The Deans of Gannon University: Dr. Sarah Ewing, Dr. Lori Lindley and Dr. Karinna Vernaza
Gannon University’s three colleges are each headed by female deans for the first time in history. Inspired by their work, we spoke to each educator about their personal journeys and careers in academia, and what it is like to serve as influential leaders who create an environment where students and faculty alike can thrive in the mission of the university.
Sarah Ewing, Ph.D.
Sarah Ewing, Ph.D. is the dean of the Morosky College of Health Professions and Sciences.
Ewing is the oldest of five children and funded her own college education, earning a bachelor's degree in biology from Penn State Behrend in 2001 as a University Schreyer Scholar and Excellence in Biology Award recipient, and a Ph.D. in comparative biomedical sciences from North Carolina State University in 2007.
Ewing said she found herself soulsearching during her final years as a graduate research assistant. “... I realized it was the one-on-one interactions with my professors that really had an impact on me. I wanted to be a part of that – helping students find and achieve their own educational and career goals.”
She returned to Erie as a biology professor at Penn State Behrend in 2007. That’s when things became clearer.
“My own recognition for the research that I had been doing wasn’t enough to drive me,” Ewing said. “Mentoring students and helping them to learn research skills and determine how they might use them in their future career in the classroom and in the lab – that’s what drove me.”
That assurance led Ewing to forge a career in academia, transitioning to Gannon in 2009 as an assistant professor of biology and director of pre-health professional programs. She advanced to chair of the biology department (2013), associate professor (2015), associate dean in July (2015), and interim dean (2017).
In December of 2017, Ewing became permanent dean and has since established herself as a leader with vision and drive.
“It was a series of administrative roles with growing responsibilities across the college,” Ewing said of her journey. “But it was also a willingness to say yes to opportunities and to not shy away despite fears, concerns or a personal need to gain confidence in my ability to take on new roles.”
One of her initial goals was to restructure the college into five schools with a leadership council of five associate deans to oversee each school and Ruskin campus while supporting the dean and college operations.
The restructuring is helping Gannon develop strategic academic programming, promote even greater program collaboration, and support faculty, staff and students.
Ewing’s core goals now involve making Ruskin’s new academic building fully operational, achieving enrollment targets at both campuses, and developing strategic community and clinical partners.
Ewing said she is proud of her role in students’ lives. While she’s not taught since becoming dean, she engages with students through campus events, research conferences and participating in three Alternative Break Service Trips.
For Ewing, what characterizes successful students is that they walk away from Gannon with a quality education, prepared to transform the lives of others.
"The purpose statement of the university rings so true to me. My hope is that we develop students who recognize their ability to impact and transform the people around them,” Ewing said. “I feel as though Gannon does an exceptional job developing competent, kind, selfless and innovative professionals who are committed to lifelong learning, social responsibility, and a passionate pursuit of their goals."
Lori Lindley, Ph.D.
Lori Lindley, Ph.D. is the dean of the College of Humanities, Education and Social Sciences.
Lindley first realized her passion for the humanities through classes at the University of Notre Dame. She settled on a psychology major as a junior, completing her bachelor’s degree in 1995.
“I really just wanted to learn more about people’s strengths and health and how to help people build on those,” Lindley said of earning a master’s degree in psychology in 1997 and a Ph.D. in counseling psychology in 2001 from Iowa State University.
A year-long pre-doctoral internship at the University of Utah Counseling Center gave her further career insight. “It was so rewarding for me to work with so many different people. At that point, I decided I wanted to continue to train future counselors and therapists,” she said.
That’s when Lindley stepped into teaching as an assistant professor of counseling psychology at Louisiana Tech University while also working at a residential addictions treatment center and completing her psychologist licensure.
Moving closer to family, Lindley came to Gannon in 2005 as an assistant professor. She was promoted to associate professor (2009), and chair of the psychology and counseling department (2011).
Lindley recalls advice she received early on: “Surround yourself with people who are supportive and see your strengths. … When I was an assistant professor, I had a colleague who taught here for 40 years and mentored so many students. He was a rock and had just a huge impact in such a quiet way. He said, ‘Well Lori, you’re going to be dean someday.’”
That prediction came true as Lindley advanced to associate dean in 2015 and dean in March of 2020.
Since coming into the role, Lindley has established goals to position the university as a top regional liberal arts institution, strengthen graduate programs in the liberal arts, oversee the liberal core revision, and link the college to the community and world.
She’s also used her dynamic leadership skills to focus attention on increasing racial justice tensions.
“We started looking at things like diversity and justice issues in our curriculum, the student experience, how we are being inclusive and welcoming to diverse students, and what we’re doing to hire diverse faculty and staff,” Lindley said.
Lindley and key university members formed a Justice, Diversity and Inclusion Steering Committee to develop an institutional plan and engage Gannon community members in addressing racial justice issues.
