Fast Forward: Dean Linda Norman

Photo by Daniel Dubois

When she was just 9 years old, Linda Norman knew that she wanted to become a nurse and a teacher. She just didn’t know how far she would go.

Parents Harold and Becky Boggs told Linda at a young age that she was adopted. They wanted her to know how wanted she was. As an only child, Becky made sure Linda had just enough, but not too many, things. She didn’t want her to be spoiled. Community service was embedded throughout her formative years, including weekly visits to a local orphanage where Linda loved playing with the other children.

After earning her bachelor’s degree in Nursing at the University of Virginia (UVA), she started out as a staff nurse on a neurosurgical unit at UVA and was later drawn to nursing education. Her interest in research began early in the first year of her nursing career as she served as a research assistant to Phyllis Verhonick’s nursing research grant on decubitus ulcers. She completed her Master of the Science of Nursing at UVA and a doctorate in the Science of Nursing at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. For more than 20 years, she has led several curriculum innovations at Vanderbilt, working beside her predecessor Colleen Conway-Welch, who retired as dean this year.

This summer Norman, DSN, RN, Valere Potter Menefee Professor of Nursing, officially became the eighth dean of the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing in the school’s 105-year history, a position she never thought would be vacated during her time at Vanderbilt.

“Colleen built a lasting legacy, and Linda is the ideal person to lead the School of Nursing forward. She personifies the school’s mission of education, research and practice in everything she does. She’s highly regarded throughout the world of nursing and health care. Throughout Vanderbilt she’s known as a bridge-builder, a team player and someone with solutions,” said Jeff Balser, MD, PhD, vice chancellor for Health Affairs and dean of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

With a work ethic so strong that colleagues and friends describe her as the “Energizer bunny,” Norman has a strong vision for the school’s future. She’s already gotten started.

Interprofessional Learning

The top item on the agenda, according to Norman, is increasing partnerships between VUSN and other parts of the University and Medical Center.

That is something that Bonnie Miller, MD, knows a lot about. Miller, senior associate dean for Health Sciences Education at Vanderbilt’s School of Medicine, and Norman have been working together for several years on interprofessional learning between nursing and medical students. Most recently, they have co-led the Vanderbilt Program of Interprofessional Learning (VPIL) where medical and nursing students from Vanderbilt learn alongside students from Tennessee State University’s social work program and the Belmont University and Lipscomb University pharmacy schools.

Pictured here: Norman, second from right, celebrates with newly pinned students following the VUSN Pinning Ceremony in August. (L to R) Fatima McElveen, Roslyn Greer, Hannah Jernigan, and Kaitlyn Neary. Photo by Anne Rayner.

“Linda thinks about the way things can be, as well as the way things are. She has a vision for interprofessional collaborative practice that really is a vision for the future,” said Miller. “It’s easy to lose focus on what we are trying to do and who really hires us to do our jobs in health care. We are hired by the public and patients to fill their needs, and Linda really gets that.”

VPIL is currently focused with a small number of students from each profession. Lack of clinical sites has been a barrier to expansion, but the overriding goal is to determine the long-term impact of learning in an interprofessional team and what other interprofessional activities would enrich the process.

“We are teaching our students skills and competencies of working together as health team members, and at the same time trying to understand how our students can function as change agents,” said Miller.

Norman says increasing partnerships means more than the success of VPIL. For instance, the School of Nursing is exploring partnerships with Vanderbilt’s Peabody campus about programs related to pediatric obesity. Students will fill an important need of educating members of the community, while gaining some valuable hands-on experience as part of their nursing education. The same goes for the Mobile Market project, an outreach effort started at Vanderbilt, which offers low-income inner city residents access to fair-priced fresh fruits and vegetables.

The school is also working with the Vanderbilt Heart and Vascular Institute (VHVI) in how they are teaching community health concepts. Students provide additional support to the VHVI health care team, and provide telephonic and home visits for at-risk patients recently discharged from VUMC with congestive heart failure. Students learn about the interaction of the community, the needs of the patients, and the intricacies of the health care system in a different way, while helping the Medical Center further decrease its less than 30-day readmission rates, a key metric for hospitals as health reform comes into practice.

“We want to increase the opportunities for interprofessional (learning) across multiple entities, not just nursing and medicine,” Norman said. She and Emily Townes, the new dean of the Divinity School, have already started conversations to expand collaboration between the two schools. As we do that, we’re going to enhance our education, research and practice,” said Norman.

Smart Growth

Norman envisions strategic growth rather than exponential enrollment growth for the next few years.

“When you look at our student enrollment chart from 2003 to 2013, we have doubled the size of the School of Nursing—from 450 to 900 students—including launching our DNP program. Now we need to look at right-sizing and strengthening the integration of teaching, scholarship and practice,” she said.

To get an idea of the depth and breadth of the VUSN student body, nearly 300 students received their nursing pins at this summer’s Pinning Ceremony, marking completion of their master’s coursework. This fall, VUSN faculty and staff welcomed 452 new students pursuing either a Master of Science of Nursing, Doctor of Nursing Practice or PhD in Nursing Science degree through various entry points and with 12 specialty tracks.

