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William F. Connell School of Nursing

Answering the Call

new dean susan gennaro - fall/winter 2008

gennaro outside sitting

By Joshua Jensen

This past July, Susan Gennaro stepped into the dean role at the Connell School of Nursing. Gennaro comes to Boston College with a strong record of achievement and an international reputation as a leader and innovator in the field of nursing. Her research in perinatal nursing has received funding from the National Institutes of Nursing Research and the Office of Women's Health at the National Institutes of Health. Gennaro is the editor of the Journal of Nursing Scholarship, one of the country's most respected and influential nursing journals.

By all accounts, Gennaro didn't need to come to Boston College. She was the Florence and William Downs Professor of Nursing Research at the College of Nursing at New York University, where she had been since 2006 following nearly 20 years on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania. At NYU, she had an ideal platform to conduct her clinical research, mentor faculty and students, and contribute to the nursing profession in meaningful and important ways. She and her husband, William Fehder—a PhD-prepared nurse anesthetist and now clinical associate professor at Boston College—are both native New Yorkers, and by all accounts, enjoyed living in New York and rooting for their beloved Yankees.

What would drive Gennaro to uproot herself and move to Red Sox Nation, not to mention taking on the pressures and challenges of life as a dean? Boston College. "I know I wouldn't have left to go be the dean anywhere else but Boston College," says Gennaro. "I was doing my research. I had just gotten good news about a grant. Life was great. The only reason that I considered Boston College was because it felt like it was completing a circle. Coming to Boston has been a homecoming in a kind of holistic, spiritual, and intellectual way."

In making the decision to come to Boston College, Gennaro asked herself, "Why do you have the talents you have? What do you do when people are saying these are the talents that could help you to really give back in the most important ways?" She notes, "It would have been almost sacrilegious to say 'I hear the call, but I'm not going to answer it.' This felt like it was meant to be."

a path rooted in jesuit ideals

Gennaro traces her path to Boston College back to the days before she was even considering a career in nursing. "My mother was a nurse, my aunt was a nurse, and my other aunt was a nurse, so I decided that I was never going to be a nurse," she says.
She went to Le Moyne College, majored in English, graduated and worked on Wall Street. It was then that she started asking herself if she should be doing more. "I starting thinking, 'what am I doing here? What difference am I making? How am I helping?' I had gone to a Jesuit college and I had been well formed I guess!"

Gennaro credits her experience with Jesuit education as leading her to a career in nursing, and eventually to the connection she felt with Boston College. "Boston College is a place that has a value system I really believe in," she says.

Gennaro recalls that in her interview with Boston College President Father Leahy, she asked him, "If three years from now somebody told you the best decision you ever made was hiring that new dean at the School of Nursing, what would he or she have done that would make you nod, 'yes that's true'?"

She says that Father Leahy spoke about educating and graduating students who were the best nurses, who provided the best care, and who were the kind of nurses anyone would want for their own family members. She says she had expected him to say that he wanted to graduate nurses who could produce research. She was heartened that although he understands and respects nursing as a science, his answer to her question wasn't just focused on research funding. "It was about producing the best for society. It was holistic."

Gennaro says she realized then that, "Boston College is a place where people truly believe in the importance in both doing good and doing well. It isn't just about doing well."

dean hispanic conference

Antonia Villarruel of the University of Michigan School of Nursing congratulates Gennaro on her appointment at a Boston College-sponsored reception held in conjunction with the annual conference of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses

an approach fit for a dean

Nancy Van Devanter, an associate professor at New York University who has collaborated with Gennaro, sees Gennaro as a strong fit for the Connell School dean position. "Susan is actually someone who was born to be a dean; she has every quality needed to be a great one. Susan is an outstanding scholar, a visionary leader, and a gifted and very creative administrator. Most important of all, she just has a terrific sense of humor.

"One of the attributes that I really admire in Susan is her ability to work with a broad range of people, and in particular her ability to work with people in clinical and community settings. For example, she and I are evaluating a program that encourages breastfeeding among women in a local hospital here in New York. When we go into that environment, Susan sits down with nurses and other clinical staff, and is perfectly at home. People pick up on the fact that she is very down to earth, which is not true of all researchers. Susan demonstrates her respect for clinical staff and the work they do.”

Van Devanter emphasizes that this authentic approach is pervasive across all of Gennaro's work. "Susan has done truly extraordinary work at NYU in the recruitment of minority students and faculty. The reason she has been successful is that this work is true to her vision of nursing and to her commitment to addressing health disparities in minority populations. She understands that in order to solve some of these very large problems, we need to engage a diverse team, including people with real-life experience in these issues."

Gennaro credits her upbringing for her down-to-earth sensibility. "My father's family were recent immigrants. He had to give up high school to help with the family. He quit so that his sister could finish high school. He was an auto mechanic, a very successful small businessman, and wanted more for his children and more for his daughters. That was very big. There was that sense of living the legacy there."

Gennaro wins points with her colleagues not just for her style, but also the substance of her work. Janet Deatrick, who worked with Gennaro at the University of Pennsylvania, noted, "When [Gennaro] left here, I began to fully grasp how much work she really did. Susan is one of the hardest working people I know in academia. She always asks the tough questions, makes the tough decisions. She doesn't let anything slide by.

"I think of the way she advocated for students as director of the doctoral program," Deatrick continues. "If she thought a student needed a second consideration on an issue, she was always the first to say that. On the other hand, if she thought the faculty needed advocacy, she would do the same. It was never a popularity contest or calculated. I think you can look forward to a very productive, very principled kind of leadership from Susan."


