At several minutes past eight on a September morning, a dozen staffers from the School of Nursing await the dean’s arrival in a private dining room at the Inn at Penn. None of them know why Dean Afaf Meleis has invited them to attend this staff breakfast, but instead of pondering that question they use this time to mull over the dean’s legendarily bottomless energy reserves.
“What’s her secret?” asks a woman who recently switched over to a job at the school from the College of Arts and Sciences.
“You should see her walk,” says a longtime nursing-school veteran. “She walks like she’s running a marathon. It’s impossible to keep up with her.”
“So much energy,” says the third, shaking her head.
“And she doesn’t drink any coffee or tea, just water,” says the veteran. “Just hot water. Watch what she drinks.”
The term boundless energy tends to come up very early on when people are talking about Meleis. U.S. Court of Appeals Judge and Pennsylvania First Lady Marjorie O. “Midge” Rendell CW’69, who recently stepped down as chair of the School of Nursing’s board of overseers, nicknamed her friend the Energizer Dean.
“She calls from cabs, from airports, from her cellphone while she’s walking across campus on her way to a meeting,” Rendell says. “She doesn’t miss an opportunity. The woman is always on the go.”
If the Energizer Dean is known for not breaking step, she’s also known for marching to the tune of her own drum. Her individuality is expressed concisely on a bumper sticker in her office that reads, “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” It’s also made clear by the many tales of moxie that illustrate her life story and by her irrepressible sense of style. Rosemarie Greco, Rendell’s successor as chair of the nursing school’s board of overseers, who directs Pennsylvania’s Office of Health Care Reform, remembers the first time she met Meleis: “This extroverted constellation of energy, enthusiasm, warmth, and intelligence entered the room—along with this dynamic purple outfit.”
Meleis’s favorite color is purple, but this morning the 66-year-old dean is a blur of yellow and pink, as she swooshes into the dining room in a yellow suit with a pink blouse and matching scarf and hat. Gold rings and gemstones are stacked on her fingers, and a pink-and-green flower pin sparkles from her lapel. Her lipstick is a shade of pink similar to her fishnet stockings. Walking across campus in her bold ensembles, Meleis is a kind of living symbol for one of the goals she set when she arrived in Philadelphia in 2002: to raise the visibility of the School of Nursing.
The size of the faculty has increased 36 percent since 2003, and its impressive scholarly productivity is reflected in a recent National Institute of Nursing Research report in which fully five of a total of 10 listed “Landmark Nursing Research Studies” are under way at Penn. Applications to the school have tripled, and their quality has increased markedly. The acceptance rate for the nursing school’s Class of 2011 was 26 percent.
Even the school’s 1970s-era headquarters has undergone a long-overdue makeover. That building behind the Quad that’s always been really hard to find is now much easier to locate since a hole was blasted through the biomedical library in order to extend the 36th Street Walkway next to the Quad directly to it. Rededicated as Claire M. Fagin Hall, in honor of the longtime nursing dean and interim Penn president in 1993-94 (now an emeritus professor), the building has an entrance that faces the heart of campus and beckons with a glass facade and lots of greenery, plus a lobby and mezzanine that buzzes with activity around its Internet cafe, and even boasts a rainwater-recycling roof. So far the school is ahead of its goals in the $60 million capital campaign it launched in 2006.
“Before she came,” says Greco, “the school was just too quiet.”
It’s safe to say that era is over.
The Energizer Dean By Caroline Tiger
Photograph by Chris Crisman
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©2009 The Pennsylvania Gazette