The blended distance learning programs of the MSN degree, where half of coursework is completed face to face with the remainder online and the students visiting the Vanderbilt campus three to four times a semester, are very popular. More than half of all students learn through this format. The DNP and PhD programs offer more flexibility, so students only come to VUSN for an intensive session once per semester. Norman’s leadership has been integral in facilitating the faculty in the development and implementation of these innovative types of program delivery methods.

Norman thinks the public understands the vital role nurses play in society and in health care delivery as never before. The nursing industry has matured and become a more integral part of health care delivery. Baccalaureate-prepared, master’s-prepared and doctorally-prepared nurses are now well-known in the community. She feels that the reason that the public is more aware of the contribution of nursing to health care is the enhancements that have been made in nursing education.

“A strong nursing program needs to integrate—not layer on top—things like evidence-based practice, quality improvement, team function and culture competency in everything. It’s not something you can address just in a lecture,” said Norman.

Norman’s approach is in sync with national educational goals.

“Linda’s probably made the strongest name for herself in nursing education in terms of program evaluation,” said Jeanette Lancaster, UVA School of Nursing dean emerita and a colleague of Norman’s for many years. “Most people don’t want to do it, because it’s rigorous, but she has developed a strong expertise in program evaluation including academic program evaluation,” she said.

Lancaster said Norman is well-informed about national and international health issues. “She’s part of a coalition of schools from Australia, Ireland, England and Hong Kong looking at the best ways to teach health policy and has served on many national organizations, including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. She stays focused and sticks to key themes,” she said.

The Selection Process

According to Bob Dittus, MD, associate vice chancellor for Public Health and Health Care, Norman is the “ideal fit for where the School is, where society is and where health care is.” And he should know, as chair of the VUSN Dean Search Committee that led the comprehensive six-month process.

He explained that when an organization needs transformation change, for several reasons it’s often best to bring in an outside leader. On the other hand, when an organization is strong with a positive trajectory, an exceptional internal leader can provide stability, a deep understanding of the culture and people who are doing the great work and build a future vision on that foundation. The Search Committee reviewed applicants internally and externally from across the country.

“What’s happening in health care today is different than even five or six years ago. We needed someone with substantial academic leadership experience, a strong vision for leading through these interesting times, and an interprofessional team player who can help guide nursing locally and nationally into the future,” said Dittus.

The top candidates participated in an intensive two-hour interview process, fielding questions from the committee of faculty, students and administrators from throughout Vanderbilt. From there, the committee made recommendations to Balser, who made the final decision.

“There was unanimous enthusiasm for Linda. We even had potential candidates early on who said, ‘If Linda Norman’s applying for the job, why would you consider anyone else?’ Even so, the process was thorough and broad and there were many strong candidates,” Dittus said. “It turns out we had a spectacular candidate internally.”

Miller, who also served on the dean search committee, echoes that sentiment. “Linda is thoughtful, poised, articulate and she’s a collaborator. She has all these attributes that set her up to be a fantastic leader, especially for a time where the whole health care world is changing. Her great strength is that she has the continuity and the history with the School of Nursing and yet can break free and set her own course.”

Lancaster said Norman is very intuitive and a very good judge of people. “I’ve seen her be very willing to do the work, and she doesn’t have to take the credit. I find her to be a really kind person, but tough as nails when she has to be,” Lancaster said.

Faculty Mentor

Norman’s Vanderbilt colleagues also offer high praise.

Joan King, Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner program director, remembers meeting her for the first time 22 years ago in an internal VUSN committee meeting. “She had a gentle spirit and appeared to be very open-minded. She wanted to know how we did things rather than telling people how to get things done,” she said.

King was a faculty member when Norman joined the School in the early 1990s and considers Norman a mentor.

“She doesn’t ask you to do anything that she’s not prepared to do herself. She’s always right there with you, whatever the tasks or challenges are. She helped open doors for me in my career and has been by my side to help write grants,” said King.

One of Norman’s hallmarks to date has been facilitating the growth of the faculty, including redesigning several specialty tracks and various curricula. King credits Norman with helping the faculty grow, adapt and rise to the challenges, and credits Conway-Welch, now Dean Emerita, with giving her the freedom to do that.

“We wouldn’t have had the critical care program without Linda,” said King.

Unlike most schools of nursing, VUSN has a dedicated clinical placement office, with staff focused on securing much-needed opportunities for students to work in a clinical setting with a provider supervisor, or preceptor. For King’s acute care nurse practitioner specialty, that means paving the way for nearly 80 students a semester to get this real-life experience.

Recently retired VUSN faculty member Carolyn Bess first met Norman in the late 1980s when the two were each pursuing their Doctorate in the Science of Nursing degrees from the University of Alabama-Birmingham. Norman was working at Aquinas College at the time, and the two carpooled along the I-65 corridor. Bess had no idea her classmate would soon take a leadership position at VUSN.

