When Karen Lewis started working as a “temp” with Angela Walker Franklin, Ph.D., she had taken some college courses but hadn’t finished her bachelor’s degree. Thanks to Franklin’s encouragement, though, Lewis is now assistant vice president for student services at Meharry Medical College, with a B.A. and a master’s degree. She’s also working on a doctorate in higher education leadership and policy. “She found talents I didn’t know I had,” Lewis says. “She helped me find my true calling.”
Carolyn Dever, dean of Vanderbilt University’s College of Arts and Science, describes how she and Franklin worked to marshall their “two very different institutions” to land an $18 million Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant. The largest single foundation gift in Meharry’s 134-year history, the grant is now funding efforts to increase diversity among health policy leaders.
Ngozi Anachebe was a second-year medical student at Morehouse School of Medicine when third- and fourth-year students staged a boisterous campus protest against an unpopular administrative decision. Franklin, then Morehouse’s student affairs dean, brought bottled water and snacks to the angry protesters.
“I’ve never heard Dr. Franklin raise her voice. At a university, you’re dealing with people who are very passionate; students will test you. But she taught me you really have to consider everyone’s point of view. When you better understand others’ points of view, you can better get across your own.”
Ngozi Ananachebe, M.D., student affairs dean, Morehouse School of Medicine
Ronny Lancaster, one of Franklin’s former Morehouse colleagues, recalls the “magnificent” commencement ceremonies Franklin orchestrated there during which “there was not a dry eye in the house.” Jordan Franklin describes a mom who’s given him his knack for organization. Older brother Wesley Franklin says “I sound like my mom” when he counsels his physical therapy patients on rehabilitation techniques, using the attention to detail she ingrained in her sons. He also recalls how she handled a snowstorm that knocked out the electricity in the family’s Brentwood, TN, home.
“She brought out some board games. We said, ‘Board games? We play video games!’” he laughs. “But we all had a good time playing board games and laughing and giggling with the lights out.”
While family members, friends, former colleagues and students each have their own unique experiences with Des Moines University’s 15th president, strikingly consistent themes emerge: Angela Walker Franklin, they say, is an experienced leader and active listener who brings together diverse stakeholders to build consensus, solve problems and foster understanding. She’s a hard worker who holds herself and others to high standards, but in an encouraging, empowering way. Above all, she’s passionate about students.
“It’s going to sound like we’ve all been seriously paid to say such great things about Angela, but it’s really who she is,” says Lewis. “You have found the absolute best person to be your university’s president.”
“We laugh about this – we call her the traffic cop, because she keeps everything in order. She’s very detail-oriented. She can see the big picture of the forest and the detail of each tree.”
Thaddeus Franklin Jr., M.H.A., President Franklin’s husband of 28 years
Achieving that role has been Franklin’s plan for over a decade. She began her academic career in 1986 as assistant professor of psychiatry at Morehouse School of Medicine and quickly gained additional responsibilities.
“She got involved with the admission committee and became recognized as an excellent person in her ability to interview and evaluate students,” says Louis Sullivan, M.D., founding dean and first president of Morehouse School of Medicine. Now president emeritus, Sullivan served as secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services from 1989 to 1993 under President George H.W. Bush.
Sullivan explains that since Morehouse School of Medicine was so new at the time – its four-year medical curriculum received provisional accreditation in 1981, and it became fully accredited in 1985 – Franklin “helped develop the culture and a number of traditions” at the school.
“She was in charge of ceremonies, from convocation to commencement. They were always well-organized and well-run,” he says. “She made sure everyone knew their role. I really admire that degree of attention to detail.”
The details included allowing all the graduates to choose someone – often a family member – to hood them at commencement. Says Lancaster, the school’s former chief operating officer, “She orchestrated all that as one of her dozens of responsibilities. It was the most elegant, regal, splendid production I have ever seen.”
Franklin’s responsibilities expanded into almost every corner of higher education, from recruiting and counseling students to strategic planning, accreditation, budgeting, faculty promotion and tenure, human resources and information technology.
“Being at a small university like Morehouse, I was given a lot of opportunities to move into administrative roles,” she says. “I found I enjoyed that.”
That led Franklin to question her life’s path. With Sullivan’s encouragement, she became one of 32 fellows in the prestigious American Council on Education Fellowship Program in 2001-02. She spent the year working with Larry Large, then president of Oglethorpe University, a liberal arts institution in Atlanta.
“That was my defining year,” Franklin says. “Everyone was reading [author Rick Warren’s] The Purpose Driven Life at the time. Becoming a university president became my purpose.”
Putting her strengths to the test
In 2007, Franklin received a call from Wayne Riley, who had been one of her students at Morehouse School of Medicine; his wife, also a Morehouse graduate, was Franklin’s son Wesley’s first babysitter. Riley had just become president of Meharry Medical College in Nashville, TN, the nation’s largest, private, independent, historically black academic health center dedicated to educating health professionals, with schools of medicine, dentistry and graduate studies.
“He said, ‘I need someone who knows how to run a university,’” Franklin says. “I knew I needed some finishing touches to become a college president. It was an intentional effort to wrap my head around all aspects of higher education.”
She agreed to serve at least three years at Meharry as executive vice president and provost, a new second-in-command position Riley created for her. Good thing Franklin likes challenges: Unlike Morehouse School of Medicine, Meharry had a long history and many long-time administrators and faculty with a deeply shared culture. And its new president had an ambitious agenda on a fast-paced timeline.
