Elaine Maimon: Profiled Executive of Month

Elaine Maimon represents Equity, Quality & Innovation in Higher Education

With higher education under attack from multiple sources, it’s inspiring to consider Elaine Maimon’s 50-year (and counting) career as an example of how university and college leadership at its best is essential to democracy. From her start as a young, untenured faculty member at Beaver College (now Arcadia University), to heading public university campuses (Arizona State University-West, University of Alaska-Anchorage, Governors State University), Elaine Maimon has worked tirelessly for equity, quality, and innovation, always putting students first.

Now in retirement from specific institutions, she is devoting her full energies to national higher education reform as an author, consultant, and Advisor to the American Council on Education (ACE). Here is what Shaun Harper, Executive Director of the University of Southern California Race and Equity Center, says about Dr. Maimon’s book  Leading Academic Change:  “This book is perhaps Maimon’s most significant gift to higher education. Anyone interested in transformation must read it.”

Her article, From Triage to Transformation, has been widely cited as a roadmap as higher education confronts the trifecta of disease, racial reckoning, and economic challenge.

Personal Background

Born and nurtured in West Philadelphia, Elaine Maimon lost her father when she was eight. Her mother Gertrude Plaskow raised her alone on a secretary’s salary. But Elaine Maimon never knew she was poor because her home was always filled with books from the public library, hospitality, and love. When her mother died two weeks after her graduation from John Bartram High School, she wrote to the University of Pennsylvania, which had already awarded her a full-tuition scholarship as the top student at Bartram, to request funding for room and board.

Penn took her in and made it possible for her to graduate Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude. Mentoring by undergraduate professors enabled her to enter and succeed in a Penn fast-track PhD program, supported by the National Defense Education Act and the Ford Foundation. So at age 25, Elaine Maimon was Dr. Maimon with a PhD (awarded with distinction) in English; a husband, Mort Maimon; and her first child Gillian. Alan was born two years later. A true partnership with husband Mort allowed her to balance a vibrant career with family life. From these experiences, Dr. Maimon made a life-long commitment to paying it forward through philanthropic support for student scholarships and through a strong commitment to excellence and equity for marginalized students. Jenniffer Weigel covers more of Elaine’s early history in this article from the Remarkable Woman series.

Career accomplishments

The major goal of Elaine Maimon’s career has been to help students from a wide diversity of backgrounds to become independent writers and thinkers. She sees this as essential to democracy, where every citizen should have a voice and be empowered to improve the nation. Achieving this goal depends on equity and quality in education, not merely for personal fulfillment, but for the public good.

A first-generation, scholarship student herself, Dr. Maimon has devoted her energies to those excluded or marginalized in higher education: first-generation, students of color, adults, and military veterans. This group, the New Majority in U.S. higher education, is still seriously underserved.

Early in her career, she became one of the founders of the writing-across-the-curriculum (WAC) movement, and she is still most proud of that accomplishment. As she says, “WAC has transcended the century in which it was named” and continues to be a transformative force in education, grade school through grad school. In the late 70’s and 80’s, Dr. Maimon’s work was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education (FIPSE) to design institutes and conferences to disseminate WAC principles. Wherever she was and in whatever role (Brown University, Queens College, Arizona State University West, University of Alaska-Anchorage, Governors State University), she has taken a student-centered approach to increasing students’ abilities in a democracy. Now in 2020, WAC is deeply embedded in educational perspectives. In “Across the Curriculum and Across the Campus: the Infusion Model,” Chapter 4 of Leading Academic Change, Dr. Maimon encourages the use of the WAC model for integration of problem-solving, mathematics, art, and racial justice across the curriculum.

Dr. Maimon is a pragmatic idealist, committed to praxis (the interweaving of theory and practice). She devotes energy to writing textbooks  (A Writer’s Resource (comb-version) Student Editionbecause she wants to put directly into students’ hands advice based on the best research in composition. 

Dr. Maimon believes that policy makers have an obligation to connect practical experience to the development of transformational strategies: “We transform higher education one project at a time.” She made a conscious decision to work on the ground to implement change in the messy human environments of higher education institutions. Her goal has always been to implement change in real settings and to leave the university better than she found it. 

Some examples: In 1996, Arizona State University-West (ASUW) was an under-enrolled upper-division commuter campus with unused capacity to provide excellent education to many additional students. When Dr. Maimon left in 2004, ASUW was a four-year campus serving a broad diversity of students, with commuter and residence options. The admission of freshmen did not diminish ASU West’s partnership with Maricopa County community colleges. In fact, Westmarc, a local civic association, honored ASU West for its innovative university/community college connections. ASU West also had a new classroom building with new space for science instruction. 