“I always saw Linda and Colleen as a team,” said Bess. “Colleen had great ideas, but sifting through them to see how they would fit with the intent of the School of Nursing—I think that was Linda. Linda was key to moving those ideas forward.”

Bess has worked under four different VUSN deans, starting with Luther Christman.

“I’ve seen a lot of leadership styles,” said Bess, whose VUSN career spans more than 40 years. “The thing that impresses me about Linda is that she inspires faculty. She identifies and recognizes faculty members who really have potential and encourages them. She remembers what it was like to be an instructor and how others supported her.”

One example of Norman’s imprint on faculty was getting VUSN faculty who were primarily teaching faculty to pursue their doctoral education. In the past few years in particular, more than (20?) teaching faculty have earned their doctoral degrees—PhD or DNP—and others are enrolled in various programs.

“She didn’t just tell faculty to do it. She encouraged them, helped match them to specific programs and told them, ‘yes, you can do it,’” said Bess.

But Norman’s interest in those at VUSN doesn’t stop there. She is also widely admired by staff as well. For the last several years, Norman’s office was located on the second floor of Godchaux Hall, and she would often bring her own lunch and join in the lunch time conversation. The only rule: work talk was off limits. It was a time to talk about life, families, hobbies, etc.

“When my daughter, Helen, was accepted into the UVA School of Nursing, I remember Linda sending Helen a stethoscope to welcome her to the profession and to her alma mater,” said Sarah Ramsey, assistant dean of Student Affairs.

Family Life

Norman has achieved career success while being a remarkable wife and mother, according to her family. She has been married to Don Norman for 43 years. The two met in Sunday school in Lynchburg, Va. Linda was attending her hometown church during a summer break at UVA, and Don was in the U.S. Army, visiting his aunt. Linda moved forward in the nursing profession, and Don, who is now retired, built a career in the printing industry.

Fast forward to present day and the couple has two grown children. Dennis, the oldest, is an executive vice president and chief financial officer for a multi-national corporation and lives with his wife, Katie, 11-year-old son Drake and 7-year-old daughter Allie in Charlotte, N.C. Her daughter, Jan Norman, is an assistant district attorney for Davidson County and lives in Nashville.

“I’m the luckiest girl in the world to have her as my mother,” said Jan. “I’m very, very blessed to have her as a female role model, especially in my job where I see a lot of women who are victimized. I’m grateful that my mom raised me to have confidence in myself.”

Growing up in the Norman household meant a house full of laughter and children who grew up with accessible parents. Family dinners took place at home every night, and meals out were for special occasions only. It also meant 18-hour road trips from the family’s home in Virginia to Iowa, home base of Don’s extended family, each year with Don and Linda taking turns driving through the night so that the children could have special time with grandparents in a rural community environment.

“I remember watching my mom teach community CPR classes when I was 4 years old,” said Jan. “She came home one day, and I was teaching my friend how to do it. I asked her if I could have a CPR baby for myself. She said it was too expensive.”


5 Things You Need to Know about Dean Norman
• She ends meetings with: “Does anyone have anything else to share for the good of the School?”
• She has a long history of approaching faculty with: “Do I have an opportunity for you!”
• She has a hearty laugh.
• She has a habit of waking up and working from 2-4 a.m., then going back to bed, though she doesn’t expect others to burn the midnight oil.
• She has a dog, a Shih Tzu named Truffles, who her friends call the “luckiest dog in the world.”

Dennis said Norman didn’t push them. “She just always expected us to do our best,” said Dennis. “I remember she helped me with my fifth grade science project—a working model of the heart. She talked me through how the heart works in great detail, much more than my teacher required. I argued that it was good enough, but mom didn’t want me to do the minimum to just get by. I didn’t agree at the time, but she was right.”

As an adult and a father, Dennis better appreciates his mom’s work/life balance. “She was always up reading papers in the living room at 3 a.m., but mom, as a professional, was never the first perspective I had of her as a kid,” he said. “And as grandparents, she and my dad are great with our kids. Mom, or as they call her ‘Gram,’ gets down on the floor and plays with them, asks my son about the latest video game and plays Barbies with my daughter. She’s all about interacting with them on a personal level.”

Next Steps

At a recent presentation she gave to School of Nursing faculty, Marilyn Dubree, MSN, RN, NE-BC, VUMC Executive Chief Nursing Officer, shared the Medical Center’s strategic plan. For each point, she provided an example of how Medical Center Nursing and the School of Nursing can work more closely together.

“We are entering a period where the clinical work and education at Vanderbilt can come together in innovative ways that improve practice and better educate future nurses. Linda is a tremendous partner and will make significant contributions to everything we do,” said Dubree.

Dittus believes whatever lies ahead, Norman is the right leader for these times. He refers to her as a Level 5 Leader, a definition from Jim Collin’s book “Good to Great.”

“These Level 5 leaders don’t focus on visibility and reward but rather the success of the organization,” said Dittus. “They hand off praise to others, yet accept the blame themselves. This is the type of leader at the helm of organizations that have gone from good to great. This is the type of leader the School of Nursing needs right now and has in Dean Linda Norman.”


— by Kathy Rivers