Meredith Holt, Published April 20 2013
Women of Influence: MSUM President Edna Szymanski gets results with unconventional leadership style
MOORHEAD - Minnesota State University Moorhead’s president has been dubbed “Hurricane Edna” by her peers.
Colleague Anne Blackhurst says the nickname is used to refer to Edna Szymanski’s ability to get things done, which has been recognized time and time again throughout her career.
“It conveys that she’s a force to be reckoned with and a whirlwind of activity,” says Blackhurst, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs.
Edna, who came to MSUM in 2008, calls herself unconventional.
“She doesn’t even try to enact a ‘textbook’ leadership style. Instead, she succeeds by being true to who she is and allowing her uniqueness to shine through,” Blackhurst says.
She says it’s Edna’s offbeat style that allows her to build relationships with people from a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives.
For Edna, 61, influence is about respect. She tries to treat everyone she encounters with respect.
“It’s as simple as that,” she says.
Edna, who grew up in Philadelphia, says women still have to be tougher than men, especially women who have to make difficult decisions, like she does as a university president.
“Men feel more freely to treat women disrespectfully than they do men, and you still see this fairly constantly, and I have experienced it,” she says, without elaborating.
The lack of respect may be subtle, or it may be direct – she’s seen it all.
“Women leaders are particularly vulnerable. People will lash out at a woman leader probably faster than they’ll lash out at a male,” she says.
Edna and husband Michael met during the Vietnam War through a mutual friend at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., where she earned a bachelor’s degree in biology.
Michael, a retired engineer, says he was initially attracted to Edna’s spontaneity and joy and wonder about life.
He says she’s become more self-confident and “at peace with herself” in the 40 years they’ve been married.
By watching her grow into each leadership role she’s held over the years, he’s gained an understanding of how managers have to have several plates spinning at once.
That’s why downtime is so important to the Moorhead couple, who recently bought a lake home in Detroit Lakes. They spend their weekends there when schedules and weather allow.
“There’s nothing in the world that I enjoy more than being out during the sunrise at the lake,” Edna says.
That’s also where they’ll retire. Neither has family in the area, but they’ve fallen in love with it.
“I continue to see more of a sense of community and caring than I’ve seen anywhere else,” she says.
Michael’s mother even plans to move to Eventide from Pennsylvania next month.
“I’m not one of those people who’s going to work forever. I believe strongly in having balance in my life,” Edna says.
She’s unwilling to say when she’ll retire, but when she does, Edna and Michael want to travel, with Australia, New Zealand and Ireland at the top of the list.
“If there’s anything that we enjoy, it’s nature,” she says.
Though her job makes it challenging, Edna has also been working on becoming healthier through diet and exercise.
“As I tell folks I work with, if we don’t take good care of ourselves, we aren’t as effective in caring for others,” she says.
She’s been a vegetarian for years (eating vegan at least a few days a week) and enjoys walking and hiking.
“I find that being outdoors restores both mind and body for me,” she says.
Michael says Edna should be proud of the “internal compass” she’s developed over the years, personally and professionally.
“I lead from principle and my spiritual beliefs – not religious, but spiritual,” she says.
MAKING THINGS HAPPEN
Edna came to MSUM from the University of Maine, Orono. Before that, she held positions at the University of Maryland-College Park and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she began her academic career in 1989.
Her “first career” was serving as a rehabilitation counselor in upstate New York. It was her desire to improve her field that led her to academics.
“I’m a good leader and have been a good leader because I believe in making things happen and I believe in making a difference,” she says.
However, she wasn’t always sure that leadership was the right path for her.
In her second term as dean at the University of Maryland, Edna started a self-appointed project of interviewing 12 highly respected people.
Frustrated by the politics of the D.C. area, she sought out leaders, including a Peace Corps official, who led with their core values front and center.
“I see a lot of people leading from power and privilege. I keep telling people, ‘If you ever see me doing that, kick me,’ ” she says.
Provost Blackhurst describes Edna’s leadership style at MSUM as “accessible.” She holds separate office hours for students, faculty and staff.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, for example, she was preparing for a pizza party with the Dragon Ambassadors.
“I walk around campus and people feel free to say, ‘Hi, Edna,’ and I engage in conversation with them,” she says.
It’s important to her to remain connected with the very people she’s helping. She shuns formality and distance.
“You can’t make the world better in isolation,” she says.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Meredith Holt at (701) 241-5590