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Lifting Every Voice

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Tuajuanda Jordan, a biochemist and science education advocate, is Lewis & Clark’s new dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. 

Striding into her campus office on a sunny fall afternoon, Tuajuanda Jordan radiates the authority of a college dean but declines to be interviewed sitting behind her massive desk. Jordan, the new dean of Lewis & Clark’s College of Arts and Sciences and professor of chemistry, chooses the conference table instead. “The desk can be intimidating,” she says. “It creates distance between people.”

Jordan knows about this kind of distance. As an African American woman, she is a distinct minority among scientists, tenured faculty, and academic leaders.

“I was always walking into rooms filled with people who didn’t look like me,” she says. “Before I even opened my mouth, their impression was ‘She’s not a scientist.’” On the first day in her graduate advisor’s biochemistry lab, “I was greeted by six white men—the other graduate students and my professor.” The advisor became a lifelong friend, but at least one student disrupted Jordan’s work and needlessly quibbled with her results.

As Lewis & Clark’s first African American dean and second female dean (Jane Monnig Atkinson, vice president and provost, became the first in 2000), Jordan is accustomed to standing out. “When I directed the Science Education Alliance at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, no other black people did what I did,” she says. Prejudice can crop up startlingly. Once, standing at the side of a hall before delivering a talk, Jordan was asked by an audience member where to put his food tray. She answered, “I don’t know—I’m the speaker.”

Drawing Inspiration From Family

The first of her family to attend college, Jordan was motivated to succeed by the daily struggles of her mother and maternal grandmother. “My grandmother had a third-grade education and worked as a live-in maid,” Jordan says. “Seeing her relationship with her employers bothered me.” As a girl, Jordan lived in Virginia, where her father was a master welder in the Newport News shipyards and her mother was a homemaker. “Watching my mother wait for Dad to come home and give her money—that bothered me, too. My mother and grandmother told me, ‘Make sure you don’t have to be dependent on anyone.’ Every time an opportunity presented itself, I knew I had to take advantage of it, and I could not fail.”

In the acknowledgements to her doctoral dissertation, Jordan listed her female family members and quoted from Maya Angelou’s poem “And Still I Rise,” which includes the lines: “Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave / I am the dream and the hope of the slave / I rise.”

My humble upbringing makes me care about giving people a voice. I’m a firm believer in community.

Her family’s economic challenges also motivated Jordan: “Shipyard workers were laid off regularly. My dad was always one of the first to be hired back, but living hand to mouth was hard.” Nonetheless, the family was close. “Holidays are very important to us. To this day, no matter where I’m working, I go back to Maryland [where her family now lives] at Christmas.”

Finding Answers in Science

Jordan disliked science until 11th grade, when she realized chemistry could satisfy her curiosity about the physical world. “I wondered how you could put things together and get something else. We learned about the parts of an atom, the charges of electrons and protons. Learning something could be broken down to that level and relate to life and living helped the world start making sense.”

Jordan’s questions set her apart from family in at least one way. Since her paternal grandmother and maternal grandfather were ministers, she spent time in church nearly every Sunday. Eventually, Jordan had questions about religion. “My grandmother said, ‘You never question God,’” she recalls. “I think I asked, ‘Why?’”

After graduating cum laude from Fisk University, Jordan went to Purdue. Going from a small historically black college to a university of 30,000 students was “incredibly hard,” she says. “It was the first time I ever failed a class. I drove all night to Virginia to talk to my maternal grandmother, who convinced me to go back. She said, ‘Remember who you are and what you can do. You may not have the advantages your classmates have had, but you’re just as smart as anybody else.’ Her message was that I could be who I was and get through.” Her grandmother’s words bolstered Jordan’s determination to succeed. She returned to Purdue and went on to complete her Ph.D.

When asked about her research focus, Jordan says, “I study the proteins in the body—how they work together and how we can control those important for treating disease.” In postdoctoral research conducted at the University of Cincinnati, Jordan focused on the overexpression of Apolipoprotein J in mice. She was a research associate at the University of Cincinnati before accepting a position on the chemistry faculty at Xavier University of Louisiana, where she continued to study and publish on protein interactions.

Helping Students Think Like Scientists

Jordan has been speaking and presenting on minority representation in the sciences and graduate study since the early 1990s. She has lectured widely on diversity in the sciences, student retention, and the future of science education. Her track record includes national leadership on scientific study for all undergraduates, including minority students.

You cannot know who will be successful just by looking at grades and test scores. We need to allow students to learn the process of doing science and to flourish.

Before coming to Lewis & Clark, Jordan directed the Science Education Alliance at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in Chevy Chase, Maryland, where she brought together scientists and educators to enhance science literacy in programs that prepare high school and college students to become the next generation of scientists.

