Interview with Ann Crain, Academic Specialist-Advisor, College of Arts and Letters

Ann CrainBy Emma Kolakowski

Ann Crain knows firsthand the difficulties faced by women in higher education. The Detroit-born advisor has overcome traditional mores about what a person in leadership should look like — namely, white and male — in order to support countless students at Michigan State, especially those with diverse or marginalized backgrounds. While there’s still a considerable amount of work to be done to advance equity in education, leadership, and all facets of society, Crain won’t be alone. She’s an alumnus of the Michigan chapter of the American Council on Education’s Women’s Network, part of a national system that’s found a supporter in MSU’s Office of Faculty and Academic Staff Development (OFASD).

The ACE Women’s Network dedicates itself to supporting the advancement of women in higher education. One arm of the network is its Senior-Level Leadership Shadow Program, a system of mentorship where women seeking further advancement in higher education are paired with at least one mentor. For Ann Crain, these mentors were two leaders at Mid Michigan College, a community college in Harrison, Michigan. The extensive application process to the Shadow Program, which incorporates letters of recommendation, supervisor approval, and careful reflection of what you want to learn at the program, led Crain to be placed with Chris Hammond and Matt Miller, the respective President of the College and Vice President of Student Services.

“I was specifically interested in community college,” Crain explained, “because I am passionate about college access, affordability, and student success.” With her mentors, Crain drew up a “learning contract”: it outlined the frequency of their meetings and the scope of Crain’s experience. Crain was interested in structure particularly when it came to financial, governance, and human resources at Mid Michigan. She got a first-hand look at another higher education institution, allowing her to examine how different colleges structure their various subsections.

Crain’s mentors at Mid Michigan weren’t the only contacts she made in the program. She described it as “ a cohort-based program,” where she was in a group with four other women from various other institutions of higher education. “We talked often and shared what we were learning with each other. We went through an orientation together and presented a session at the 2019 MI-ACE Women’s Network conference at the end of our experience,” Crain said.
Mentorship isn’t the only way that the Women’s Network serves its constituents. As Crain mentioned, the Network holds conferences annually. It was at one such conference that Crain first heard about the Senior-Level Leadership Shadow Program, and she highly recommends attending, describing the conference as “a great opportunity to learn about trends in higher education at a national and state level and to build relationships with women from across the state.” She said there’s a wide variety of sessions “that develop your skills, remind you about the value of higher education, and inspire you to dream big.” Crain noted that the conference, and the Women’s Network as a whole, are open to all women in higher education.

The MI-ACE Women’s Network also has opportunities specific to women of color through its Women of Color Collaborative (WOCC). Crain joined the WOCC after completing the Shadow Program, and describes the group as “amazing.” The WOCC also organizes programming for the annual conference, addressing topics in diversity, equity, and inclusion that “require participants to reflect on their identities, roles and how to show up for one another as allies and advocates in the workspace.” The WOCC also hosts a fall luncheon to motivate and connect its members, and Crain is excited to be part of the planning committee hosting the luncheon at MSU this fall. Expounding on the value of the WOCC, Crain said “I was raised in three different cultures: Indian, Christian, and American. I have learned so much from the other women in WOCC and found so much support through the pandemic from all the women in that space.”

In addition to its mentorship program, annual conference, and the WOCC, MI-ACE has several other assets designed to advance its mission of helping women achieve leadership opportunities. There’s the Speakers and Consultants Bureau, which connects member institutions to specialists elsewhere in the state. There’s the Distinguished Woman In Higher Education Leadership Award, which recognizes women in the state who have made marked contributions to the advocacy for women. The network is always open to new ideas and initiatives as well. OFASD Director of Academic Leadership Development Cindi Leverich superintends the MSU wheel of the organization.

After graduating from Michigan State in 2007, Crain has been working at MSU for nearly two decades, first as a graduate student and now as an advisor in the College of Arts and Letters, and says that her experiences with ACE have given her further understanding of the needs of transfer students from community colleges and rural areas. Drawing on her time with Mid Michigan College, she says, “There are unique challenges transfer students face when coming to MSU and my time at Mid Michigan College made me more committed to the success of transfer students at MSU. I am also more aware of transition issues faced by students when they come to a Big Ten Institution like MSU, particularly when they are first-generation college students.”

While Crain and the Women’s Network are powerful forces for the advancement of both underrepresented students and underrepresented higher-education professionals, there’s still a long way to go. Crain spoke about how our ideas about what makes a qualified leader are “constricted by white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity.” The advisor has suggestions as to how this problem can be solved, counseling that “As individuals, we need to understand how our implicit biases and privileges affect our decision making — from where we live, who we are friends with, who we hire, who we promote, when we speak and when we remain silent.” Crain calls higher education a field that is “ripe for disruption.” The MI-ACE network, of which MSU is one of fifty member institutions, is helping trailblaze a path to a future where women’s advancement isn’t more difficult than anyone else’s. Yet as Crain describes, organizations like MI-ACE are only part of a bigger solution: “For women to advance in leadership, especially women of color, higher education institutions need to rigorously examine all our assumptions policies and practices. We keep asking women to change to fit in a system that was not designed for women to succeed. The system needs to change so every higher education employee can bring their best selves to the work that we do.”

Learn more about Michigan ACE through the Office of Faculty and Academic Staff Development. Michigan ACE is open to all roles in higher education.