Her college’s recent Fall CHESS Speaker Series, “Racial Justice: Be the Change,” also featured national and local speakers who discussed racial justice topics to educate and inspire change.
Lindley said her psychology background – which includes working with multi-cultural populations in counseling settings – has influenced her as a leader.
“Everything I’ve learned in my own education about empathy, about listening to people and about considering their perspectives and other challenges they might be facing has helped me to become a more supportive leader,” she said.
Lindley is focused on expanding this work through continued efforts of the committee, as well as developing a cross-disciplinary diversity minor that includes a community-based internship. A justice studies minor will also provide a broader look at social justice.
For Lindley, her work is inspired by the value of a liberal arts education.
"I think that a well-rounded college education is so important for students and young people as they begin to take on their adult roles and responsibilities in the world,” Lindley said. “I would want our graduates to complete their degrees feeling that they’ve grown personally through the process and that they have accomplished something significant."
Karinna Vernaza, Ph.D.
Karinna Vernaza, Ph.D. is the dean of Gannon’s College of Engineering and Business.
Her journey began in Panama City, Panama, coming to the United States Merchant Marine Academy to earn a bachelor’s degree in marine engineering systems in 1996. After graduating, she worked for a year as a ship manager in Braswell Shipyards in Panama.
A Project Latin America 2000 Graduate Fellowship by the Kellogg Institute and the Coco- Cola Company led Vernaza to the University of Notre Dame to earn master’s and doctoral degrees in mechanical engineering in 2001 and 2003.
Vernaza began envisioning her career path during a graduate assistantship. “In graduate school I spent three years doing research in the labs without connecting with students. I just didn’t feel that is where I got my energy from,” she said. “The decision to go into teaching was more about where I got my satisfaction from.”
A friend connected Vernaza to Gannon, where she took her first fulltime teaching position as an assistant professor in mechanical engineering in 2003, advancing to associate professor (2009), associate dean (2014), full professor (2015), and interim dean (2018).
Vernaza became permanent dean in 2019 after being described as a “visionary leader for the college.”
Since then, Vernaza’s work has involved driving recruitment and retention strategies, advancement of S.T.E.M. faculty and students, and academic interventions to improve student success.
Currently, she’s focused on creating synergies between the School of Engineering and Computing and the Dalhkemper School of Business to drive interdisciplinary opportunities for students.
“It’s about bringing the mindset of collaboration into our curriculum,” Vernaza said. “We want to engage students early on so they can understand the benefits of a crossdisciplinary type of engagement that they will experience in the workplace.”
As part of that, Vernaza and her team recently launched an MBA in business analytics to give business students a competitive edge with essential computer information science skills. Looking ahead, they’re also developing new cross-disciplinary undergraduate programs that will be leveraged within I-HACK facilities.
But for Vernaza, a hallmark of her work has always been connecting with students in ways that will advance them in S.T.E.M. fields.
“I see my job as providing opportunities where others can distinguish themselves,” Vernaza said, explaining that she feels particularly inspired to support students of diverse populations, which she said can be gender, race, economic background, or level of experience.
Notably, Vernaza has been involved with the Society of Women Engineers’ student chapter since 2004 as the faculty adviser and counselor to expose female students to S.T.E.M. opportunities beyond Erie and raise awareness of engineering as a career pathway.
During her tenure as dean, she has also continued to be the principal investigator for Gannon’s Scholars of Excellence in Engineering and Computing Studies program, providing a diverse student group with workshops, support services, lectures and invited speakers to prepare them for careers in S.T.E.M. fields and graduate education. Vernaza has taught courses in the program for 17 years, taking this year off only due to COVID-19-related obligations.
For Vernaza, having diversity is essential because “it creates a different environment for all of us. It’s not always the same type of voices that we hear when making decisions, and it allows for a deeper appreciation in people,” she said.
She applies this value to her faculty, as well, encouraging them to pursue grant and research opportunities within the university and extending across the region and country.
Between 2011 and 2016, Vernaza was the principal investigator for Gannon’s National Science Foundation ADVANCE: Organizational Change for Gender Equity in S.T.E.M. Academic Professions award. This institutional collaborative effort provided research funds and scholarly release time to Gannon recipients, four of whom have since achieved tenure and three of whom have moved into leadership positions at Gannon, including Dean Sarah Ewing, Ph.D.
Vernaza also launched a project called CEB Ideas on Tap to connect faculty researchers to research opportunities through annual forums, and a James J. Duratz Research Grant to support other faculty who engage students in research.
"As someone who has moved through the academic ranks, I am an advocate for the need to provide clear pathways to success for faculty and students,” Vernaza said of her desire to do this work. “Making those connections and aligning resources are important to me. I measure my success via the success of the team."
This article first appeared in the December 2020 issue of Gannon Magazine.