In 2008, Jordan led the National Genomics Research Initiative, a program created to expose first- and second-year college students to genomics (the study of organisms’ DNA sequences) and allow them to conduct hands-on research with faculty mentors.

In an interview for the online issue of Science, Jordan said, “Science is about mental and physical engagement. It is truly a holistic experience that we, as scientists and educators, can do a better job communicating.”

To that end, she is a firm believer in the research experience. It’s one reason she came to Lewis & Clark, where she believes students and faculty often have a “colleague relationship.” She says, “You cannot know who will be successful just by looking at grades and test scores. We need to allow students to learn the process of doing science and to flourish. I aim to foster students’ natural ability and curiosity and to empower them, letting them know they can achieve their goals.”

As a mentor, Jordan gravitates to students and younger faculty who are “trying to find their way, looking for a voice,” she says. “The people I work with are always amazed when I say I have mentors too. For me, the majority of mentors have been white men and a handful of older women. Now I have many peers, and we support and mentor each other.”

From Scientist to Administrator

In 2002, Jordan moved from chemistry professor to associate dean of arts and sciences at Xavier University. “When I became a faculty member, administration was not on my radar,” Jordan says. But the university’s leadership kept putting her on institution-wide committees as chair or co-chair. She was also invited to attend a summer workshop for women in higher education.

As a result of these opportunities, Jordan soon recognized her knack for creative problem solving. “I have the ability to listen,” she says. “I find that when you listen and show you appreciate what people do, it helps. In making decisions, my style is to listen to as many voices as possible.” Her scientific background shows in her practice of asking lots of questions. “It enables people to come up with their own solutions, as opposed to just telling them what to do.”

Jordan appreciates the perspective leadership gives. “As a faculty member, you’re focused on your field, your students, your research,” she says. “As a dean, you’re concerned with what’s best for the whole institution. People don’t always like you, but you have a chance to do things that are far-reaching.”

While vice president of academic affairs at Xavier University, Jordan faced the herculean task of reopening the school after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Xavier opened its doors again just five months after the hurricane, the first New Orleans school to do so.

Committed to All Students’ Success

Jordan admires Lewis & Clark for its commitment to diversity, which she hopes to strengthen. “My humble upbringing makes me care about giving people a voice,” she says. “I’m a firm believer in community.” She explains, “Colleges often have hierarchies with tenured faculty at the top. The contributions of junior faculty, visiting faculty, and staff are sometimes ignored, and I think that’s wrong. We’re all here for the benefit of students.”

As dean, you tend to meet the students who are on the dean’s list. I want to get to know all the students, including those who are here by the skin of their teeth, doing the very best they can.

David Asai, director of precollege and undergraduate science education at HHMI, says, “Tuajuanda keeps her eye unwaveringly on the prize, the people who can benefit from our work if we do it well. I think most of us say ‘It’s the people who are important,’ but Tuajuanda stands out because she really believes it and lives it every day.”

Lewis & Clark’s undergraduates are unequivocally Dean Jordan’s charges. “These are my students,” she says. “My job is to give them the best experience possible.” She wants to be accessible to students and is a familiar face at campus events. She attended all but one home football game last fall and looks forward to more activities this spring. “It tells the students, ‘You matter,’” Jordan says.

Again, she wants to listen to all voices. “As dean, you tend to meet the students who are on the dean’s list,” she says. “I want to get to know all the students, including those who are here by the skin of their teeth, doing the very best they can.” Jordan has met with the student senate and held the first of what she hopes will become a series of chats over pizza in her office.

A Legacy of Leadership and Achievement

Of the young people she’s mentored, Jordan is most proud of her twins, Patrice and Jordan, now completing their college degrees at the University of Maryland–Baltimore County and Davidson College respectively. Her daughter studies biochemistry and has already published two articles in top-tier journals. “One professor thought she was a postdoc in HIV research, her field of study,” says Jordan. Her son is a psychology major with interests in education. “He plans to apply for a major fellowship on how the way we teach affects students,” she says. “I recently heard him speak on how stereotypes affect academic performance, and I was so impressed.”

With her children thriving, Jordan is committed to helping Lewis & Clark students succeed. “She demands a great deal from the people who work for and with her, and she demands no less from herself,” says Lucia Barker, a program officer of the Science Education Alliance at HHMI. But she moves from meetings to fireside chats to student events with the energy and determination that has brought her so far. “I’m thrilled to be at Lewis & Clark,” she says with conviction. “I would not want to be anywhere else.”

Genevieve J. Long is a freelance writer in Portland.

Photos by Robert Reynolds.

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