On March 1, 2021, Angela L. Walker Franklin, Ph.D., marked her 10-year anniversary as DMU’s 15th president and CEO. The decade brought some difficult decisions and needed changes, an unexpected pandemic, a successful fundraising campaign and the biggest development in DMU’s history – a plan to move to a new campus nearly four times bigger than the University’s current location.
When Angela L. Walker Franklin became president of DMU, she embraced her first assignment from the University’s Board of Trustees – to perform a 100-day “deep dive” in assessing the institution’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. She found all of the above, from “low-hanging fruit” for making improvements to alumni still harboring resentment toward past administrations and a community in which DMU was a “best-kept secret.”
“That was not the image we wanted,” she says. “It was a tall order, figuring out how we should deal with things that were real opportunities, while stabilizing the University and getting the community on board without having people think I was coming in to destroy the place.”
She has worked closely with the DMU Board of Trustees, including diversifying its members.
A core group of DMU trustees became her early and steady supporters, even while the board was experiencing its own transitions. At one point early in her tenure, the board was contemplating adding six new members, an unusually large number. During the trustees’ discussion about whom to approve, then-Chair Jim Grekin, D.O.’62, turned to President Franklin.
“He said, ‘What do you advise us to do?’ I said, ‘Bring them all in,’” she recalls. “All of them are very talented and deserved a seat on the board. There was a motion made, seconded and approved to add all six individuals.”
President Franklin now advises the aspiring college/university presidents whom she mentors to prioritize work with their institutions’ boards.
“The relationship with the board is vital,” she says. “I think I endured and pushed forward because board members said, ‘We believe in what you’re trying to do. We brought you here for the right reasons.’ I think they share a collaborative spirit and really value the manner in which we keep them informed.”
Prepared to Preside: Angela L. Walker Franklin, Ph.D.
A Phi Beta Kappa member, President Franklin earned her B.A. in psychology, magna cum laude, at Furman University and her M.A. and Ph.D. in clinical psychology at Emory University. She held leadership roles at Morehouse School of Medicine from 1986 to 2007, including vice dean and associate vice president for academic and student affairs; associate dean for student affairs and curriculum; assistant dean for admissions and student affairs; director of counseling services; and assistant professor of psychiatry.
During her tenure at Morehouse, President Franklin completed the prestigious American Council on Education Fellowship Program and became a protégé of the Millennium Leadership Institute of the Association of State Colleges and Universities, which prepares future leaders in higher education.
From 2007 to 2011, she was executive vice president and provost and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Meharry Medical College. She joined DMU in 2011.
She is a consummate consensus-builder.
That quality has been key to several University accomplishments during her tenure. One example is implementation of a diversity plan and programming, which DMU lacked when she took office.
“Every accreditation agency talks about diversity, equity and inclusion [DEI],” she says. “We weren’t meeting a standard.”
She created a director of multicultural affairs position and offered it to Richard Salas, Ph.D., who brought extensive experience in multicultural programming from his work at Colorado State University. They became comrades in convincing faculty of the importance of DEI in preparing future health professionals to provide culturally competent care.
“Some faculty members told him it was a waste of time for him to try to do that kind of work here,” she says. “I said, ‘Dr. Salas, if you can just hang in there…’”
He did, bringing to DMU a variety of DEI programming. The College of Podiatric Medicine and Surgery became the first DMU program to incorporate DEI concepts in its curriculum; other programs followed. President Franklin elevated Salas to chief diversity officer and added him to her executive leadership team.
“As a University, we are in demand to talk with other institutions about our diversity programming,” President Franklin says.
As DMU’s 15th president, Dr. Franklin has:
Served in numerous community roles, including on the boards of Bankers Trust, the Greater Des Moines Partnership, the Harkin National Advisory Council and United Way of Central Iowa
Served as chair of the Assembly of Presidents of the American College of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM) and a member of the AACOM Adaptive Work Group Addressing Racism in Healthcare and the Association of Academic Health Centers Board
Received many awards, including the 2017 American Psychological Association Training Advisory Committee Special Award, the 2016 Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award from the Iowa Department of Human Rights and the 2015 Mary McLeod Bethune Award (Educator of the Year) from the Iowa Juneteenth Observance Committee
Published her memoir, An Unconventional Journey…An Unlikely Choice (2014, Westbow Press), which chronicles her journey to the DMU presidency and lessons learned in leadership
Her inaugural address was strikingly prescient.
