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Des Moines University President Angela Franklin ’81 leads historic transformation

Des Moines University President Angela Franklin ’81 receives graduates at Commencement 2019. Photo: DMU/Rich Sanders.

Angela Walker Franklin ’81 has been some combination of “only” or “first” so many times in her life she’s lost count – probably because it never mattered much to her either way.

“I was the only Black kid in my fourth grade class, so I learned early on what it was like to find a way to be accepted and fit in when you are the only one,” said Franklin, who, along with her older sister Maria Walker ’78, integrated their elementary school in the late 1960s. “And I learned how to thrive in that environment.”

They were among a handful of African American students, and their presence was against the wishes of many in the tiny town of McCormick, South Carolina. But Franklin says she didn’t feel uncomfortable then and never has since in a life and career that has seen her thrive to the point that she is now at Des Moines University serving as the, you guessed it, first African American female president in the school’s history.

In fact, when Franklin was hired in March 2011, she became the first African American female to lead a free-standing health sciences institution in the country. If all goes according to plan, she will have overseen the most transformative moment in the annals of the nation’s second-oldest osteopathic medical school when it moves to a new 88-acre campus in 2023.

Des Moines University President Angela Franklin hosts a fireside chat with students in the Student Education Center Monday, April 8, 2019. (DMU photo by Brett T. Roseman)

It’s the culmination of a long journey to becoming a college president that began with an early love of Furman, which awarded Franklin both a psychology degree and a belief she could earn a Ph.D. The latter sprang from encouragement she received from William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Psychology Emeritus Charles Brewer, who remained her friend and mentor until his death 2018.

“He was the one that convinced and encouraged me that I could do this,” said Franklin, who went on to earn both a master’s degree and Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Emory University.

A position as an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Morehouse School of Medicine, where she was the only Ph.D. on faculty in the psychiatry department otherwise consisting of medical doctors, led to a role as assistant dean for admissions and student affairs and opened the door to a potential career as an administrator. Franklin explored the possibilities of pursuing a college  presidency when she became an American Council on Education Fellow and spent the 2001-02 academic year at Oglethorpe University where she was mentored by President Larry Large.

“That was my year of affirmation,” Franklin said. “I ended that year knowing I wanted to be a college president.”

Still, Franklin was realistic about the obstacles she would face to reach that point as a Black woman.

“I had some interesting, challenging experiences being an applicant at some colleges that would not have been ready for me to be their president,” she said. “I have lots of stories I could tell.”

She thought her best chance to reach her goal would come in California. She never considered Iowa, a state that is 90.6% white, as being an option until a search firm alerted her to the opening at Des Moines University. Initially skeptical, Franklin agreed to pursue the position and was made to feel immediately welcome.

“I said, ‘You gotta be kidding me. There’s no way I can imagine going to Iowa.’ He said, ‘Would you please just look at the position description?’” Franklin remembers. “It was a totally different experience than I had anywhere else. They rolled out the red carpet … Even to this day I felt the warmth of this community in a way that I never would have expected. Being a Southern girl, I’m used to Southern hospitality, but there’s something unique and special about the community here.”

Still, Franklin didn’t expect that building an entirely new campus to solve ongoing problems with a landlocked 27-acre location in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, would be received so enthusiastically.

“In my mind, I thought we’d invest in some land and I’d hand it off to the next administration,” Franklin said, but instead the Board of Trustees gave her the green light to find a suitable tract of land to purchase and develop.

Franklin’s Furman ties are strong. Her son, Wesley, also went to Furman, and she served on the university’s Board of Trustees from 1999 until 2012. Some of her earliest memories are of staying in Furman dorms while attending summer camps while in elementary school.

“My mother wanted her daughters to go to the best institution in the state, and she knew Furman was the best from the very beginning,” said Franklin, who didn’t apply anywhere else.

Also a licensed clinical psychologist, Franklin says her skills and training in that area have proven to be helpful as a leader.

“The advantage of being a president and having a psychology background is that I am trained to have good listening skills,” she said. “And being a psychologist in this environment, I have a perspective to share in terms of how best to prepare future health professionals for the holistic care of the patients that they will serve.”

Another mark Franklin has left on Des Moines University is establishing it as the first medical school to partner with the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a grassroots organization founded to advocate for mental health treatment, in incorporating the provider training education program into the medical school curriculum. Additionally, one of the top objectives of the new campus is to give students access to an innovative and future-focused educational experience in medical education.

A groundbreaking ceremony at the construction site for Des Moines University’s new campus in West Des Moines on September 10, 2020. Photo: DMU/Brett T. Roseman.

“I’m living my purpose. This is to me still a calling,” Franklin said. “I’ll probably finish my career here, and I can’t imagine being in a better place with a better group of people to be able to realize this dream of reimagining the training of health professionals and the future of the delivery of care.”

Learn more about Franklin and her journey by reading her 2014 book “An Unconventional Journey … An Unlikely Choice.”

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