“I arrived in July 2007. I could just feel the looks walking in the door,” she recalls. “Everything Iwanted to do was an outside opinion.”
Undaunted, Franklin set upon one of her major responsibilities, launching a strategic planning process for the college. She called meetings with representatives from a broad swath of campus.
“Angela Franklin has an extremely strong sense of administrative logic,with significant acquired knowledge applied by common sense. You’re getting [at DMU] a gem – not a raw gem, but a polished gem.”
Benjamin Rawlins, J.D., M.P.A., general counsel and senior vice president, Meharry Medical College
“She worked hard to bring the campus together, to build relationships,” says Jacqueline Gardner, associate vice president for academic support services. “Sitting in meetings, I was constantly aware of her really listening to people and asking the right questions. She puts people in a position to come up with solutions.”
Franklin successfully led the college in launching the Meharry Plan for Action, but that wasn’t her only project. Others included resolving recommendations from an accreditation visit by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which resulted in a full decade of accreditation; leading searches for new deans of medicine and dentistry; managing the Title III federal grant; conducting a comprehensive review of financial aid and enrollment services; renovating the library; and reorganizing the employee and student health services unit.
On top of all that was the heavy lifting of Franklin’s favorite Meharry accomplishment: landing a major Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant.
Changing the face of health care
Early in his presidency at Meharry, Riley learned the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) wanted to fund programs to increase diversity among health care policy leaders. He charged Franklin with putting together a proposal. The tricky part was RWJF wanted to fund projects oriented in the arts and sciences, not within a medical school – but no matter.
“My spirit is such that tell me I can’t do something, and let me prove you wrong,” Franklin says. She introduced herself to Carolyn Dever, then new dean of Vanderbilt University’s College of Arts and Science, and the two rolled up their sleeves.
“I gave Angela Franklin a nickname a few years ago, ‘VOR’ – the voice of reason. She has an uncanny ability to bring people together from divergent points of view and come out with a consensus or plan of action no matter how much conflict or chaos there had been, and have everybody leave the room feeling good. She’s trained me that there’s always a solution.”
Karen Lewis, M.S., assistant vice president for student services, Meharry Medical College
“One challenge was culture – these are two very different institutions, I’m in arts and science and she’s at a medical college,” Dever says. “We had to marshall many different moving parts and personalities and work with a foundation with clear and high expectations of what it wanted the grant to achieve.
“Angela and I decided to cut out a lot of the noise and make the project a collaboration between two individuals,” Dever adds. “She started as my colleague and became a friend.”
The foundation responded to the team’s first application, sent in May 2008, with a two-page list of recommended changes. Riley was disappointed, but Franklin – who had worked on numerous other grants and external funding projects – assured him, “They’re engaging us.”
The Meharry-Vanderbilt team worked with an RWJF consultant to submit a revised application in October 2008. After additional work with a foundation auditor, in March 2009 the team received in the mail a check for $9 million to endow the RWJF Center for Health Policy at Meharry Medical College, with an additional $9 million to support its operations over a five-year period.
“My only regret was that I was in New York City when Angela called. I was sorry I couldn’t be with her to celebrate,” Dever recalls. “We were very proud and happy, but also sobered because I felt the easy part was over.”
Last fall, the first cohort of Vanderbilt students enrolled in the center, which offers fellowship and certificate programs to develop leaders from African American and other under-represented communities interested in pursuing careers in health policy research.
“Never has there been a moment when questions in the health sciences have been more acute – with advances in technology, better understanding of the body and our ability to prolong life, at a time many individuals are priced out of the health care system,” Dever says. “What the center will make possible for our country is very powerful. That was always our inspiration.”
DMU comes calling
“The more I worked with Dr. Franklin, the more I realized she is a very powerful person in avery unobtrusive way.”
Jacqueline Gardner, M.S., associate vice president for academic support services, Meharry Medical College
When DMU’s search firm contacted Franklin last fall, after University president – now Iowa governor – Terry Branstad announced his retirement, it wasn’t the first time she had received such a call. But past opportunities hadn’t felt right. Initially, neither did the one at DMU.
“I gave [the consultant] all the reasons why it probably wasn’t for me,” Franklin says. “It’s in Iowa. I’m from an allopathic school, not an osteopathic one. But he told me the University wanted a good leader and administrator, so I started to relax a little bit.”
In addition to learning about DMU, Franklin talked with her husband, Thaddeus, and their three sons. She wanted to be especially sure their youngest, Jordan, who will be a high school senior this fall, would be willing to make such a move. He was.
“I think it will be a great experience for me, an opportunity to meet new people in a new culture,” he says. “And I’m very proud of my mom. She’s a great inspiration.”
DMU’s character and strengths began resonating with Franklin, who praises its focus on primary care, wellness and the osteopathic approach to holistic health. That orientation gives DMU key roles and opportunities in improving health and health care on local, national and global levels, she says.
“Preventive health and wellness are at the forefront of health care issues,” she says. “As a society, if we don’t do a better job of taking care of ourselves, we’re going to have even more of a vicious cycle. Preventive care is also a way to tackle our escalating health care costs. DMU can play a leadership role.”
That inspires her vision of DMU as the “destination institution” that attracts students, faculty and collaborators with its mission and high quality.
“Why not be the first and best in all that we do?” she says.