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A Champion of Equitable Education With a Passion for Serving Others

Mar 25, 2024 By Queens University Communications

When Sarah Fatherly, Ph.D., provost and vice president for academic affairs at Queens, was in fifth grade and needing a book report subject, her mother suggested Mary McLeod Bethune. Absorbing Bethune’s many accomplishments — pioneering educator, civil rights activist, and gender equality champion — proved to be an early influential lesson for the young Fatherly.

Fatherly, who became an avid young cellist while navigating the K-12 public school system, pursued her bachelor’s degree at Gustavus Adolphus College (GAC), thanks to a music scholarship, where she majored in history and minored in women’s studies in the 1980s. At the time, women’s studies programs as an academic discipline were new; in fact, Fatherly was in the first group of students at GAC to minor in it.

History departments also were not common for female participants at the time, either — as faculty or as students. Fatherly recalled, “I can think of being a young woman undergraduate and how the male history majors and I just didn’t have the same opportunities.”

Despite this, her professors still saw Fatherly’s immense potential and encouraged her to advance her education. She forged on to receive her M.A., and a Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a specialization in early American and women’s history.

Most of all, she recalled, her educators inspired her to develop her love of teaching and pursuit of scholarship, while also keeping servant leadership top of mind.

“They are the reason my path has led me to this point in life at Queens, as the chief academic officer,” Fatherly said.

Throughout the years, she found herself in faculty leader roles in addition to teaching in higher education. She joined Queens in 2012 as associate provost and dean of university programs. In 2017, she stepped into her current role.

Fatherly has studied, presented, and published about topics to which she is dedicated. Her education specialized in 18th century British North American women’s history. Her 2008 book “Gentlewomen and Learned Ladies, Women and Elite Formation in Eighteenth Century Philadelphia” won the Pennsylvania Historical Association’s prestigious Philip S. Klein Book Prize.

“I was particularly interested in exploring how white women were helping construct what would become American class categories,” she said. “I have always been interested in learning (and God knows I had a lot to learn — we all do) about the intersective aspects of identity and I think that’s never gone away from me. I use that all the time.”

Another passion is application of equity-minded curriculum and evidence-based high-impact practices in higher education. In her role at Queens, she said her daily reminder is: “How do I think about the kinds of ways that we might package learning to make it more likely that all students can access that experience and be successful in it?”

“I believe that institutions of higher ed have not just an opportunity but a responsibility to the way that they scaffold and deliver that higher education experience,” she said. “And, in the classroom, it [should be] predicated on principles of equity. Otherwise, you’re saying ‘Everybody may be able to get in the door, but what happens after that?’”

In 2024, and in all the past years of being an educator, a scholar, and an academic officer, Fatherly has also worked to empower other women and underrepresented communities.

She said, “I try to be mindful of how we approach things. In higher ed, women make up only 30% of leadership (C-suite and above). Just by being in my job I am a statistic. But I want to make that mean something, since I also happen to be a woman in a leadership position with very strong commitments professionally and personally around equity and around gender equality.”

“I always assume that everybody sitting in a room has multiple identity categories that they are occupying at the same time and therefore also recognize that they may be experiencing the conversation differently,” she said.

Often, Fatherly harkens back to the influence of Mary McLeod Bethune to continue the push for a just and inclusive experience in higher education.

She continued, “Access to college is not the same as success. Equity-minded pedagogy, courses, programs — that’s the part about the promise of success. We — as faculty, deans, chief academic officers — make choices about how you experience your education; our responsibility is to be thoughtful about it.”

By Nicole Ward Beckley