By FIU News and Communications staff
As Women’s History Month comes to a close, FIU has plenty of remarkable females to credit for its success. The individuals featured here—just a handful of the many outstanding movers and shakers who have passed our way—each contributed their best to the university, never considering their gender as a factor in getting the important work done. Nonetheless, the women of FIU, like their counterparts elsewhere, did face challenges as they took on positions or entered fields once exclusively the domain of men, alongside whom they have worked collaboratively ever since.
As a founding member of the education faculty and, later, a respected administrator who served FIU for 35 years, Judy Blucker broke new ground both inside and outside of the classroom. While the university opened with a handful of intercollegiate men’s sports programs ready to compete, there were no female counterparts. Blucker, a former collegiate athlete and coach, wondered why FIU had no women’s sports—and then took action to change that. Aware that Title IX legislation made equal opportunity the law, Blucker discussed the situation with the administration and helped launch women’s varsity sports at FIU, even coaching the inaugural volleyball and softball teams. “I was not thinking about what I could accomplish but more concerned with these young women and making sure they got the same opportunities as the men did,” Blucker said. “I assumed it should be fair play for everybody.”
Betty Laird Perry arrived at FIU in 1969 and, like her husband, founding president Charles Perry, assumed a brand-new position: first lady of a university years away from enrolling students. During that planning phase, when the campus featured only a small decommissioned air-traffic control tower, Mrs. Perry opened the couple’s private home to host the governor of Florida, numerous legislators and the chancellor of the SUS, all keenly interested in the progress of Florida’s newest public university. Mother to two youngsters, she found herself advising would-be employees, down for interviews, who looked to her for guidance at a time when few outsiders knew much about South Florida. “I had a lot to learn, and I was probably pretty naïve,” she says today, “but I loved Miami, and I loved the people.” Compounding her already-hectic life, Mrs. Perry undertook coursework to earn a BS in nursing from FIU in 1974. “It was just such an exciting time,” she recalls of the seven years she and her husband spent getting FIU off the ground. “There were so many frontiers to conquer. It was the best time of my life.”
Rosa Jones’ legacy as FIU’s steadfast and most respected student advocate is unmatched. A founding faculty member, Jones retired in 2012 after 40 years of service to the university. In that time, she was a social work professor, department chair, dean and vice president of Student Affairs. With each step in her career, Jones helped lay the foundation of the university. A champion of women and minorities, she never lost sight of FIU’s original mission: an institution that was responsive to the needs of a diverse, rapidly growing community. Jones made relationships with students her priority, and says she’s proud FIU has remained committed to providing access to a high-quality education. She initiated pivotal student-focused initiatives at FIU such as Freshman Convocation, a model for increasing the ratio of academic advisors, the Common Reading program, parent programs and an expansion of student facilities. “I still get chills at graduation watching students achieve their goals,” she says. “The success of students are my proudest achievements. I’d be truly comfortable and satisfied if people characterized me as being responsive to students. I would hope that they’d believe that no matter what position I’ve held, I’ve always been an advocate for students. Period.”
Lillian Lodge Kopenhaver arrived at FIU in 1973 as coordinator of student activities and helped create the Student Government Association, jumpstarted publication of the student newspaper and worked on plans for construction of what is today the Graham Center. “I love challenges, and I love the opportunity to try new things and go in a new path to explore new possibilities,” said Kopenhaver, still at FIU today. A founder of the university’s original department of communication, which evolved into the School of Journalism and Mass Communications, Kopenhaver served as its dean from 2003 to 2011 and soon after made an exemplary financial contribution in support of the Lillian Lodge Kopenhaver Center for the Advancement of Women in Communication at FIU. “One of the reasons I made a pledge to the university was to give back and to help women achieve the pinnacle of their dreams,” she said. “I love working with students. It’s a joy for me to help them achieve their goals and their dreams.”
When Cindy Russo retired after 36 years at FIU, her legacy as the most successful coach in the university’s history and one of the great women’s basketball coaches of all time was clear. Under her leadership, the Panthers made six trips to the NCAA Tournament, won eight regular season conference titles and seven tournament crowns, and had a run of 22 consecutive winning seasons from 1981-2003. Russo called it a career in January 2015 with 707 wins (667 of them at FIU, the others during a two-year stint at Lamar University), which ranks 15th all-time in Division I women’s basketball history. “From the time I came to FIU, the university always had a lot of good energy – people were excited to be here. I had the chance to come in and make a mark on this university,” she said. “It’s a priceless feeling, being able to make a difference in these young women’s lives and seeing them go out and be successful and positive contributors in the world.”
Figure that it would take a pioneer in the study of computers—a woman who earned a tech degree in an era when few people even knew what a computer was—to launch FIU into the world of online teaching. A rare female when she entered the field, Joyce Elam rode her foresight to the top. In 1990 she came to FIU as the James L. Knight Eminent Scholar in Management Information Systems after teaching at the Harvard Business and Wharton schools. In 1997 she assumed the college’s deanship, a post she held for 15 years, during which time she founded the executive MBA program, oversaw expansion and established a pilot program of 10 internet-based courses. “The infrastructure for online education was very weak,” she says, looking back. “But I could see a future for teaching online, and I wanted us to be a leader in that space.” That ambition led President Mark Rosenberg to name her vice provost for FIU Online, a position that allowed her to set the stage for the university’s growth in web-based education. (More than 21,000 FIU students are enrolled in online courses, and more than 4,000 are enrolled in fully online degree programs.) Today the innovator is using her knowledge of information technology to develop a new database in support of the university’s strategic plan.
