When she arrived at the University of the Sciences, Helen F. Giles-Gee was impressed with the beautiful oil paintings in the president's office, which she was about to occupy.
But something struck her: "There was no painting of a woman. So I asked: Is there someone distinctive that I could put on the wall that would be representative of the women at this institution?"
Up went a portrait of Susan Hayhurst, the first female graduate of what was then known as the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy. Hayhurst's achievement in 1883 was a historic milestone, much like Giles-Gee's own arrival on the University City campus last July.
Giles-Gee, a University of Pennsylvania graduate whose resume is filled with leadership roles at other schools, is the first female president in the university's 192-year history and first African American. Moreover, the school earlier this year hired University of Kentucky administrator Heidi M. Anderson, also an African American female, as provost. It means a university almost exclusively led by white males for two centuries - and one with a focus on pharmacy, science, and health-care careers - has gained a decidedly different leadership look.
"It's very significant, both from the standpoint of African Americans and women," said Bruce Slater, managing editor of the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. "The fact that, here, we have two women in the top two positions at a university that deals in large degree in those fields is really a milestone event."
Nationally, about 6 percent of presidents at four-year colleges and universities are African American, according to a 2012 survey by the American Council on Education, to which 50 percent of the nation's schools responded. About 22 percent are women.
In the Philadelphia region, a look at nearly 50 presidents of nonprofit, four-year colleges showed that two others were led by African American women - Cheyney, a historically black university, and Cedar Crest College in Allentown.
"Our process was both color-blind and gender blind," said Marvin Samson, chairman of the University of the Sciences Board of Trustees and CEO of Samson Medical Technologies in Cherry Hill. "It just happened this way."
Giles-Gee, he said, emerged as the strongest of 55 candidates, with her science background and leadership experience.
"We got someone who can lead us and really take it to the next level," said Samson, who was interim president before Giles-Gee and has been a trustee for 20 years.
The first college of pharmacy in North America, the 22-building school sits on 36 acres. It serves about 2,800 undergraduate and graduate students.
Giles-Gee didn't know she was the first woman and African American when she was hired. She doesn't like to dwell on it. She points out she was the first African American college president in New Hampshire when she led Keene State College for seven years.
"For me, being the first isn't really novel," she said.
But she learned the gravity of the change when she was introduced to the campus and women in the audience cried.
"I got it," she said. "It's a long history. ... To have someone who is like them in the leadership role, it was a remarkable occurrence."
She knows the weight on her shoulders: "I serve as a role model to a number of other women and African Americans who will come behind me."
Giles-Gee has spent 30-plus years in higher education at a variety of institutions and roles, including as provost of Rowan University and an administrator at Cheyney. She also was associate vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Maryland, where she handled issues ranging from articulation agreements with community colleges to space planning.
She earned her bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, charting her own path even then.
"I tested a lot of majors," she said. "I took courses in psychology and biology, and I loved them both. ... Penn allowed me to develop my own major as long as I could find faculty who would serve as my adviser."
She also has a graduate degree in zoology from Rutgers and is a specialist in testing and measurement.
Growing up in Alabama, Giles-Gee came from a family that prized education - from her grandfather, a graduate of Tuskegee who sent all seven children to college - to her parents, who sent all five daughters through college. Three of her four sisters earned Penn undergraduate degrees, and they now work as a physician, an accountant, and a lawyer. The fourth has an engineering degree from Tuskegee. Her father was a steelworker, and her mother, a graduate of Talladega University with a microbiology degree, was a teacher.
To prepare them, her parents "spent everything they had for the only private Catholic school" in the area.
She still remembers her parents' emphasis on college: "It was: 'This will be the way you will make your way in the world.' The opportunities weren't there for us in Alabama. And so they knew - in fact I think that was their greatest sacrifice - to send us away so we would be able to meet our potentials."
Since her arrival, she has met with constituents in and outside the university. She is advocating closer integration of teaching, learning, and student research. And she's made nearly a dozen out-of-town trips to meet with alumni and others. Her inauguration is April 19.
In her free time, she reads biographies, such as those of Nelson Mandela, Barbara C. Jordan, Amelia Earhart, and Madeline Albright.
"There are a lot of life lessons from biographies," she said.
Her leadership mantra? "Expect the unexpected," something she learned from watching the Kung Fu TV series. "Then nothing's a surprise," she said.
"She's just phenomenal," said Michael Flacco, student government president, noting that she meets with student leaders and shows passion for the job.
Flacco, 22, of Gloucester Township, N.J., who is pursuing a doctorate of pharmacy, served on the presidential search committee. So did Elisabeth Morlino, assistant chair of the department of chemistry and biochemistry and faculty senate president.
"She has a way of making people feel they've been heard, that their opinions have been considered," Morlino said.
Giles-Gee had a hand in the final selection of Anderson, whom she described as "stellar." Anderson, who most recently served as vice president for institutional effectiveness at Kentucky, also has a strong science background, particularly in pharmacy. She said she is excited to work for Giles-Gee, her first chance to be mentored by a woman.
"Her record is one of nurturing the environment but also of getting significant outcomes for the universities she has been at," said Anderson, who starts July 1.
Giles-Gee reflected on Hayhurst's portrait, now on her office wall.
"After her graduation, she mentored 60 more women through this institution," Giles-Gee said. "I just consider it an honor for her portrait to now be in the president's office."
Where history is being made again.
University of the Sciences
Undergraduate enrollment: 2,436
Graduate enrollment: 344
Description: Offers bachelor's through doctorate degrees in five colleges: pharmacy, health sciences, humanities and sciences, graduate studies, and health-care business and policy.
Tuition, fees, and room and board: $47,780
Student body by gender: 60 percent female; 40 percent male.
Undergraduate student body by race: White, 46 percent; Asian 37 percent; black, 5 percent; Hispanic, 3 percent; more than one race, 1 percent; no race given, 6 percent; international, 2 percent
Helen F. Giles-Gee
Education: Bachelor's in psychobiology, master's in science education, and doctorate in measurement, evaluation and techniques of experimental research, all from the University of Pennsylvania. Master's in zoology from Rutgers University.
Work history: President of Keene State College in New Hampshire; provost at Rowan University; dean of the School of Professional Studies at SUNY Cortland; associate vice chancellor for academic affairs and director of articulation at the University System of Maryland; executive assistant to the president at Towson State University; associate professor and chairwoman of biology at Cheyney University.
Family: Daughter, Lauren.
Heidi M. Anderson
Education: Bachelor's in pharmacy, master's in education, doctorate in pharmacy administration, all from Purdue University.
Work history: Vice president for institutional effectiveness, University of Kentucky; faculty leadership positions, Auburn University-School of Pharmacy; assistant professor, University of Tennessee-School of Pharmacy.
Family: Husband, Leon Roberts Jr.
Helen F. Giles-Gee, the president of the University of the Sciences, talks about the role that she and the university play, and how she factors into several categories of "first." www.philly.com/giles-geeEndText