NICOLE HESTER, THE TENNESSEAN
NICOLE HESTER, THE TENNESSEAN
Flora Tydings is one of USA TODAY’s Women of the Year, a recognition of women who have made a significant impact in their communities and across the country. The program launched in 2022 as a continuation of Women of the Century, which commemorated the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote. Meet this year’s honorees at womenoftheyear.usatoday.com.
Flora Tydings didn’t set out to be the first woman appointed as chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, or the first woman in Tennessee’s history to head a state higher education system. But that’s exactly what she is.
Tydings oversees 37 community and technical colleges in Tennessee and ensures that nearly 120,000 students, regardless of their circumstance, have access to higher education every year and develop skillsets to carry into their careers.
In 2016, Tydings was unanimously voted in to lead the College System of Tennessee, which was created in 1972. But becoming the first woman to hold the chancellor position was not exactly a new experience for her. She had leaped over gender barriers before.
Tydings was also the first woman to be president at Athens Technical College in Georgia. And since she began leading the Tennessee Board of Regents, the number of women who are college presidents in the system has increased from four to 18.
“I don’t know how in the world I got selected (as a Women of the Year honoree), but I’m just very thankful,” Tydings said during an interview.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Flora Tydings is the Tennessee honoree for USA TODAY’s Women of the Year
Tennessee Board of Regents chancellor Flora Tydings oversees 37 community and technical colleges in Tennessee and ensures that nearly 120,000 students have access to higher education.
Nicole Hester and Angela M. Gosnell, Knoxville News Sentinel
I consider it a great honor to be a female elected to those positions. I feel like I’ve had the benefit of so many women that have come before me and have been able to lay the groundwork for that opportunity. I’m deeply grateful to Gov. Bill Haslam for his confidence and faith in me to lead this system and then Gov. Bill Lee for allowing me to stay in this system and continue to lead.
I think for me it was never a fear. I think that’s one of the aspects of the way I had always looked at the jobs that I’ve been allowed to do. It was almost after I got the job, someone said to me, “Did you realize you are the first female?” It was never that I was looking at it as that I’m going to go be the first female. I’ve never felt treated less than as a female in this world of higher education. I always feel like my voice has been heard and that I’ve been able to sit at the table and not feel uncomfortable.
I made the comment to someone many years ago because I was the first female president at Athens Technical College in Athens, Georgia, and someone said, “What’s it like to be the first female president?” I said, well, to me this is normal because I don’t know what it would feel like to be a male president, but this is the way I feel, and this is the way I lead. So, I don’t know that that took a lot of courage, I guess is what I’m trying to get around to saying. I think it was just a path that was one I felt I was qualified to go down. And again, I have had great people that I’ve been allowed to work with. The idea of being a female has never been part of the question or the equation.
Personally, I’m so proud of my children, my family and the accomplishments that they have acquired. I have four children. They all have higher education degrees, master’s degrees, and every time they accomplish something, I’m a proud mother.
On the professional side, very similarly because I think I feel like all 120,000 of these students belong to me. Whenever they walk across the stage and realize one of their goals – a graduation is probably the moment when I am the most proud. I love to be on stage and hear when a graduate is walking across the stage, somebody in the back yells, “Go Grandma!” You know that you are changing not just that person’s life, but a family’s life, and that is just a feeling that you cannot replicate.
I think we’ve all been really challenged over the past several years. COVID-19 has been just a game-changer for higher education in that it completely disrupted what we were doing. We’ve had to figure out different ways to deliver education. I can’t say enough about how proud I am of the job that the faculty and the colleges and the presidents did. We, like everyone else in the country, thought we were going home for two weeks to slow the spread and two years later, we look totally different.
What we did as a system is we started meeting electronically on that first day and figured out how we were going to put everything online. Within two weeks, we had converted to online so that we didn’t just send people away. We changed the way we delivered our education. For our technical colleges, that was tricky because it’s very difficult to learn how to weld at home. You need to be able to come in and use the equipment. So what we were able to do is schedule individual times so that people could come in and do what they needed to do.
We were running classes 24/7 to get people in and through those programs and steady doing the hands-on components that they needed to do. Our colleges did it and they figured it out and we had one of the highest graduation rates during those two years that we’ve ever had.
My favorite saying is one by Henry Ford, and it’s “Think you can or think you can’t; either way, you will be right.” That’s one that I say a lot … because I think I have to believe. I have to believe that things are possible, and then I have to motivate others that this is possible, that we can do this. And we have to have that positive attitude that goes with it.
I’ve always been somewhat driven and strategic. I went through my undergraduate days quickly. I was in a hurry. I wanted to finish it fast. So, I finished my undergraduate school in three years and I think maybe I would have looked back and said, “Take your time. You don’t need to rush quite as much. You could wait. You could enjoy this a little more.”
But I didn’t understand when I was young that education never stops. It’s not a finite period in time. You get an undergraduate degree, but when you go into your graduate work what it helps you understand is you will never know everything there is to know. Continue the journey, continue to learn, continue to look for ways to grow and don’t feel like that there’s going to be a beginning and an end to this.