Last Word: Pay It Forward

Last Word: Pay It Forward

An interview with Barbara L. Tenney ’67, MD

After serving on the Board of Trustees of Wilson College for 21 years in total (1996-2008 and 2014-2023), including two stints as Chair (1999-2002 and 2014-2023), Barbara Tenney ’67, MD, is retiring. She shared some highlights of her days at Wilson and her service to the College in an interview with magazine editor Darrach Dolan. The following is an abridged version of that interview with some of the words changed or reordered for flow and continuity.

Tenney’s Wilson yearbook portrait

DD: Why did you choose to attend Wilson?

BT: My mother was president of the Alumnae Association, and I would go to Wilson with her as a child. She paid the deposit for my application when I was about six. She told me that because I was the first person in my class registered, I’d get my choice of rooms if I went. [Tenney laughs.]

I knew that I wanted a woman’s college and applied to Wilson, Wheaton College, and Connecticut College. I also knew I wanted to go to medical school, so I asked Wheaton and Connecticut how many of their graduates go to medical school. They said, “Oh, there was one a few years ago.” When I talked to the people at Wilson, they said, “Oh well, X went in ’61, and Y went in ’64.” They regularly had people going to medical school! My mother thought that I was going to go to Wheaton. When I decided I was going to go to Wilson College instead, she said, “I told all my friends you were going to Wheaton! Well, that’s the way it goes.” [Tenney laughs again.]

Tenney (far right) serving on Judicial Board at Wilson.

DD: What event or memory of Wilson sticks out for you?

BT: So many of my friends from Wilson are still close friends. They were in my wedding, I was in their weddings, and we get together whenever we can. I would say the friendships were very important.

One of my most rewarding experiences was being on Judicial Board. I was chief justice my senior year. The way the honor principle worked was that if a student broke a rule, they were supposed to report themselves to the Judicial Board. If you knew a student who broke a rule and they didn’t report themselves, you were to tell them to report themselves. If they refused, you were to report them. And if you didn’t, you’d have to report yourself.

It was a very strong honor principle. In my senior year, we established the Judicial Council, which consisted of students, faculty, and administration. This was to hear cases previously only handled by the administration, like drugs on campus. Before this, those people just disappeared and never went to the Judicial Board. But when we created the Judicial Council, cases like these got reviewed by the council.

One of my classmates was one of the first cases, and although it was for drugs, she did not get sent home. She was “campused” for the rest of her senior year, which was several months, but she was really glad that she got to graduate.

Dr. Tenney honors her dear friend Dr. Yeou-Chang Ma of The Children’s Society of New York in 2019 at Wilson’s Sesquicentennial Gala.

DD: Did Wilson prepare you for your medical career?

BT: Yes, definitely. I always wanted to be a pediatrician, and Wilson certainly prepared me educationally.

I went to Jefferson, which was the last medical school in the country to take women. So I went from a woman’s college to a man’s college. It was interesting. One of the things I learned at Wilson was to stand up for myself and trust myself. Some of my classmates at Jefferson said, “Well, Barb, it’s nothing personal, but we don’t think women should be in medicine because you’re going to get married and have kids and drop out.” My response to them was, “That’s okay. I can drop out for a couple of years and come back because I’m going to outlive you. I’ll still practice longer.” At that time, the life expectancy for male physicians was 49. I knew I was going to live longer than they were. A lot of times, the guys would go, “Oh, you’re right.”

Dr. Tenney helps celebrate the inauguration of Wes Fugate as the 20th president of Wilson College.

DD: You’ve served on the Board for 21 years in total; how and why did you first become a Trustee?

BT: Basically, I like to be in charge of things. [Tenney jokes.] So, I asked how you got on the Board of Trustees. They said, “Well, you can get on as an Alumnae Trustee.” I said, “Ok I’ll do that.” They said, “You’ve got to be on the alumnae board first.” So I got on the alumnae board, then I was named an alumnae trustee. That was under Gwen Jensen. I went to her in my second year and said, “I’d really like to stay on the Board of Trustees.” She said, “Well, no, we don’t want the alumnae to think this is an automatic way to get on the Board.” I said, “Ok.” The next year she decided to retire, and they wanted an alum to chair the Board for the retirement. They came to me and said, “Would you stay on as chair?” I said, “Sure.” [Tenney laughs.]

I left after 12 years and was made a Trustee Emeritus. Then in 2014, I got a call asking if I would come back on the Board as chair. I said, “I’m an emeritus, I won’t be able to vote.”They said, “Oh, you can resign that.”I said. “Ok.” And I’ve been chair now for nine years.

DD: Apart from liking to be in charge, why did you want to be a Trustee?

BT: Wilson has been absolutely key to my life and being able to do the things I wanted to do. And because I had seen Wilson positively affect so many other people, I really wanted to be a part of that and help make it bigger and better and meet the changing needs of education. Things are changing so rapidly and so dramatically; we need to be constantly open to new ideas, new thoughts, and new ways of doing things.

Wilson had given me not only the education but the confidence and the techniques to be a leader, and I really do think the most important thing was the Honor Principle, which has been the absolute center of my life. It’s like if a question comes up – a moral question or even a functional question -in business, I have to say what is the honest thing to do here. My honor is in all of this.

DD: What does Wilson College today give her students?

BT: She gives a lot. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know some of the students and interacting with them and seeing them blossom the same way that I blossomed when I did at Wilson. They grow, they expand their horizons, and they really do come to believe that they can do whatever it is they want to do.

When I went to Wilson, women were definitely suppressed or not as encouraged as much as they should have been. What we’re seeing now is that it’s the women who are going to college and graduate school; it’s the men who aren’t. I think the men that I have met there now, our students, I think they’re terrific, and I see them growing in the same way that the women are, and that’s what we want.

DD: You have been part of a Board that has overseen many additions to the College; what are you most proud of ?

BT: Obviously, I think that the Brooks Science Center is terrific. I was so glad that we could fix the library after the pipes burst. And I’m really proud of the new athletics offerings and the master’s degrees. Wilson College Online is going to be a terrific addition. We’re looking to serve a wider and wider population.

I think we are moving in the right direction. I think we were slow in moving on some of the things, but we’re getting there.

DD: What else would you like to share with the readers?

BT: I’d like to mention contributing to the College financially through philanthropy. My mother told me way back when that I should give to the annual fund every year and I should start right away. I started when
I was putting myself through medical school. I used to give $10 a year, which was a heck of a lot harder than what I give now. But I really do feel that we need to pay it forward. We need to help the current generation, especially when you look at the cost of education now. My class has started a scholarship fund, and I think that’s really important.

Also, I really think that if someone would like to serve on the Board of Trustees, it’s a terrific experience. Our Board is very active, very involved. It’s not just an honor that you don’t have to show up for. The Board is really conscientious, hard-working, and they really want to do the very best for the College.

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