Transcending her background as an English professor, Dr. Maimon has always done great things for science education. At the University of Alaska-Anchorage (UAA), she was told when she arrived that in the context of the Alaska General Assembly, the term “Anchorage caucus” was an oxymoron. When she left UAA, the university had a new state-of-the-art science building, courtesy of the legislative Anchorage caucus. As a presidential candidate at Governors State in 2007, she toured the disgraceful science facilities there and vowed that GSU students would soon have the labs and classrooms they deserved. She says, “Even when we got the money appropriated, nothing happened. I was left with no choice but to obtain the Governor’s schedule and literally track him down at a breakfast meeting. That resulted in GSU building the best science facilities of any regional university in the state.”

Dr. Maimon has long believed that quality and equity for New Majority students depend on transforming attitudes about regional public universities and community colleges. While she is in favor of increased opportunities for these students in the Ivy League and elite privates, she recognizes that most New Majority students will attend local public institutions. These institutions are chronically underfunded even though democracy depends on a more broadly educated citizenry.

For 24 years as the head of three public universities she devoted her energies to transformation from within, exploring how far she could take reform under adverse circumstances. During her 13 years at Governors State University, the circumstances could hardly have been more challenging.

She began her tenure in 2007, just in time for the Great Recession of 2008-9. Immediately after developing a model four-year structured undergraduate program ready for the arrival of a first freshman class in August 2014, Illinois sank into the budget debacle of 2015-17. Even so, in 2015, GSU won the prestigious Fidelity Investment/American Council on Education Award for Institutional Transformation. Finally, in her last months as GSU President, she faced a global pandemic. On July 1, 2020, she handed over to her successor an economically sound, innovative university. Principled pandemic planning resulted in maintaining quality of instruction while protecting the health and safety of students, employees, and the surrounding community.

Sustaining full employment for faculty, staff, and student workers was a high priority, not only to support the state economy, but to have people on hand to prepare for COVID and post-COVID educational reform. In fall 2020, Dr. Maimon’s successor did not have to announce layoffs and furloughs, as other universities did. Instead, she was able to hire 50 additional employees.

One of Dr. Maimon’s most important accomplishments at GSU was creation of a new model for university/community college partnerships. This model goes far beyond articulation agreements and is based on deep culture change. The seamless pathways between GSU and 17 Chicago area community colleges are the result of exploding what she calls the Maimon Hierarchical Fallacy, which goes like this: “If I teach at a university and you teach at a community college, I must be smarter than you.” The Dual Degree Program (DDP)—two degrees, Associate and Bachelor’s—is based on mutual respect between faculty and staff members at the university and community colleges.

Dr. Maimon also made sure that essential elements of the DDP were approved in university policy so that continuation of the program would not depend on personalities involved. For example, GSU policy now states that the university will not recruit students at partner community colleges until they are on track to complete Associate Degrees. This policy is based on research that shows that community college students who complete Associate degrees are more likely to complete Bachelor’s degrees. The policy also sends a message that the university respects instruction at the community college and does what it can to encourage students to follow a coherent program there before transferring. The Kresge Foundation, which sponsored the initial development of this innovative transfer program, is eager for its principles to be disseminated. Kresge funded the Dual Degree Program Guidebook.

Other important ideas that Dr. Maimon enacted at GSU include the following:

·       The best and brightest full-time faculty members should teach first-year students.

·       Learning communities enhance students’ educational and social developments.

·       Learning should be active, whether in person or online.

·       Students should be encouraged to explore majors during their first year.

·       General education—the humanities, arts, and social sciences—should not be viewed as things to check off on list; they form the foundation of life-long learning.

·       PhD programs in the humanities are in need of radical reform to prepare the professoriate to braid together equity and quality for the New Majority.

Over a long career of working on the ground to transform universities, Elaine Maimon faced the many challenges endemic to all human organizations—the conflicts, confrontations, and fears.
At the same time found and cultivated the idealism, dedication, and service, principles that rise above.

Today Elaine Maimon has the credentials and reputation to speak from the national stage on reforms necessary at this pivotal moment. She sums up her advice by saying, “You can never go wrong if you put students first.”

Ronn Torossian

Ronn Torossian is the founder and CEO of 5WPR and one of the most well-respected Public Relations professionals in the United States. Ronn is the author of "For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results with Game-Changing Public Relations."

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