Empowering Women to Lead

Elaine Maimon enjoys the company of Chicago Network members.
Courtesy of The Chicago Network

Although I have returned to Philadelphia, my hometown, Chicagoland will always be an important part of who I am. For thirteen years I focused on encouraging this capital of the Midwest to improve the education of the nation’s New Majority of college students (first-generation, students of color, adults, and military veterans). As President of Governors State University (GSU) in suburban Chicago, I was able to lead the institution toward innovative reforms. 

But my work in Chicagoland took on a broader and more influential perspective because of my membership in The Chicago Network (TCN), an organization of Metropolitan Chicago’s most influential women leaders in a variety of fields. If you visit the TCN website, you will see a clear statement of purpose: “to empower women to lead”; its mission “to connect with each other for personal and professional growth, advance our civic business & philanthropic communities, and inspire and support the next generation”; and its values: “empathy, generosity, equity, and collectivity.”

Although the organization has a robust and meaningful set of by-laws and rules, particularly for committees, it functions without superfluous red tape. One of the most important principles is the “guilt-free” rule. All members are ultra-busy, but no one should or is ever meant to feel guilty for missing an event or a committee meeting. The “twenty-four-hour” rule is the only expectation—that you respond to another member’s email, text, or call within 24 hours, even if it’s to say that you are not available for a while.

Membership is determined through a careful nomination and election process. Not every Chicagoland woman at the top of her organization becomes a TCN member. The membership committees look for evidence of character, civic commitment, and national reputation. 

When my husband and I moved to Chicagoland, we knew very few people. Luckily, Sylvia Manning, then the Chancellor of the University of Illinois-Chicago (and later President of the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central States), was a long-time friend and colleague. Sylvia was aware of my national reputation as a founder of writing across the curriculum and anticipated that I would bring innovative perspectives to the Midwest. She introduced me to The Chicago Network and sponsored my candidacy. It was the best possible welcoming gift.

My thirteen-year membership in TCN has made me a more productive university president and civic leader. I had opportunities to test ideas with women outside academia. These interactions provided perspective for improving higher education in society at large. Through TCN, I connected with leaders in business, government, and media who invariably helped me to do a better job. Some of my TCN friends became deeply interested in GSU’s mission to serve the New Majority and accepted my invitation to join the President’s Advisory Council (PAC).  The meetings of this group were highlights of my GSU years. So much of what we accomplished—a model four-year undergraduate program, a nationally recognized community college partnership, success in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)—was strengthened through PAC discussions.

I want to recognize and thank this group: Virginia Aaronson, Kate Bensen, Joy Cunningham, Donni Case, Kay McCurdy, Amy Osler-Lowenthal, Jill Wine-Banks, Joyce Winnecke.

Now that I have retired as GSU president to devote my energies to national reform in higher education, TCN friends and advisors have remained my closest and most valued colleagues. They are helping me to think through how to establish a TCN clone in Philadelphia. The city would greatly benefit from forming a unique organization that brings together top women in a variety of fields, channeling the personal for the public good. 

Wherever I have been I have always supported women’s organizations, but I have never before experienced the unique benefits of TCN. The American Council on Education (ACE), where I now work as an advisor, sponsors state and national women’s groups in higher education. In Phoenix, where I served as chief executive officer of Arizona State University West Campus, groups of Athena-award winners and finalists connected informally. In Anchorage, where I was the Chancellor of the University of Alaska Anchorage, I participated in many ad hoc panels and gatherings of Alaska women. In the early 1990’s, as a Dean at Queens College (CUNY), I assisted the QC President in organizing something similar to TCN, but the group did not last. TCN has continued for over forty years.

I have personally experienced TCN’s staying power even though I now live in another region of the country. The COVID-enforced greater use of Zoom has no doubt helped to keep me in close touch with TCN. I participate in numerous small group discussions and have joined the TCN Book Club. Like diamonds and internet posts, TCN is forever, even when members move away. 

The Chicago Network demonstrates that authentic and meaningful personal connections can empower women to make a positive difference in the larger society.

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