By Georgiana Vines
April 26, 2012

Christine Todd Whitman, a former New Jersey governor and Environmental Protection Agency administrator, told an all-female audience in Knoxville on Thursday that it’s important to let elected officials know what’s on their minds.

Whitman encouraged the 80 women in attendance at the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy on the University of Tennessee campus to contact the state’s two Republican U.S. senators, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, to support the re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

She was on a panel with seven Knoxville women leaders discussing “Women, Power & Leadership.”

Whitman made her comments following a presentation by Cheryl Travis, chair of women’s studies at the University of Tennessee. Travis gave a brief report on where women are in education, the workforce and politics, and concluded by saying women “can act” on issues by contacting the senators on a student loan support program through the Stafford Act and the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization.

“Sen. Lamar Alexander and Sen. Bob Corker want to hear from you,” she said.

Whitman picked up Travis’ theme: “Senators may not want to hear from you. They need to hear from you,” the Republican said.

She said the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which has passed unanimously in the past, has become entangled in “all kinds of politics.” She cited Alexander in particular as needing to hear from Tennessee constituents.

“Alexander’s got to stand up to his leadership,” she said.

As part of the debate in Congress, Democrats have offered proposals to protect Native American women and provide more visas to abused immigrants. Republicans have complained proposed changes to the law are designed to distract from issues like the economy.

Whitman, who headed the EPA in 2001-03 under President George W. Bush, was in Knoxville to give an inaugural energy and environmental policy lecture at the Baker Center on Wednesday night. She talked about the need for a long-term energy policy that focuses on global climate change, air, water and land, addiction to fossil fuels and “the urgent need” to develop new, affordable, reliable, clean sources of energy matter.

She said most discussions on environmental policy have become negative and reduced to sloganeering.

Nissa Dahlin-Brown, the Baker Center’s associate director, said once Whitman accepted the invitation to speak, she then agreed to participate in a dialogue with Knoxville women leaders. The audience for the latter was comprised of professional and business women, UT administrators, students and retirees.

The panelists were asked to discuss how they got to where they are today and to provide advice on how others could benefit from their experiences.

They said it was important to take advantage of opportunities, whether it’s running for public office, serving on boards, taking a job or changing jobs, even if they don’t think they’re qualified.

Whitman was president of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities before being elected governor in 1994. When first approached about the utility job, she said she knew nothing about utilities.

“There is always someone smarter than I am. I don’t have to know everything. Don’t beat yourself up for not knowing everything,” she said. Just know who to go to and ask questions, she added.

Mintha Roach, KUB CEO/president, said she worked for the city of Knoxville and then KUB in the human resources field. When under consideration for the top KUB job, she thought, “I don’t want to do this. I’m not an engineer.”

But Sharon Miller Pryse, president of the Trust Co., was a KUB board member at the time and told her, “Yes, you can. It’s all about leadership,” Roach recalled.

Pryse, also a panelist, had her own story. She graduated from UT with a degree in finance but the only job she could find was as a clerk in the trust department at the former Valley Fidelity Bank for $325 a month. Her duties included Xeroxing and collating papers.

“If I had been a male the bank would not have offered me the job,” Pryse said.

Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero told the group to be successful in public office, it’s important to get involved and meet people. She also said to keep track of people’s names and their addresses. And be able to take criticism, she said.

“Be careful of social media. (Learn to) toughen up,” she said.

Margie Nichols, vice chancellor for communications for UT on the Knoxville campus, said it’s important to know when it’s time to move on from one job to another. She spent 25 years in the news business, as a TV reporter and news director, before joining Gov. Bill Haslam’s staff when he was Knoxville mayor, and then going to UT.

“Being a reporter is my favorite job,” she said. But she transitioned to other jobs to make more money and to have influence in decision-making situations, she said.

Rita Geier, who just retired as a special assistant to the UT chancellor, said she has completed four careers and she hopes she’s still growing. Among them were serving as an attorney with the Department of Justice and the Social Security Administration.

Geier’s experiences with promotions provided some levity for the serious topic of the day.

“When you really get bumped up, you get a private bathroom,” she said, laughing. “I always enjoyed the camaraderie of the bathroom.”

She found herself continuing to use to the public bathroom as a way to stay in touch and communicate with employees, she said.

Sarah Gardial, outgoing vice provost at UT, stressed the importance of passion in whatever someone chooses to do.

“It’s exhausting to be in the position of leadership. It takes a lot of energy,” she said, adding if a person doesn’t get up in the morning and feel charged, “it’s not going to work.”

She is leaving UT to become dean of the Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa.