Provost Jeanette Mendez uses experience in College of Arts and Sciences to build OSU’s academic future
Tuesday, September 12, 2023
Media Contact: Elizabeth Gosney | CAS Marketing and Communications Manager | 405-744-7497 | firstname.lastname@example.org
In the 18 years Dr. Jeanette Mendez has been at Oklahoma State University, her roles have included department head, associate dean, interim dean, vice provost and provost — and yet at the outset, she didn’t aspire for any of them.
“I’ve always thought of myself as a professor, someone who just teaches and does research. Being in administration wasn’t on my BINGO card,” said Mendez, whose first foray into leadership came in 2011 when she became the Department of Political Science head. “But at every phase, with every opportunity that presented itself, I jumped in and did the best I could at the job. I’m not one to say no if I think I can provide a skill at that point in time.”
The College of Arts and Sciences afforded Mendez the chance to showcase that skillset time after time: she served in five permanent and interim leadership capacities within the college over the span of eight years. Then, in 2019, the university appointed her vice provost. “I’ve never approached any position as a placeholder, and I think that’s resonated,” Mendez said. “I haven’t always known what the next step would be, but I have invested myself in the current step. That has meant not standing still, not being complacent and just doing whatever I can.”
OSU President Kayse Shrum made use of that can-do attitude and expertise, naming Mendez provost in 2022. Although this is the first time Mendez has directly reported to a woman, she said it’s leadership style, not gender, that made her buy into Dr. Shrum’s vision.
“I met with President Shrum on day one and thought, ‘I want to be part of her team,’” Mendez said. “I’ve been able to watch her prioritize, juggle, manage and make choices related to her work-life balance that hadn’t been modeled for me in my career. … I had very supportive people I worked with before, but I’ve connected differently with President Shrum.”
The admiration goes both ways, with Shrum saying that Mendez not only stood out to her as someone “immensely qualified to serve OSU as the provost,” but who also understood the life-changing impact of higher education.
“The land-grant mission of OSU is of critical importance and personally relevant to both of us,” said Shrum, who, like Mendez, is a first-generation college graduate. “Access to a college education changed the trajectory of what was possible in our lives. Students need strong leaders, and they need examples they can relate to. Jeanette is an example of determination and turning challenges into opportunities.”
One such challenge-turned opportunity for Mendez was helping create the university’s new strategic plan, “We Are Land-Grant.” Jerome Loughridge, OSU senior vice president of system operations and CEO of the OSU Research Foundation, was a member of the planning team with whom Mendez collaborated closely to frame initial steps of the plan before crafting the final document.
“You really get to know how someone thinks when you have to produce such a public piece together,” Loughridge said. “Based on my experience [with Mendez], OSU is in very good hands, indeed.”
Loughridge added that in addition to Mendez possessing ideal attributes for a provost and chief academic officer — namely those of creativity, energy, intelligence and humility — she also has a keen sense of humor. “She takes the work of OSU and its mission extremely seriously; herself, much less so,” Loughridge said. “I think that’s an excellent way for a leader to bring people along in any organization.”
Loughridge, Mendez and the other members of Shrum’s “We Are Land-Grant” team pulled from their areas of expertise to present a plan aimed at making OSU the preeminent land-grant institution in the country.
“The great thing about having this strategy is that we know what we’re focused on and what we want to do at all points in time,” Mendez said. “It’s about all the puzzle pieces fitting together — that’s on the student side, that’s on the research side, that’s on our faculty side.”
“We’re recruiting the highest quality faculty and supporting them in all their teaching, research and creative endeavors so that they can elevate OSU and help our students succeed. We could go off and do a lot of other things, but we choose to do our teaching and our research at a comprehensive land-grant university because we care about students.”
Loughridge echoed Mendez’s thoughts, pointing out that it is through her past CAS and universitywide roles that she can see future possibilities.
“She has a vision of how OSU can — through its colleges and schools, its faculty and students — really impact Oklahoma through innovation, workforce development and ... OSU graduates who can go out and make good communities great,” Loughridge said. “I sense that Dr. Mendez sees her work as a calling, rather than simply a career.”
While Mendez is more visible in her provost role and the stakes of her decisions are often higher, she said there are common threads that run through her tenure at OSU that transcend any titles or perceived prestige.
“I have a really good sense of myself and the things that make me happy,” Mendez said. “I don’t do this job because I want power, recognition or money. I do it because I think I have the right energy and the right skill set to move the university forward. I constantly come back to that. I’m in this job because I think we can make a positive difference.
“I’m not in this for anything more than the fact that I care deeply about OSU.”
Provost Mendez's Advice for Young Profesionals
Ask for Help
"Then ask and ask again. You're not supposed to know everything. That's part of growing and evolving."
Look to Lead
"Leadership opportunities are everywhere, and they don't always come with a title or certain position. People get caught up with 'I need to do XYZ in order to lead,' but there are just so many other ways."
Motivation is Key
"Enter into leadership for the right reasons. If you are doing it for that career advancement and not a passion for the mission, you're going to burn yourself out and it won't be worth it."
Inspire Through Delegation
"You don't have to do everything for your team. In fact, if you do, they won't buy into what you're building. Learn how to be the leader of the team, not the doer of the team."
Photos By: Phil Shockley and Gary Lawson | OSU Brand Management
Story By: Elizabeth Gosney | CONNECT magazine