UW Today

This is an archived article.

November 20, 2008

A conversation with School of Nursing Dean Marla Salmon

Marla E. Salmon (Sahl-mon) took on the role of dean of the School of Nursing on Oct. 1. Dr. Salmon, the Robert G. and Jean A. Reid Endowed Dean in Nursing and a professor in the Department of Psychosocial and Community Health and the Department of Global Health, talks about her background and ideas for the future of the school.


Q:  Please tell me a little bit about why you chose to become a nurse. Your mother was a nurse.

MS:  I saw nursing as an important way to make a difference in the world. And I saw this modeled, both in terms of my mother who was a nurse, but also the partnership that my mother and father had in making a difference in the community. My father was an old-time general practitioner who practiced with my mother — both were devoted to the people they served. So, I think that my career in nursing is a natural evolution of my early knowledge that nursing makes a huge difference in the lives of people — particularly those who are most vulnerable.

Q:  How do you think you came to care about vulnerable populations?

MS:  When I was a child, my parents required my brother and me to work in the fields with migrant workers. We started doing “clean up” (picking up apples and pears from the ground) and got to know the migrant workers and their families who were working there. My parents really wanted us to learn, literally from the ground up, about the lives of other people. For me, this experience resulted in a very direct realization that migrant workers were truly remarkable people who worked incredibly hard, were vulnerable in so many ways and were pretty much forgotten by society. My parents were very sensitive to the needs of rural people and marginalized people, so they believed that it was important for us to see first-hand how others lived. Both of my parents were committed to serving all people, not just those with the ability to pay. Perhaps because they both came from deep poverty and suffering as children. So I guess you’d have to say that the concept of social justice was part of my early life experience — though I didn’t learn those words until many years later.


Q:  What experiences stand out as shaping your career paths?

MS:  This question is one that I can’t answer easily, because so many events and incredible people have shaped my life. So, let me answer this in terms of two factors. One is the force of events around me, and the second is individuals who in some way saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. I think that between my own family and the experiences of my generation, I couldn’t help but have a constant sense that there is so much in this world that needs to happen to improve the lives of people. And, of course, I’ve seen this through the lens of nursing, which has so much to offer in this regard. As for individuals, I have been blessed over and over again with people who have seen in me possibilities that I’d never have imagined. It’s been those people who have said things like, “Gee, why don’t you apply for a Fulbright,” who have shaped my life in lasting ways. In the Fulbright example, it was a German professor who, you know, I was an undergraduate nursing student and I’d studied in Austria and spoke German. I didn’t even know what a Fulbright was or why I would apply for it, but he could see that I was interested in policy, I was becoming a nurse, I wanted to make a difference, and I saw a world beyond my own country’s borders. He also believed in me, which was an incredible gift. So it has really been those incredible people who have understood me in ways that I did not and the compelling realities that I’ve experienced that have played very important roles in my life. Through all of this I’ve also come to realize how important it is for those of us who have benefitted in these ways to also open doors for others.

Q:  Why did you want to be dean here? What do you think you bring to the School of Nursing?

MS:  The things that called me here were both the context and the strength of the school and this university. I believe that this is a place — one of the few places — that some of society’s most important and urgent issues can be addressed in ways that create real solutions. Great universities and schools of nursing have a special responsibility to do just that.

Secondly, this is a community that thrives on innovation. And, it’s also a place that has deep experience in re-imagining the ways in which we do things. So for me it is a very attractive opportunity to try to make a difference in the things that matter. It’s not that I have a vision for how to do any of this. I don’t. That’s for the whole school to figure out — building on the strength of the school and the strength of the collaborations that can be created. So, coming here is really a statement of my knowledge that the real tangible possibility exists to have a profound impact on health in the future, and that this school has the capacity to do it.


Q:  Tell us a little bit about your own research passion and how you became interested in global nursing?

MS:  My scholarship is fundamentally about the capacity of nursing — and other kinds of health workers — to meet the health care needs of the public. The kinds of research that I’ve been involved with have looked at capacity from the perspective of the supply, requirements, distribution, quality and utilization of nurses. Over the last two decades, my work has focused on this from a policy perspective, looking at the policy frameworks that enable a country, or countries, to have the capacity of workforce that they need. So it’s educational policy, it’s trade policy, it’s regulation in terms of the scope of nursing practice and the roles of governments in this regard. I can’t talk about the capacity of nursing in the U.S. without talking about the capacity of nursing worldwide. The U.S. is the single largest consumer of nurses around the world — from around the world. Most of the workforce engagement globally started when I was working in the Department of Health and Human Services as the director of the Division of Nursing. And in that role I was responsible for developing frameworks in which the capacity of the U.S. nursing workforce was optimal. So that became a global piece. I worked with chief nurses around the world and still do.