Judith Stiehm is the only woman to have held the job of provost at FIU, a fact that also made her the first female provost in SUS history. She arrived in 1987 from the University of Southern California and moved FIU forward on many fronts during her three years in the top academic post. She appointed three vice provosts, named FIU’s first two eminent scholars and helped oversee the implementation of several master’s and doctoral degree programs. She also oversaw the revision and approval of the faculty tenure and promotion guidelines and procedures, completion of the 18-month-long university reaffirmation of accreditation self study, and a positive review by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools site-visit committee. Today she is a full-time professor of political science and working on a biography of former Attorney General Janet Reno. “I came from USC, a very old, very well established institution. I knew it would be crazy at FIU, and it was,” said Stiehm, who added that she loved the adventure of those early, formative years. “The university has matured, of course, but back then it was a bit like a frontier.”
Linda Agustin Simunek didn’t worry about the lack of perfect facilities in which to teach nursing students. The founding dean of the School of Nursing—FIU’s earlier, smaller nursing program had been discontinued—arrived in 1982 and cared only about the quality of education. “We started out in a trailer, and I remember having to use an outhouse,” she says of the days when a proper space, then at BBC, was still under construction. “For our first lab day, I had to get the linens from my home. The students learned to make beds with rainbow designs.” Despite those little challenges, Simunek “always knew the school would flourish.” An immigrant herself, from the Philippines, she understood the importance of cultural diversity and made it a priority to recruit and retain a diverse body of multicultural students and faculty. Case in point: She developed and implemented a program to help RNs from Cuba apply for licensure in Florida even when obtaining their nursing school records was all but impossible. “I am most proud of having produced successful FIU nursing alumni,” she says, “many of whom now serve in leadership positions in health care facilities and in nursing schools in Florida and throughout the nation.”
In 1981 Nancy Olson became FIU’s first, and to date, only female athletic director, a position only about a dozen women around the nation held at the time. During her tenure, she hired key people, secured funding to build FIU’s much-needed arena, petitioned for Division I status for the baseball team and watched men’s soccer become NCAA champions. Most ambitiously, perhaps, she started FIU’s men’s basketball team from scratch, a move designed “to grow the athletic program and get some notoriety,” she recalls. And so she set about finding a head coach, ultimately selecting Rich Walker, a choice distinguished by the fact that most African-American coaches at the time worked almost exclusively at historically black colleges and universities. Finding a space in which to play home games proved another hurdle. “All we had was a ‘tin gym,’ an airplane hangar where the volleyball team would practice,” she remembers. So the team headed to a local high school that first season. “We all made it work,” Olson says matter-of-factly, adding that the former university mascot and team name—“Sunblazers”—perfecting captured that early spirit of FIU: “We were the new university blazing a trail.”
Mira Wilkins joined FIU’s faculty in 1974 as one of the few female experts on the history of foreign investment in the United States, a subject she continues to research and write on today, in retirement. She has published numerous journal articles and several books, including four with Harvard University Press, and her co-written volume, “American Business Abroad: Ford on Six Continents,” first released in 1964, was republished by Cambridge University Press in 2011. Her scholarship has received wide acclaim. She was the first woman recognized with the Worlds Ahead Faculty Award, FIU’s highest honor. Among other distinctions, she earned a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Business History Conference, an international organization that annually awards a prize in her name. As a lifetime researcher, Wilkins delighted in FIU’s recent Carnegie ranking in the highest tier of research universities. “We are hiring excellent faculty,” the professor emerita says. “They are the core of an institution.”
Catherine H. Fahringer was a local businesswoman whose initial introduction to FIU in the mid-1970s was less than auspicious. “I was at a dinner, a fundraiser,” she recalls, “and somebody tapped me on my shoulder and said, ‘Kay, you owe me one. I have heard that FIU needs a woman on their board.’” To that not-so-subtle demand she simply replied, “FIU who?” So began her 40-year relationship with the university. Already active in community work, Fahringer soon drove to campus to meet President Gregory Wolfe and, after getting to know the upstart institution, agreed to sit on the FIU Foundation Board of Directors. No token appointee, she took on the role of raising money, often first educating others about the promising young university. “I was a firm believer,” she says of her early commitment. “I knew something important was going to happen.” Fahringer, active on the board through 1990 and today a member emerita, served a term as chairwoman and eventually concentrated on securing donations for athletics, an area near and dear to her heart. “Our place in the community is so good now,” she says of FIU. “Now people recognize who we are and what we are.”
Barbara Bader has impacted the careers of hundreds of women and minorities who seek to advance within the field of higher education. She arrived at FIU in 1974 to serve as a faculty member in the College of Education and eventually took on administrative duties in the college and, later, the Division of Academic Affairs. She is best known, however, as the founding director of the university’s Educational Leadership Enhancement Program, a position she has relished for the past 20 years. In that capacity, she guides the personal and professional development of individuals within underrepresented groups who wish to advance within the ranks of university and college administration. Her unfailing dedication, wisdom and insight have created a foundation of lasting change for program alumni, many of whom hold leadership positions at FIU today.
Know of another FIU legend who deserves a shout-out? Mention her in a comment below.