Notable nurse leader Shirley Sears Chater, RN, PhD, FAAN, accepted the Diane F. Cooper Lifetime Achievement Award at the Aug. 23 Nurse.com Nursing Excellence GEM Awards gala in Universal City, Calif. — adding to the many professional honors earned during her storied career.
Between 1953, when Chater earned her nursing diploma and BSN at the University of Pennsylvania, until leaving the RWJF Nurse Fellows Program National Advisory Committee in 2012, she has seen many changes in nursing, healthcare and education. Changes she helped create.
Chater’s potential for leadership emerged early. At UPenn she won the Florence Nightingale Award as the nursing student showing the most promise. Soon after, she enrolled in the MSN program at UC San Francisco, then earned a PhD in education from UC Berkeley and was immediately offered a teaching position at UCSF. “When the dean hired me, she [said] I had the potential to be an administrator, and that it would be difficult to be both an administrator and a clinician,” Chater said.
Chater decided to pursue teaching and adminstrative work, becoming a full professor at UCSF’s school of nursing and UC Berkeley’s school of education. While there, she undertook research, published numerous articles, engaged in community service, married and had two children. In 1977, Chater became UCSF’s vice chancellor for academic affairs. Despite being the highest ranking woman in the UC system, Chater’s professional trajectory was far from its zenith.
After several universities tried to recruit her, Chater recalled, she was “talked into” moving from the Bay Area. Texas Woman’s University wanted her leadership skills to help deflect a looming “merger” with another state school. With Chater as president, TWU underwent major restructuring and remained independent. A TWU vice president portrayed Chater’s leadership style this way in a 1988 New York Times article: “You can look at the president as a kind of master teacher. The role of the master teacher is to elicit the best from each student, to present ideas that their students can grapple with. At our meetings, Shirley Chater will bring an idea to us and let us pull it apart and put it back together.”
Chater described her leadership approach as “teaching people to think in different ways and then giving them the credit for it.” She added that “if one’s attitude is ‘how can we make this work,’ it becomes fun.” She said that at TWU she spoke to workers directly and asked, “What are your wishes, and don’t ask for money because we don’t have any.” Groundskeepers wanted money for flowers, Chater said, but after conversing with her, they decided to go to every nursery in the area and ask if they’d give the university plants that were dying. The groundskeepers planted and nurtured the flowers and the campuses looked great, Chater said. “Many people think they don’t have the opportunity to conduct their work life in a different way because no one gives them the suggestion that they can, or the freedom to do so,” she said.
Under Chater’s guidance, TWU established and managed a community health clinic. A Hispanic maternity initiative received national acclaim, and a program supporting single mothers working toward bachelor’s degrees continues to serve as a model for other universities. Former Texas Gov. Ann Richards also called on Chater to help write a state health plan, and unbeknownst to Chater, sent her resume to President Bill Clinton, who needed someone to head the beleaguered Social Security Administration. Chater was sworn in as SSA commissioner in October 1993, pledging to “put customers first.”
Chater said she “loved going to senior centers and learning how people lived.” During her administration, the SSA began sending an annual SS statement to every citizen, phased in direct deposit of SS checks, improved workflow by staggering check mailings throughout the month and created a national 800 phone number.
Although she broke glass ceilings, pushed boundaries, received 13 honorary doctorates and won numerous awards, Chater said her most gratifying role has been teacher and mentor. “It gives me so much satisfaction to know I’ve helped someone go to the next step,” she said. •
Lori Fagan is a former copy editor.
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