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Nursing dean leaves behind legacy of growth, excellence

Reflections on a 47-year nursing career of service, education, research

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College of Nursing Dean Gail Stuart, second from left, was presented with a citation honoring her service to MUSC by MUSC President David Cole, Board of Trustees member William Bingham and Provost Dr. Lisa Saladin.
Beth Khan | | July 12, 2018

As can be expected, leaders come and go on MUSC's campus. While each brings a fresh perspective and new ideas to the university, few have had the chance to see the impact of their vision. College of Nursing Dean Gail Stuart's bold actions, tenacity, and forward thinking have not only changed the lives of MUSC's nursing students, but she also has left an indelible mark on the nation's mental health community.

We spoke to Dean Stuart, who announced she would be stepping down earlier this year, about her 47–year nursing career and what her plans are after June 30.
When you look back over your career, what do you believe to be your greatest personal and professional accomplishments?

That is a challenging question for me to answer because there are so many things I am proud of looking back in time. I would start with my ability to place family first. My children were always my first priority and I am immensely proud of them for the caring, productive, and socially responsible adults they are today. I also love their spouses as my extended children, and of course my five delightful, precocious and loving grandchildren have taken happy hostage of my heart.

Next, I am proud of my textbook, “Principles and Practice of Psychiatric Nursing,” that was first published in 1979 and is now in its 10th and final edition. Through this book, I was able to touch the lives of so many nursing students, not only in this country but across the globe, as it has been translated into five languages. I am always moved when I am at a professional meeting and nurses come up to me and tell me that their perception of mental health and how to compassionately relate to the emotional needs of patients and families were shaped and molded by my book. It is truly humbling.

And this book also provided me the unexpected opportunity to help train nurses in Liberia, to provide mental health care after the devastation they experienced following a decade of civil war. Working, teaching and bonding with the nurses in this country has been an incredible journey and a lesson for me in resilience, strength and commitment. I have learned so much from my work in Liberia, and I am grateful that I had the opportunity to serve others across the ocean to help make a difference in their lives.  

Finally, but equally important to me, is what I have been able to accomplish here at MUSC. I have had the rare opportunity to contribute to so many aspects of the university, including the Institute of Psychiatry and the Center for Health Care Research. But the shining light has been my ability to lead the College of Nursing as dean for the past 16 years.

To be honest, when I was a nursing student at Georgetown University or a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins, I never aspired or expected to be the dean of a college of nursing. But when the opportunity presented itself here at MUSC, I had a vision that this college could be world class. And the one thing folks know about me is that when I have a vision I also have a plan, and I fully commit myself to making that vision a reality. And so bringing the MUSC College of Nursing into national prominence in academics, research and practice is a dream come true for me.  

And the icing on the cake was being able to renovate the college and transform our physical environment into a real gem of a building that honors and respects the 135–year history of the college, while infusing it with all the technology we need to propel ourselves into the future. It has been an honor to be dean here at MUSC.

How do you account for your success in all these activities?

My success is our success. We, the faculty, staff and I, have been able to accomplish so much here in the college because we are a fantastic team. The faculty and staff are an amazing group of committed and talented individuals who strive for nothing less than excellence.  

On a personal level, I believe the success of a leader comes from having an open mind, a strong work ethic, solid communication skills, and the willingness to seize upon new strategic opportunities not knowing how they may turn out. A leader needs to be continually scanning the environment, anticipating future changes, and be willing to take risks. I see risks as “experiments” — some have positive results and some have negative results, but all results are important in guiding our future actions. Nothing is a failure…everything is a learning opportunity. You need to try something, learn from it, and move on.

I also think that in working with others, a leader needs to be open, transparent, data–driven, honest, and accountable. To me, a visionary is someone who leads people to do together what they did not think they could do individually….and in so doing, together they reach new heights of achievement. I love the people here in the college and I will miss them greatly.

Which raises the next question, why retire now?

Sometimes I think there is never a good time to retire when you love what you are doing, and I do love this school and coming to work every day.

Being the dean for 16 years has been a treasured gift. Still, when I accepted this deanship I had set some goals I wanted to accomplish for the college. I wanted to:

  • Double our enrollment
  • Rank in the top 15 schools in the country in NIH research funding
  • Be nationally ranked for academics by U.S. News and World Report
  • Renovate the building
  • Grow from one endowed chair to five

This past year I realized that I had achieved them all, and I think the CON has never been stronger in education, practice and research than it is now. So, I thought this might be the right time to pass the gift on to new leadership. That said, I am sure that June 30 will be bittersweet for me and I will feel happy, sad and proud all at the same time, and expectant for the great things that will unfold for the college in the days ahead.
Finally, using your book as an analogy, how will the next chapter of your life read?

Ah, that is a great question and the answer is even better — I am not sure; it is yet unwritten. I hope that the plot will have new twists and adventures. I do know that I want to spend more time with my incredibly loving, active and talented family. I also would love to nurture other parts of my brain and spend time perhaps painting, reading novels, traveling with friends, writing reflections, walking on the beach, sorting my father’s coin collection or my brother’s baseball card collection, archiving family photos, and most of all, giving back to others. I am happily looking forward to the new storyline that lies ahead for the next chapter of my life

Development, Alumni Affairs VP to retire June 30

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