By Matthew Early
Though Women’s History Month has reached its end, the Tiffin University community has never needed an excuse to celebrate its treasured and diverse members – the many accomplished female leaders on campus being no exception. The Dragon Family takes pride in celebrating its commitment to diversity and equity year-round, not just for the 31 days of March. With this in mind, it would be a crime to continue this series of blogs without amplifying the voice of TU’s first woman-president, Dr. Lillian Schumacher. It was a pleasure to learn more of her incredible journey of grit and perseverance, and it remains an honor to highlight these still-present barriers to equality.
Conversations such as this are admittedly uncomfortable, but steps toward change are never pleasant. If everyone stays silent, nobody learns – a sentiment President Schumacher agrees with wholeheartedly. When asked if she would rather not address certain topics, she replied with a resounding “No. Ask me anything,” she said, simply. “It’s all part of my story, and I want others to learn from it.”
For President Schumacher, this desire to educate others began very early in life, though as a child and young adult, she never imagined she would be doing so through the platform of university president.
“I always knew I wanted to teach in some capacity; I felt that kind of work would be purposeful, worthwhile,” she said. “My upbringing also instilled in me that I could become whoever I wanted to become, and that being a woman or coming from another country does not ever justify inferior treatment. At the time, I just wasn’t sure how to combine these two passions.”
Prior to her birth, President Schumacher’s parents immigrated to the United States from Syria, and she spent many of her formative years moving back and forth between the states and Saudi Arabia’s capital city, Riyadh, where her family resided.
“I’m no stranger to prejudice,” she remarked. “Not only was I a girl, but I didn’t look like everyone else in my American classes. I had dark hair and eyes, a different complexion, and this in itself made me an easy target for ridicule. My Syrian culture was also much more conservative than western culture. Women and girls were expected to primarily live maternal lifestyles. Furthermore, when I lived in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, women were expected to cover themselves from head to toe to remain ‘decent’ in public, and weren’t even allowed to drive or sit in the front seats of cars. Even as a child and young woman, this didn’t sit well with me.”
Originally, President Schumacher thought she could find fulfillment in the corporate world, and majored in economics during her undergraduate work at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania. Upon graduation, she secured a position working at a Fortune 500 corporation, yet quickly realized this was not the right path for her, citing a specific reason why.
“The job paid really well but I found out after about a week on the job that a male colleague who started in the exact same management training program as me, was making $2000 more than me, for no reason, except perhaps I did not negotiate my starting pay. That made me mad, no doubt, but I stayed on for five years, realizing along the way, pretty quickly, that the position was also not one where I felt I was doing a job that mattered or that added value or purpose to who I was.”
Upon realizing the need for a career change, President Schumacher set her sights on a new path, never forgetting the formative experience.
“Working in the business world really opened my eyes and for this reason, I don’t regret it,” she said. “I realized women have been undervalued and underserved professionally for so long, that when one of us reaches a position of success, insecurity often rears its ugly head. This needed and still needs to change. I knew that whatever my next move was, I wanted to help women and other minorities feel comfortable being their authentic selves both in and out of the workplace.”
President Schumacher went on to work in student affairs at Heidelberg College (now Heidelberg University) before moving to Fort Wayne, Indiana to pursue a faculty position at the University of Saint Francis and then Indiana Institute of Technology. Eventually, a dean position with the Tiffin University School of Business became available. Working her way up the proverbial ladder, she later became the Vice President for Academic Affairs, before transitioning to the position of Interim President, and finally, securing the position of President. Throughout this process, she continued her education, ultimately earning two masters’ degrees and a doctorate from Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio.
“Through it all, I knew I wanted to leave a legacy,” she remembered. “I wanted to create a laboratory of learning, a platform that would continue drawing attention to and providing solutions for cultural and gender inequality long after my time. That’s how the Celebrating Cultural Uniqueness at Tiffin University movement was born.”
According to President Schumacher, there is still much work to be done in the way of achieving true workplace equality. Even now as the leader of an institution, she still experiences unfair treatment far more often than one might think.
“Oh, people definitely still undermine and discredit my achievements and ideas,” she stated. “I’ll be in a conference room full of men and one of them will speak up with the same thought I shared five minutes earlier, and everyone will praise him for it, as if they didn’t even hear me. I don’t think they even realize they are doing this. In these instances, I make sure to advocate for myself, always.”
Thankfully, she has developed several robust networks of support over the years and praises each of them for helping her grow and remain centered in all endeavors.
“I am a member of two niche groups – one for university presidents and another for female university presidents, specifically,” she said. “These people understand the rigors of leadership and help guide me as I conduct my daily work. I also offer guidance with regard to their respective institutions in turn. Most importantly, we hold each other accountable. We remind each other that you can’t pour from an empty cup and maintaining a healthy work-life balance is crucial. Any job in leadership can be suffocating and draining if you don’t prioritize your wellness.”
Looking to the future, President Schumacher offered some insightful musings about the necessary role women play in the workplace, and what needs to be done to continue this fight for their equitable treatment.
“I’ve experienced it firsthand,” she remarked, “and women can be each other’s worst enemy. One of my female supervisors early on in my career was awful to me,” she remembered. “I didn’t understand it at first, until a friend told me it was because I was the only other woman in our office and that she saw me as competition. She wanted to be the ‘queen bee,’ and I remember thinking what a toxic and counterproductive mentality that was. As women in the workplace, we should be each other’s biggest supporters; we have to lift each other up, not tear each other down. When one of us succeeds, this is good news for all of us. I knew I couldn’t work in a setting where this was not the norm. The ‘queen bee’ mentality has absolutely no place in circles committed to growth and women can be each other’s biggest saboteurs if their priorities aren’t straight. Female professionals are, in my experience, the most passionate and dedicated employees, leaders and mentors, but only if they feel confident and if they feel valued. More than anything else, I just want women and all minorities to feel they can be their truest, most genuine selves at work.”