Growing up on the campus of Tuskegee University, one powerful symbol loomed large for young Karyn Scissum Gunn: the statue of the university’s founder and first president, Booker T. Washington, which she could see from her bedroom window.
Over the years, she would sit in the pews of the campus chapel and hear scores of prominent, thought-provoking speakers, such as Jesse Jackson, poet/activist Nikki Giovanni, and famed Tuskegee Airman Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James Jr. - a pilot in the United States Air Force who became the first African American to reach the rank of four-star general in the U.S. military in 1975.
Excellence and the importance of higher education was part of her daily existence. It wafted through the air. It was the norm.
“I grew up in a town where everybody looked like me. I had role models in every walk of society,” Scissum Gunn said of the Alabama college community. “I grew up in this mecca that helped me to understand what excellence meant and what excellence looked like and that I, too, could reach for excellence.”
As she pursued her calling in higher education, she realized that excellence is a gift that must be given to others – through one’s work, service as a role model and in how one inspires and motivates other people.
This tenet will continue to guide Scissum Gunn as she takes the helm as Cal State University Long Beach’s new provost and senior vice president for Academic Affairs on July 1.
Her leadership principles are rooted in what she learned from her father, Haywood Scissum, a Tuskegee alumnus and the university’s renowned head football coach, who understood that every win on the field was about players who put aside their individual needs for the good of the team.
“I grew up understanding that it’s not about you,” said Scissum Gunn, who has embraced that conviction throughout her career in higher education, including at Cal State Fullerton and Alabama State University, where she spent 20-plus years as a professor, chair, dean, associate provost and provost.
“It’s about having a common desire to move the mission of the campus forward – and that’s to serve students.”
And it means allowing faculty members to expand their intellectual range, she said. For staff members to feel valued in the work they do every day. And for the community to be proud of the campus and its impact.
“I see this in how we serve; in this gift that we’ve been given,” she said,
Ask what grounds her and Scissum Gunn spells out the acronym GRITS, which stands for Girl Raised In The South.
“I’m a proud product of all of the beauty, pride, struggle, ‘good trouble’ and triumph of this unique region of our country,” she said.
Scissum Gunn also is driven by her core spiritual values of love and empathy of people, and a deep commitment to inspire others to reach levels they might not believe attainable.
That personal impact hit home when her father died in 1995.
Dozens of the young men Haywood Scissum coached in high school returned to pay homage to the man who believed in them and encouraged them to go to college.
“They were doctors, lawyers, teachers, legislators and businessmen who had all accomplished great things and they wept like children at his passing, because they were appreciative of the role he’d played in their development – for the difference he made in their lives,” Scissum Gunn said.
Continuing to touch lives in such a way remains her mission.
“I am humbled to be able to join a movement to do some extraordinary things for our students and for the Long Beach community,” she said.