Mary Lou de Leon Siantz, Assistant Dean of Diversity and Cultural Affairs at the University of Pennsylvania, talks with Boston College Provost Bert Garza and his wife Yolanda at Dean Gennaro's welcome reception

a history of leadership in nursing research

Of course, there is plenty of work to be done in healthcare, and Gennaro sees nursing and in particular the research that nurses do as central to addressing these needs. "So many of the problems we face are issues of chronic healthcare. Even infectious diseases like HIV have become chronic, and many of the challenges have to do with behavior. We like magic pills in this country. There aren't magic pills for all of those things. The systems that are going to be the most successful are systems that really help people manage their lives in very different ways."

Gennaro's perspective was shaped by her own work as a Lamaze-certified childbirth educator, where she spent a lot of time helping women prepare for breast-feeding. She recalls reading an article during that time in which a researcher reported the results of a study where she compared the results of women doing all the things that had been advised to prepare for breastfeeding on one breast, and doing nothing on the other breast. Gennaro said she was surprised to learn that all the time she was spending telling women to do certain things actually made no difference. She had an epiphany about her work and the importance of research.

"It was clear to me that I could be very involved in clinical practice, but if I wasn't testing what it was that was being done, if I wasn't generating new knowledge, I was just spending a lot of time on hocus pocus," she says.

That experience informed her view of research and the particular contributions of nurses. "There's a point at which you can do something one way because we have always done so, but it doesn't mean that's the best way. If you go other places in the world and they do things entirely differently and people aren't dying because they're not doing x, y, or z, you have to think to yourself, 'what's the difference?' It makes you think a little more critically.

"Nursing research is unique. We are really trying to figure out how to get people into care, and keep them in care. We are helping people understand the changes they could make that would positively impact their lives. We have a lot to contribute in big ways. Nurses really do understand culture and all of those other things that make a big difference."

susan marybeth pat

Dean Gennaro, Graduate Program Assistant MaryBeth Crowley, and Associate Dean of Graduate Programs Pat Tabloski at the 2008 graduate student orientation

maintaining a work/life balance

Although she maintains high standards for herself, her students, and her colleagues, Gennaro's colleagues praise the importance she places on having a balanced life, for herself and for others. Connell School Assistant Professor Angela Amar recalls being a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania, where Gennaro was her dissertation advisor. "I told Dr. Gennaro not to worry about my progress because I was going to bring my work with me when I took my son, Kirby, to Disney World. Susan looked me in the eye and said, 'You only get to bring Kirby to Disney World once while he's seven. Don't bring your work.'" Despite her many, many professional accomplishments—and there are many—she values people, and relationships, and living."

Van Devanter agrees. "The other part of Susan that I appreciate—and this is important for a dean—is that she has balance in her life. She has extensive family and friends that she is very close to. It is important for somebody in this kind of position to have priorities other than the job. It keeps you real, keeps you human, and makes you a better leader."

How does Gennaro keep up her high standards and her commitment to work-life balance? She explains, "There are only 24 hours in a day so we have to have efficient systems that help faculty not be overwhelmed. It is important for them to be able to say, 'I still have a family that loves me,' or whatever particular structure is important to their life. So how do you make that happen? As dean, I think you have to be a good steward of resources, time probably being the biggest. We have to think about what work really helps us to our outcomes, and what's really busy work. I have lots of ideas about how that's going to happen here at Boston College, and how we're going to help people to be really productive scholars and excellent teachers."

Since she arrived on campus, and indeed before she arrived, Gennaro has been having critical conversations with university officials, colleagues in the nursing community, and Connell School faculty and staff. She's been asking the tough questions, learning what works well, what is valued, and where improvements can be made.

"I've really watched a lot of leaders put themselves out there, only to turn around and realize that nobody was behind them. I don't want to do that. For me, this is about building a community. That might mean we have to go places that I don't particularly want to go, and that's okay. I've been wrong a lot in my life, but I'm really good about continuing to collect data and informing decision-making. We can try things that might not work; that's not a problem. Better to try something that doesn't work, than to not try at all."

For now, Gennaro is more than content to set the stage for positive developments. "You can't plant the corn, as Father Leahy I'm sure would tell us, until the ground is prepared. What I'm doing is tilling, make sure I'm getting rid of the stones and the roots so that as opportunities arise, we are in a place where if we plant, we'll have better growth. I have to worry about whether there will be water if there's a drought, I have to worry if we get the equipment that we need. We have to have the backhoe. I know nothing about farming but I've been hearing wonderful examples!

"Mentorship is part of my role as me, so whether it's 'the dean' or its 'Susan Gennaro,' part of what I have enjoyed most in my life has been to opportunity to help people, and then watching them succeed and grow. I sit there and think, 'I used the skills God gave me to make a difference today.'"

Gennaro's colleagues echo this. "Susan started pre- and post-doctoral training programs for students at Penn that were funded continuously for 10 years by the NIH." Deatrick explains, "These programs have made a tremendous difference in people's lives."

Wendy Budin, director of nursing research at NYU Medical Center, notes, "I sincerely treasure our friendship and although I am happy for her and for my friends at Boston College, I am going to miss her sorely. Susan is not only a brilliant scholar, but a genuine, caring and dynamic leader who is well respected by her students and peers."

Her former doctoral student confers: "At every crossroad or venture," Amar says, "Susan shares pearls of wisdom—many that she passes along from her mentors—to help you out on the journey. Through the heartwarming and usually funny stories, Susan builds lasting relationships and provides mentorship, support and guidance. The lists of her colleagues, mentors, protégées, and friends are endless. Her impressive curriculum vitae—with multiple pages of external funding, publications and scholarly presentations—will certainly serve the Connell School well, but it is Susan's interior persona that is the true gem Boston College has acquired."