the opportunity for advancement women have been seeking for generations.  We know now that education opportunity alone has not been sufficient to give women parity in the workplace, and as we see the reality of women’s status through such movements as #metoo, the case for single gender education rises again.

The advantage of single sex education remains the same:  building confidence and competence.  Women have four years to build a repertoire of skills without the competition or distraction of social elements. They get repeated practice in critical thinking, in speaking up and speaking out, in advancing ideas, and in group leadership, all of which are huge advantage as they go out into the world. These attributes become second nature, a great preparation for the challenges of today.

MASCO: As a strong female leader, what’s your reaction to the #MeToo movement? Have you experienced harassment in your career? What’s your advice for young women entering a male dominated workplace? 

HD: I am grateful whenever the conversation about the reality of the disadvantaged status of women is public.  The world is nowhere near a level playing field, and being born female puts you at risk the moment you see the first light of day.  I am convinced that the problem and its resolution lie in our understanding of our culture. That means that we all have a lot of work to do.  I truly believe that adherence to the Golden Rule- “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”- which has an equivalent in every major world religion- would go a long way to correcting injustices.

MASCO: Advice you wish you’d been given when you were in your early 20’s and leaving college? 

HD: When people tell you you can do anything you are willing to really work hard for, believe them.  Do not wait for success- know it is yours if you are ready to give it your all.