“I am asking that we reach far, dream colossal dreams and set audacious goals,” she stated at her installation ceremony on Sept. 24, 2011. “Our collective vision for the future should be rich with an outrageous ambition to make things better, not just for our students, our faculty, our staff, but for the larger community.”
Among DMU’s most “audacious goals” was the 2018 launch of Purple & Proud, a $25 million fundraising campaign and the largest in DMU’s history. Despite the conviction of some individuals, including past donors, that the University could never achieve that goal, President Franklin chose to “stay the course.” Thanks to donor support, DMU achieved the $25 million goal a year before its expected conclusion in December 2020 and has since doubled the campaign’s goal to $50 million.
Another audacious goal is the University’s plan to relocate its campus to 88 acres of land in West Des Moines in 2023, its 125th anniversary. That dream started in 2018 based on a need for 50 additional parking spaces, which would require a zoning change and support from the City of Des Moines and the neighborhood, and for a generator to support increased research initiatives amid the high number of power outages that occur in the neighborhood. However, President Franklin determined there was no need to proceed; even if approved, a minimal increase in parking and the generator would not allow DMU to strategically expand, and her vision would be stifled.
She questioned whether she had done all she could as DMU’s president and whether it was time to move on. But other factors intervened: Mark Peiffer, M.B.A., senior vice president and chief financial officer, had already quietly started looking at parcels of land for sale. University trustees Michael C. Witte, D.O.’77, Larry Baker, D.O.’77, FACEP, and Dave Kapaska, D.O.’86, supported the idea of a land purchase. And DMU’s legal counsel, the late Bill Lillis, J.D., happened to also represent the McKinney family, West Des Moines landowners.
“Bill said, ‘Let me put the feelers out and see what they say,’” President Franklin recalls. She, Peiffer and Lillis met Wayne McKinney, the oldest sibling in the family, at his Waukee, IA, law office. After they made a pitch, McKinney told them his father had sold land 20 years earlier to Des Moines Area Community College for its West Des Moines campus.
“Wayne said, ‘We were proud to know that the McKinney family farm is now a home for a community college. And my father would be thrilled to know that a medical school wants to move to our land.’ He kept saying, ‘That would be iconic, and we’d be so honored,’” President Franklin says. “All of a sudden it felt like they were asking us to buy their land. All of a sudden it just changed everything.”
Under the leadership of President Angela L. Walker Franklin, Des Moines University …
- Ran the most successful fundraising campaign in the University’s history, which exceeded its $25 million goal a year early and now is on track to achieve its new goal of $50 million
- Will move to a new 88-acre campus in West Des Moines in 2023
- Received national recognition as one of the top producers of primary care physicians among all U.S. medical schools
- Became the nation’s first medical school to partner with the National Alliance on Mental Illness to offer NAMI’s provider education program to osteopathic medical students; in addition, a new behavioral health clinic within the DMU Clinic is scheduled to open this fall
- Is developing new academic programs, including a Ph.D. program in biomedical sciences, which opened to students this year, and an occupational therapy program
- Has been named a “Great College to Work For®” by the Chronicle of Higher Education and a “Top Iowa Workplace” by the Des Moines Register
- Received the Institutional Excellence Award of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education; Iowa’s Healthiest State Initiative Award in the large workplace category; and the Inclusion Award of the Greater Des Moines Partnership
- Is the nation’s first and only college or university to twice earn the platinum-level Well Workplace Award, the highest distinction of the Wellness Councils of America
Her photo should appear next to “tenacity” in the dictionary.
President Franklin is an exception among higher education leaders: According to a 2017 survey conducted every five years by the American Council on Education, the average tenure for college/university presidents was six and a half years in 2016, down from eight and a half a decade earlier. (The 1,546 college leaders surveyed also were overwhelmingly white, 83 percent, and male, 70 percent.)
So why has she stayed at DMU for over a decade?
“I think sometimes people bail out too soon,” she says. “I believed in my soul that I was bringing my ‘A’ game to DMU to do what I know and to take it to a place it hadn’t imagined it could go. To get everything in sync takes extra work and can be painful, but we are reaping the benefits now.
“Now we have some alumni and other supporters saying, ‘We want to support the vision you have. Are you going to be there to realize it?’” she adds. “I feel obliged to make the commitment to seeing that vision become a reality. I made that commitment because it is so important to me to be able to do that in a place I’ve come to know and love.”