Women lead three of the four schools and colleges at Rutgers University–Camden, which has the highest percentage of women faculty members of all of Rutgers campuses. Such strong female leadership, according to Rutgers–Camden Chancellor Antonio D. Tillis, is essential on a campus where women make up 60 percent of the student population. “It cannot be overstated how important it is for people, especially young adults, to see people who look like them set goals and achieve them,” Chancellor Tillis said. “Representation matters.”
As part of its celebration of Women’s History Month, Rutgers–Camden invited its three female deans — Monica Adya, dean of the Rutgers School of Business–Camden; Kimberly Mutcherson, co-dean of the Rutgers Law School; and Donna Nickitas, dean of the Rutgers School of Nursing–Camden — to share their personal and professional journeys, particularly the inspiration and support they received in overcoming gender stereotypes and institutional biases.
Dean Monica Adya, Rutgers School of Business–Camden
Dean Adya set her sights on becoming a leader in technology after discovering how much she enjoyed coding as an undergraduate in India. While she was pursuing her master of science degree in computer systems management in the U.S., two professors separately commented on her analytical mindset and communication skills and urged her to go on for her Ph.D. “I fell in love with academia,” she said.
Adya’s mother was her role model. Her mom hadn’t attended college before marrying, but she pressed her three daughters to earn advanced degrees in their chosen fields. Adya recalled her saying, “My daughters will be no less than any son." Adya’s mom enrolled in college when Adya was 14 and went on to earn a master’s degree and become a school principal. Her mother was committed to social mobility through education and “in her own way, she transformed the lives of so many women,” Adya said. (Adya and her sisters all hold doctorates.)
Two colleagues at Marquette University in Wisconsin, where Adya worked before coming to Rutgers, paved the way for her and other female faculty members. Because of the “bold steps they took, my life as a professional woman was made better,” she said. “They changed norms in ways that were necessary.” Although her mentors are retired, Adya said she still calls them for guidance. A third role model is a man, a former dean who gently nudged her forward in moments of self-doubt “without making me feel less in any way,” she said.
As she climbed the career ladder, Adya said she relied on self-reflection and the support from role models. “That gave me inner strength to put my foot forward when the right opportunity came,” she said.
There were hurdles along the way. Adya recalled being rejected for a Ph.D. program in the early 1990s. The man who interviewed her questioned her ability to complete the program as an Indian woman. More than two decades later, as she applied for leadership roles, she again experienced bias. “You can’t let those stereotypes stop you,” she said.
Societal expectations can also be barriers to women’s professional growth. When her two children were young, those expectations “weighed on me,” she said. “I am lucky to have a very supportive spouse” and family members willing to help when needed.
Adya said she had to overcome hesitancy in applying for positions when she didn’t meet 100 percent of the position’s criteria. Most male colleagues, she felt, were confident seeking advancement even if they partially met the requirements.
What Adya has learned is, “The power of where you want to be and what you want to do resides within you.”
“The power of where you want to be and what you want to do resides within you.”
–Dean Monica Adya
Dean Kimberly Mutcherson, Rutgers Law School
From a young age, Dean Mutcherson wanted to be a civil rights lawyer to right injustices in the world. Her aunt was a lawyer and later a judge, and at law school, two of Mutcherson’s professors and the dean of students were Black women.
“I had these amazing titans who were in the law school, so I got a sense of what it was like to be a Black woman in law,” she said. Those women also faced biases and treatment that she said male colleagues were not subjected to.
Growing up in Silver Spring, Maryland, Mutcherson said her mother, a nurse, and father, a doctor, invested in her and her sister’s educations to help them overcome barriers they would face as Black women. “They wanted us to have credentials, life experiences — and armor,” she said.
After law school, Mutcherson worked for a nonprofit in Manhattan with like-minded female attorneys. The only downside was the salary. She intended to get a side teaching gig to supplement her income, but landed a full-time position at New York University School of Law in their lawyering program. “I consider myself an accidental law professor,” she said.
Returning to the law school environment also meant a return to a white, male-dominated workplace, where some “were reluctant to let go of their power.”
Becoming a dean had not been a passion, but Mutcherson saw it as a way of increasing diversity in the upper echelons of academia. Mutcherson is the first woman, the first Black person and the first member of the LGBT community to serve as dean at Rutgers Law School.
"Students need to see people who look like them being successful,” she said. “Being first in anything can be a really intimidating role to step into,” but doing it shows “you are a person who cares about moving the needle forward.” Men, too, need to see powerful women in leadership roles so “they can recognize women are capable of doing this work.”
The job hasn’t been easy, especially during the pandemic. Mutcherson has experienced pushback from some male faculty members. “It can be demoralizing,” she said. Mutcherson said she is comforted that there are now more women and people of color serving as U.S. law school deans than ever before. She sees the nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as the first Black female Supreme Court nominee as a big step forward.
Mutcherson, too, feels supported by her fellow deans at Rutgers–Camden. “It’s pretty great to be at an institution where there’s been strong leadership by women,” she said.
Her advice to women is to surround themselves with a supportive community, to not be afraid to be first, and “to take the job seriously, but not yourself too seriously,” she said.
“It’s pretty great to be at an institution where there’s been strong leadership by women.”
–Dean Kimberly Mutcherson
Dean Donna Nickitas, Rutgers School of Nursing–Camden
Faith, family and food were the creed for Dean Nickitas’ traditional Italian-American upbringing in Brooklyn. Her most indelible childhood memories are of strong women sitting around the kitchen table, dipping homemade biscotti into their coffee as they chatted.
“I learned as a young girl that my voice mattered,” Nickitas said. Her father urged her to become whatever she wanted. At age 10, she took up the accordion for several years. By 14, though, her interest turned to volunteerism.
She became a candy striper the first summer break from her Catholic high school — a seminal moment. Working alongside nurses in crisp white uniforms, “I was so impressed with the way they interacted with patients, I thought, I want to be a nurse,” she recalled.
Nickitas served three years active duty in the U.S. Air Force Nursing Corps, after completing her bachelor’s degree in nursing. She served another 15 years in the reserves before retiring as a major. “A career in the academy is where I found my purpose and passion for nursing.”
Nickitas used the G.I. Bill to earn a master’s degree in education and soon got on the academic track, teaching at universities and earning a doctorate in nursing sciences. “I’ve never looked back,” she said.
At Rutgers–Camden, she enjoys working alongside two other female deans. “Collectively, I do think we have a different perspective as women,” Nickitas said. “We listen astutely with a very distinctive emotional intelligence. As women in leadership positions, we understand we didn’t get here alone. We’re where we are because of the work of our foremothers.”
Challenges, like unequal pay for women, persist, as does implicit bias, she said. Nickitas recommended women develop a circle of advisers and a variety of mentors, and join professional organizations to make connections — and contributions. Taking that advice allowed her to become an author and editor, and led her to serve on a number of boards of nonprofits.
“We have to be role models for the young,” Nickitas said.
“As women in leadership positions, we understand we didn’t get here alone. We’re where we are because of the work of our foremothers.”
–Dean Donna Nickitas
Creative Design by Karaamat Abdullah
Edited by Sam Starnes