Leading with urgency
At the helm of the Wilder School, Dean Susan Gooden gets things done
It is late Tuesday evening in March of 2021: 10:07 p.m., to be exact.
It is long past quitting time for the talented fleet of researchers assembled on the call and nearly the witching hour for an administrator whose schedule rivals that of any major metropolitan mayor. Still, Wilder School Dean Susan Gooden, Ph.D., is showing no signs of fatigue. While those on the video feed reach wearily for their choice of caffeine, Gooden is buoyant, seemingly energized by the urgency of the call.
The callers are part of a partnership between the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and the Wilder School’s newest enterprise, the Research Institute for Social Equity (RISE). They have gathered to discuss strategies for addressing the vast disparities between where Virginia’s COVID-19 vaccinations have been administered and the Black and Latino communities that have been most devastated by the virus.
Although the death toll from the virus has begun to trend downward by this evening, white residents are still receiving vaccinations at 2.2 times the rate of Black Virginians, while Black residents are dying at 1.2 times the rate of white residents.
And because lives are quite literally at stake, straightaway, Gooden is determined.
If the team is to accomplish its goal of informing a more equitable statewide response to the virus, Gooden asserts, then it must make the herculean effort of deploying researchers across the state’s five geographical regions in the span of three weeks. Convening directly with residents and citizens, leaders of local health departments and community and faith-based organizations to understand the varying needs of vulnerable communities, she argues, is the only way to effectively target the problem.
And while the team is very clearly daunted by this objective, Gooden’s plan is unanimously adopted. Over the next few days and weeks, boots are placed on the ground across the commonwealth’s 35 diverse health districts.
When probed several weeks later about the impact of this dizzying schedule and the arduous months of data analysis ahead, Gooden is gracious, downplaying the enormity of the task and her own involvement.
“Oh, you know.” She smiled as she quoted Nelson Mandela: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
Gooden, a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and an internationally recognized scholar on equity and governance, finds herself at the helm of one of the country’s foremost social policy institutions at a time when the nation is gripped by the most intense and sustained social reckoning over racial justice in generations. It is a role that she is poised to play on various fronts.
She is the founder of RISE, a bold effort to reframe public discourse and decision-making around racial equity at the national, state and local level. RISE draws on the collective expertise of Wilder School faculty, as well as the VCU medical campus, on a wide range of social equity-related research.
The author of four books and numerous articles, Gooden has written prolifically on the legacy of race and identity in public administration, including her acclaimed 2014 publication “Race and Social Equity: A Nervous Area of Government,” which won the 2020 Herbert Simon Best Book Award presented by the American Political Science Association.
And while 2021 is far from concluded, the year promises to be an equally productive period for Gooden.
Consider the months already in review: In February, she published “The Legacy of Separate but Equal: Policy Implications for the 21st Century,” a special issue of the Russell Sage Foundation Journal of Social Sciences that examined the landmark Supreme Court decision through a series of essays that consider the connection between state-sanctioned segregation, white supremacy and the persistence of racial inequality. The journal, which was co-edited by Gooden, economist Samuel Myers, Ph.D., and constitutional scholar john powell, garnered significant media attention from C-SPAN and other noted outlets.
In April, she was awarded the Charles H. Levine Memorial Award for Excellence in Public Administration, becoming the first African American to do so in the prize’s 31-year history. Presented jointly by the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) and the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration (NASPAA), the award is a highly competitive honor that recognizes a public administration scholar who has made indelible achievements in teaching, research and service.
This October, Gooden will become the president of NASPAA. A leading authority on public policy education for the past 50 years, NASPAA is the membership and accrediting body for graduate education programs in public policy, public affairs, public administration and public and nonprofit management.
At the same time, she has shown tremendous acumen as an administrator — restructuring the Wilder School’s student success and research enterprises to maximize efficiency while overseeing unprecedented gains in major gift giving and graduate enrollment amid epic disruptions in higher education — all while initiating a rigorous examination of the equity of the Wilder School’s internal policies and practices.
Under her leadership, the school has also adopted an ambitious Racial Equity Action Plan (REAP).
The plan provides a formal agenda for advancing racial equity across five action areas and 17 strategic goals that were collaboratively determined by faculty, staff and students. Being ranked nationally in the area of social policy means that the Wilder School has a special obligation in this area, said Gooden.
“REAP is about ensuring that our own house is in order while engaging each of our stakeholders — faculty, students, staff and alums — in achieving the critical work of equity. These are shared responsibilities, community responsibilities. We can each contribute and make important contributions in very different ways,” said Gooden.
AT A GLANCE
Hometown: Martinsville-Henry County, Va., where she maintains strong roots
Education: Associate degree from Patrick Henry Community College; a bachelor’s in English and a master’s in political science from Virginia Tech; a master’s and a doctorate in political science from Syracuse University
Family: Parents Shirley (Stanley) and the late Rev. John Tinsley, a pastor and educator; husband Dr. Basil Gooden, director of state operations of rural development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture; mother of one daughter, Caper, and two special cousins, Cameron and Donnie