With two-year presidency complete, Ken White looking forward to focusing on “just one job”
Forgive School of Nursing Dean Ken White if he’s not sure what to do with the extra time he has on his hands these days. Sure, heading up a nursing school is enough to eat up any spare time that once existed, but it doesn’t match the frenetic pace of the past two years when the Oklahoma native also led the American Academy of Nursing, the most prestigious nursing organization in the country. Having the change to lead a most esteemed institution, which included becoming the first man president, was a dream come true.
“It's been the highlight of my professional career, and probably my life, to be able to lead and grow the AAN,” said Dr. White.
Earlier this month, the Academy celebrated its 50th anniversary at a gala and conference in Washington, DC. The three-day session featured celebrations, panel discussions, and the induction of 253 distinguished nurse leaders - the Academy’s largest class ever - as Fellows, who spanned 40 states and 13 countries. Making the induction extra special for White was seeing four IHP School of Nursing leaders - Associate Professors Suellen Breakey, Rebecca Hill, Brenna Morse, and Margie Sipe - inducted in the cohort.
But when the conference ended, so did White’s two-year tenure, a bittersweet moment after reaching the pinnacle of his career. As he turned the gavel over to new president Dr. Linda Scott and returns to doing just one job – leading the nursing school of which he became dean in July 2021 – he reflected on the opportunity and the accomplishments.
“I set out to do a few things, and I'm pleased that we made progress on all of those areas,” said White, who pointed to the following six key accomplishments:
- Strengthening the business model and strategic governance of the Academy
- Modernizing, streamlining, and upgrading the Fellow selection process
- Revising and gaining approval of the Academy’s bylaws
- Influencing policy with record numbers of policy briefs, dialogs, and collaborative partnerships
- Strengthening equity, diversity, inclusivity, and belonging
- Building a foundation for development and a culture of philanthropy
Along with making sure the Academy was on sound financial footing, White focused on its future and how it could continue to be relevant. With an aging membership – the average age is 69 – White knew he had to widen the membership net and include people earlier in their careers and expand the diversity of careers and organizational roles within nursing.
“During my term, we culminated a four-year process of analyzing and revamping the Fellow selection process to make it more inclusive, to make it more seamless in the way that the applications are being reviewed,” White said, adding there had been a 250% increase in international applicants. “We're trying to grow that in a way that is thoughtful to ensure the Fellow credential is more than an honorific title. We want to be sure we also engage all Fellows in the work of the Academy.”
Changing Faces, Changing Focus
Another key accomplishment for White was improving the AAN’s diversity and inclusivity – bringing in those not at the table.
“Diversity is beyond race and ethnicity,” reminded White. “It includes age, people with physical or developmental disabilities, Indigenous people, and others. We've had much more diversity in our programming and our conference topics and in our policy dialogues. I think it's a stronger Academy. We have some reckoning to do with some of our history - people who were not included early on, people who were kept out of the Academy. We need to face that, own it, and apologize, and I know Linda (Scott) will be the one to lead that.”
White also reached out to people who are not in traditional academic roles, which means more chief nurse executives, consultants, entrepreneurs, innovators, and inventors.
“People who are doing amazing things out there need to be in the Academy,” said White, noting that two-thirds of its members are academics. “If we're all academics, we're only seeing one side of the equation. We need to learn from our colleagues in practice and our colleagues in management and in other areas.”
A Policy Presence
With influencing federal policy related to health being the primary goal of the Academy, White and his team were busy over the past two years keeping up not only with Supreme Court decisions – the reversal of Roe vs. Wade among them – but with cases around the country that had far-reaching effects on health equity.
“We have signed on to record numbers of Amicus briefs in six states for cases involving gender-affirming care,” he said. “Healthcare services, reproductive services, gender-affirming services are being limited in many states, so we've been quite active on the policy front. We’ve also been busy with policy briefs and dialogues around global health, domestic violence, gun violence, climate change, climate justice, and decarbonizing the footprint in health care. And why that matters.”
What matters to White is how the AAN is a more welcoming organization. From his edgy columns and newsletters to the bits of humor in speeches to the overall approach, he said his changes are resonating.
“People have commented that they feel like they belong,” said White, who points to the individualized touch each newly elected Fellow received during his tenure as an example. “It used to be very sterile and very bland. These new Fellows would get a letter, and when they got to the event in Washington, D.C., they would attend a breakfast. I've completely revised the way we welcome people. First of all, they get an individual welcome from me as the president. This will continue. And when they arrive in Washington for the induction, we host a breakfast, and I go around and personally meet every single person and we talk about all their contributions that got them into the Academy. I think it's a much more welcoming organization. I'm immensely proud of that.”
White is also proud of his rapid ascension to the top of AAN’s hierarchy. An expert in palliative care, White didn’t become a nurse until his late 30’s and wasn’t selected a Fellow until 2012, when he was the Sentara Professor of Health Administration at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA as well as a graduate student at the University of Virginia pursuing a post-master’s certificate to achieve his lifelong dream of being a palliative care nurse practitioner. Yet not even a decade later, when White was leaving an associate dean’s position at the University of Virginia’s School of Nursing to come to the IHP, he became the first man to become the Academy’s president and the first man to head up the School of Nursing at Mass General.
“Very few men have run for president - I only know of one other,” said White. “It was good to have a male president, because this year we had many other men run for offices and run for boards and committees because they saw it was possible.”
One aspect the presidency brought out of White was his comfort with the stage and spotlight, a trait he never knew he had.
“I've always shied away from those kinds of roles because I didn't feel comfortable in front of the camera or in front of people,” said a surprised White. “I grew up playing the piano, and I would get physically ill when I had to perform in front of people. The same with speaking. I hated it, and I avoided it, and that kept me out of a lot of things over my life. And when this came up, I thought, ‘Well, it's now or never. I've got to get over it now because there's no backing out.’”
And because White didn’t back out, the Academy is on firmer footing, is more welcoming, and more inclusive. As for his next act, he’s an immediate past Academy president, which means he’ll be busy chairing the nominating committee and Living Legends task force for the next two years. And he’ll be working with IHP faculty he’s extremely impressed with.
“For a school our size to have as many Fellows  as we have, is pretty incredible,” marveled White. “I feel lucky to be with such a such a great faculty. There are many more that I that I'm mentoring so that they can be inducted too.
“I feel very fortunate for the opportunities I have been given, the wonderful team at the Academy and at the IHP School of Nursing—what we have been able to accomplish together and the impact on nursing and health equity.” said White. “The Academy presidency was an amazing chapter for me. Now, it’s on to the next thing. But I’m not going anywhere.”
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