A wall of framed photos greets visitors to the President’s office at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi (TAMU-CC). The two bottom rows of photographs depict the first 10 presidents of the university — all of whom were men. On the top row, the lone frame holds a headshot of Dr. Kelly Miller, the university’s first and only female president so far. When asked about this visual representation of a shattered glass ceiling, Miller recalls minimizing the milestone when stepping into the role. She felt focusing on that one fact took away from the decades of hard work it ultimately took her to get there.
However, she also has an important role as a mother. When Miller’s teenage daughter and friends first came to visit the office, something clicked. “They were out there taking pictures of the wall and my daughter was so proud,” she said. “The way they saw it, it made them think they can do whatever they set their minds to.”
She realized that she has a unique opportunity to show people what’s possible. As a first-generation college student, the importance of representation and the ability for people to see themselves in others’ success is not lost on her. As she points to the necklace she’s wearing — a circle of glass with a crack in the center — she says, “I think it should always be the best person for the job. But I think there’s many times when it’s going to be a female. And when it is, I want them [to know] they can have that opportunity.”
As president, she’s led TAMU-CC through two hurricanes, a global pandemic and an unprecedented freeze. These challenges taught her a valuable lesson in leadership: You can’t make everyone happy, but you do have to be fair and you have to make the best decisions you possibly can. “You must take in all the information you have, and then trust that you can make the best decision possible with that. You might make a mistake, I certainly have, but you then have to own it, apologize and fix it.”
Her superb communication skills, experience at varying levels within the university, need to truly understand how every cog in the machine works and unwavering commitment to student success all come together in making her the undeniably great leader she is.
TAMU-CC’s accomplishments just in the last school year include record-breaking graduation numbers for the fall, spring and summer semesters; the Family Nurse Practitioner Program was ranked number one in the nation; millions of grant dollars were awarded in a variety of areas to support groundbreaking and nationally acclaimed research initiatives; a new College of Engineering was established; the Lone Star Unmanned Aircraft System Center of Excellence and Innovation became a national leader in unmanned aircraft systems studies; and incredible success was seen for Islander Athletics programs, including a school record of eight Southland Conference championships and a first-ever win for the men’s basketball team at the NCAA Tournament – the latter of which brought the type of national attention you can’t buy to both the university and our city.
Of the long list of historic accolades and advancements the university has seen under her tenure, Miller’s favorite moments along the way always come back to the students themselves. Her eyes light up as she describes sitting with the pep band throughout March Madness and then points to the drumsticks she was given. There aren’t statistics for how many university presidents sit and play with their school’s pep band, but the number is likely low. Miller is unique in this way.
She takes pride in staying true to who she is. As her responsibility grew, various colleagues would tell her she should probably be less accessible, or not laugh as loud, or restrain a certain trait that makes up her personality. “But I got promoted for being the kind of leader that I am. So, I am going to keep doing that, which is the advice I give to anyone in a leadership position,” she said. “You bring something unique to whatever position you’re in, something different; so, don’t lose that. Don’t become the stereotypical version of what you think a leader should be. You have to do your job properly and represent yourself and the job with dignity, but you can still make it your own. I think that’s what makes the best leaders.”
And at the end of the day, Miller will always be the type of university president who wants to play with the pep band. She’ll always be the type of person who has a Harry Potter wand on display in her office. She’ll always feel passionate about writing her own speeches, even if that means making it a hobby she does in her free time. She’ll always be an empathetic leader who values others’ perspectives and experiences. But above all else, she’ll always be The Island University’s number one cheerleader and advocate. Spreading the good word about the way this campus and its programs are changing people’s lives and opening up new worlds of opportunity is at the core of why she does this job in the first place.