Christianity Today deemed Dr. Shirley A. Mullen within its list of “50 Women You Should Know.” The president of Houghton College, Houghton, New York, who holds two doctorates and serves on the board of prominent organizations, surely deserves this recognition.
She does not, however, give the pretense that deferential treatment is expected. Mullen is a consistent example of warmth, and her peers describe her as humble, considerate and gracious.
A 1976 Houghton grad, Mullen recounted that former professor Dr. Kay Lindley saw her potential as a leader during her sophomore year and asked her to run some review sessions for students in Lindley’s western civilization class.
“Most of my early experiences in leadership roles were very task oriented — I think I got them because I was organized, but I was also deeply shy,” said Mullen. “It was Dr. Lindley who encouraged me to move out of my ‘comfort zone.’ She was the one who said, ‘Shirley, you really need to go to grad school — you really should pursue this.’” It was also Lindley who, years later, told Mullen that she should consider being a college president.
“She was always looking out ahead at what God might do with me. At many colleges, I might simply have disappeared into the woodwork,” said Mullen. “But at Houghton, as a Wesleyan college, there were professors who were on the lookout for both women and men with potential.”
That Houghton has been shaped as an institution of higher education in the Wesleyan tradition is part of what Mullen values most about the college and is what brought her back to serve there.
“The gift of The Wesleyan Church is that it frames a theology that makes room for both men’s and women’s leadership and giftedness and calling,” said Mullen. “It never occurred to me that women were not supposed to be leaders because I had role models like Dr. Lindley, “Doc Jo” (Josephine Rickard, professor of English) and Dr. Frieda Gillette (professor of history and chair of that department for many years).”
After graduating from Houghton, Mullen’s academic pursuits eventually led her to a position teaching history at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. As a young faculty member, she discovered she had a knack for chairing meetings. “The people around me said, ‘Oh, Shirley, you chair meetings really well — let's let you chair committees and task forces too!’”
Mullen believes that leadership isn’t about “being a leader” as much as it is about being faithful at each stage of the journey and responding to the needs of the community. “At Westmont,” she said, “it was very clear that what the community needed was for me to be an academic administrator, more than it needed me to teach history. That was what the mission needed me to do, so I did it.
“I am, at the core, a teacher,” she said. “I went into college teaching because I enjoy students of this age and believe that this is the stage when they are making the fundamental decisions that will shape the trajectory of their lives. I am an administrator only so I can help institutions better serve these students and the faculty and staff who are key to their transformation.”
Though Mullen misses the regular interaction with students that she had while teaching, she still makes time in her schedule to teach occasionally and to meet with and mentor students. Students, in turn, feel seen and heard by Mullen.
“As a mentee of Dr. Mullen, she made me feel that my input was as valuable as hers,” said Olivia Flint, a recent Houghton graduate. “President Mullen always made me feel that she was open to learning from me as well.”
No matter her role, Mullen’s motivation has always been grounded in a willingness to do whatever it takes to make the institution better for the sake of the students. “I want them to know their value,” she said.
And just as Dr. Lindley did for her all those years ago, Mullen wants students “to see their potential. I want them to know that importance of becoming the unique individual that God has made them to be.”
“The gift of The Wesleyan Church is that it frames a theology that makes room for both men’s and women’s leadership and giftedness and calling.”