Exit Interview: Dr. Janie Heath reflects on the past eight years as dean

Posted: November 22, 2022

After eight years at the helm of the University of Kentucky College of Nursing, Dean Janie Heath is retiring so she can slow down and enjoy quality time with her family and friends.

Serving as the university’s top academic nurse leader has been the most impactful time of her 46-year nursing career. Raising the College’s prominence in national rankings, advancing diversity, equality and inclusion among students and staff, and promoting stand-out programs such as health Colleges Advancing Team Skills (hCATS) to bring health care services to rural and underserved Kentucky communities are a few highlights of her tenure. Before she leaves, Dean Heath agreed to sit down for one last chat to reflect on the people and life experiences that helped shape her as a nurse and leader, important lessons learned along the way and the things she loved most about being dean.

Q: Tell us about your journey to becoming dean of the UK College of Nursing. You often tell students about being born in Fukuoka, Japan, and the hurdles you overcame while growing up in Lawton-Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

A: Many leaders attribute their success to overcoming adversities. My journey is no different, albeit a bit more ‘colorful.’ When I was 10, my mother received a terminal brain tumor diagnosis, and our father, a military officer, started making poor choices to cope with her death. My younger brother, Phillip, and I rapidly became the ‘parent’ figures to stepsiblings and a half brother. The theme song of our childhood was Elton John’s ‘Yellow Brick Road’ because it’s a song about following your own path and not regretting your decisions. Those early struggles taught us how to learn, grow and rebound through life’s storms.

One such storm happened during my first semester of nursing at Cameron University in Oklahoma, as I was failing most of my coursework. At the time, I was on my own and working several part-time jobs to pay for school and gas for my car. I put tremendous pressure on myself to do well in school so I could take care of myself and family after graduation, but I was struggling to juggle it all.

I felt embarrassed going to the learning resource center, but I went because I promised Dean Kruger. I put in my hours; I hunkered down and studied; and I graduated on time and passed my boards on the first attempt. My transcript was not pretty, but I graduated, and I felt confident about my next steps. Those early mistakes and struggles gave me the resilience and the grit to keep going and keep climbing throughout my career. I always knew I wanted to be a dean; it was a goal I kept close to my heart because I knew I wanted to use my experience in life, good and bad, to help others. I decided a long time ago I wanted to make a difference.

Q: What do you love most about being dean?

A: I absolutely love elevating the voice for nursing—it is what I believe I was called to do. Serving at the highest executive table, where I sit shoulder to shoulder with deans from 18 colleges, including six health care colleges, I proudly wear my UK employee ID badge, so they know the College of Nursing is in the house. I always say if there is a question about health care delivery or health profession education and nursing is not at the table, the meeting needs to be rescheduled. It is a huge honor to drive quality nursing education, strengthen the nursing workforce and help improve population health at the university, state and national levels. Being an advocate for nursing students, faculty and staff is not a job for me but pure joy.

Q: What are you most proud of about your tenure as dean?

A: I’m most proud of making people feel valued. When I arrived, the College was coming out of a grim period of budget tightening and performance pressures. I sensed it had taken a toll on the faculty and staff, and it would be my mission to shift the culture to make our people feel appreciated, valued and worthy.

I started with our working and learning environment—the nursing building itself. We didn’t have the budget to renovate, so we spent what money we could to refresh the paint and add new lighting, and we did this floor by floor until the entire building felt cleaner and brighter. It lifted everyone’s spirits and made them feel good about coming to work.

I also focused on unlocking the College’s treasure chest of talent and wisdom. We have a lot of native Kentuckians as faculty, people who have deeply ingrained values of hard work and humbleness. Their work was impressive, and the world needed to know about it. I homed in on confidencebuilding or giving that extra nudge to faculty to help them feel good about sharing and being proud of their innovative clinical practices or cutting-edge research.

I also made a point to make students feel valued. When I first arrived, they asked me, ‘Are you going to be the type of dean who welcomes us [on the first day] and then congratulates us [at graduation]?’ I always check in on students, in fact, it is the first thing I do every day. The student lounge is on the same floor as my office, so I am very intentional about visiting with them. They know I care about them and about their success.

Q: What prepared you most for being dean?

A: During my mother’s illness and death, I learned a lot about responsibility, commitment and caring from the strong women who raised me—my mother and my ‘other mothers,’ as I call them.

Marion Hanlin Parker, my paternal grandmother, drove from Oklahoma City to Lawton-Fort Sill to ensure my brother and I attended school. Aunt Betty, my mother’s sister-inlaw, taught me about unconditional love and that one does not have to be ‘blood of blood nor bone of bone’ to be loved and supported. And Nadine Livingston, a widow and manager of a military dry cleaners where I worked part time, allowed my brother and me to live with her when we had no other place to go.

I have also learned so many important professional lessons from women under whom I have worked. Dorrie Fontaine, the former dean of the University of Virginia College of Nursing, was a very powerful force in my professional development. She taught me to be a confident leader and to tackle difficult problems with a clear strategy. She also encouraged me to keep learning and improving. When I received less-than-glowing evaluations, Dorrie told me to get a coach. I took her advice, and while it was painful to examine my shortcomings, it was the only way to improve my performance.

But overall, my all-time leading supporter and guiding influence has been my partner, my husband, ‘the Colonel.’ Through my many stages in life and career, he has been the consistent pillar behind it all, and I cannot thank him enough for his love and support.

Q: You love using symbols to communicate your leadership style and goals. What do these symbols mean to you?

A: Any given day of the week, I will be wearing a symbol to keep me grounded and inspired—a device I learned to employ during a Harvard University executive leadership program.

The two symbols I use the most are horses and pumas. The puma was the first symbol I chose to represent my leadership style. Years ago, when I was associate dean of academics at Georgia Health Sciences University, a group of faculty members students traveled to Peru for a medical mission. I helped them find the funding for the trip, and when they got back, they gave me a puma broach. When I investigated the meaning of the puma in Peru, I found out that it is considered as a sort of shepherd of men. I nearly dropped to my knees when I read this description, because I have always seen myself as a shepherd, as someone who leads and cares for those around me—my patients, my students and my staff.

The horse is my symbol to represent Kentucky. There are pictures of horses throughout the College, and each picture tells a story, a story of our College and the people who work here. My favorite of the pictures is one of the large, watchful eyes of a horse, which to me represents the College’s loving watch over our students and faculty, it says: ‘We’re watching; we’ll take care of you.’