I’m absolutely passionate about research that makes a difference in peoples’ lives. And the research that I believe is most important, particularly with respect to nursing, is research that is fundamentally linked to beginning with and moving back into the health of people, and I think that the notion of “from bench to bedside and from bedside to bench” is absolutely what has to happen in terms of nursing research. Finding solutions for problems, finding new ways of doing things, getting a better understanding of health and how we can improve health, and how we can help others improve their own health.


Q:  What part can the School of Nursing play in the future of nursing?

MS:  I think that this school of nursing has a fundamental obligation to lead in shaping the future of health and caring — and creating a very different future. When you are privileged in the way that this school is, having great people doing great work, and having a platform of being known as a leading school of nursing, to do anything but lead is really ridiculous. This school owes society its best efforts at doing what only it can do. That means as we’re looking at the broader state, nation and world, we need to constantly ask ourselves if we are truly living out our responsibility. Are we doing what needs to be done that we are best positioned to do? Are we letting go sometimes of things that others can do better or, in ways that perhaps we shouldn’t be doing? To be constantly self-aware about that obligation is really critical to being a leader and going beyond just being number one. For me, what matters really isn’t about maintaining the school’s fantastic reputation. At the end of the day, it’s about living up to the obligation of using that excellence to make the differences that only this school can make.  


Q:  What are your particular priorities and goals for the SoN?


MS:  Gaining clarity about a vision for the future will really require my getting a very good understanding of the school, the aspirations of the people in it, and creating a vision that is a truly shared venture. This will take some time. If I have one goal, it’s to become as well acquainted with the wonderful people and what is being done here as possible, while also at the same time as dean, framing the opportunities that we have so that we actually can move forward in ways that build on them.


Q:   What kinds of partnerships and collaborations do you envision for the school?


MS:   My experience with partnerships and collaborations are that they work best when they share a purpose and when all involved are quite clear on what they’re both contributing and receiving. So, partnerships for the school need to advance the schools’ priorities as those emerge, and they need to be as explicit as possible. Everybody in the world is saying that the solutions to problems lie between disciplines, or across sectors and that collaboration is critical to really finding them. Yet, to my knowledge, most curricula in most professional schools don’t teach how to develop, manage, maintain or even dissolve partnerships and collaborations. As a result, partnerships can be very challenging. Given all of this, I want to see partnerships that are both purposeful and well-managed. My basic premise is that the answers to the big questions that nursing faces lie at the interface, they don’t lie within any one discipline.


Q:  What do you do to unwind?


MS:  I grew up on a ranch, so dirt is good. I love playing in the dirt and crave the outdoors. So, I try to find ways to be as close to the outdoors as possible. It might be finding a quiet place to read, listening to the sounds of the wind moving through trees, or hiking — being outside is very close to my soul. Being near mountains and water is very important, so as you might imagine, being out here in Washington is pretty much heaven for me. I’m just engaging in this incredible feast of the outdoors that is possible here. And I do like to read, listen to music, and get family time whenever possible.


Q:  What drew you to becoming a black belt in the martial arts?


MS:  When our kids were little, my husband and I decided that we needed to find something that we could do together. I never imagined that it would be tae kwan do — but events took us in that direction. So, we all learned tae kwan do, competed together in our region and we all became black belts — and three of the four of us became second degree black belts. Tae kwon do is now a dormant discipline for me, at least with respect to its physical expression. What is not dormant, though, are some of the underlying precepts and ways that in which one sees the world. When you’re engaged in a martial art that is philosophically based, your life is changed. Tae kwon do is a defensive art that is built on the premise of respect for others and finding a “center” in yourself that allows you to transcend events and get a larger sense of what’s going on. It moves one from seeing life as a set of encounters to seeing the world very differently. Perhaps not everyone has this type of experience, but for me, tae kwon do was a life-changing experience. And, it was a great way to spend time as a family.


Q:  Are there any similarities between practicing tae kwan do and being a dean?


MS:  Not in the ways that one might imagine. I think that people think of martial arts as combative and adversarial. Given the perspective that I shared with you about my experience with tae kwon do, I do see a connection with being a dean. Serving as a dean requires knowledge, skill, commitment, discipline, reflection and thoughtful practice. One must be intentional and be willing to sacrifice. Being a dean is about focusing on others and on the relationship with others in the context of seeking a better future together. There is that foundational respect for others that is critical to being a dean — you have to remove yourself in some ways, but not lose your presence. You have to be both analytic and responsive and engaged. I don’t want to stretch this analogy too far, but I do think that I have benefitted from the lessons of tae kwon do and do see some connection.


Q:  Is there anything else you’d like to add?


MS:  Just one thing. I never want people to think of me as a dean without thinking of me as a faculty member – and as a citizen of the academy. I want people to understand that I see our school and university as places where faculty, staff and students make things happen that matter. And that none of us can do this alone. I really value the contributions and the importance of all members of the academic community and am proud to also be an academic citizen. I hope that people will understand that I see that being a dean is something that you do — it’s not something that you should ever become.