Photo of Cassandra Veney, Cassandra Veney, executive director of the Humanities in Leadership Learning Series (HILLS) program

5 questions with… Cassandra Veney, executive director of the Humanities in Leadership Learning Series (HILLS) program

Though headlines may lament that “There is no case for the humanities” or “The humanities are in crisis,” the scene on many university campuses dispels this notion. What is sometimes missing, however, is people in leadership positions with humanities training and diversity among humanities practitioners. 

At Case Western Reserve University, Cassandra Veney is helping to change that.

Veney joined the university in July as the first director of the Humanities in Leadership Learning Series (HILLS) program. HILLS is supported through a $2 million Mellon Foundation grant and seeks to strengthen representation of arts and humanities faculty from groups that are underrepresented.

“The thing that excites me the most about this position is experiencing its transformative effects. Not just for the people in the program, but for the university as a whole,” she said.

As director of HILLS, Veney has three main goals for the program: 

  1. To build a community of scholars,
  2. To demystify pathways to academic leadership, and
  3. To make the program a national model that is replicable by other universities. 

“We need to begin early, with graduate students and postdocs, to light a fire, to learn the pathways to becoming a leader in academia,” Veney said. “When we begin to understand governance, constraints and problems we’re giving potential leaders tools to excel, or simply decide that they want to go in another direction.”

Ultimately, Veney hopes that the highly qualified individuals trained as part of the program will stay at CWRU and become members of the university’s faculty. 

“Because they have been a part of the program, we know that they are well prepared,” she said.

Veney, who spent her childhood in Virginia and Maryland and went on to receive her PhD from University of Missouri-Columbia, has held professorships at universities across the United States, and around the globe. She came to Case Western Reserve from the United States International University-Africa in Nairobi, Kenya.

While her formal training is as a social and political scientist, she strongly believes that the humanities are the foundation of academic life.

“The humanities are the cornerstone of every single discipline,” Veney said. “But they are consistently undervalued, even around the globe.”

Now Veney has aspirations to change the narrative around the humanities, but she also sees the position as a way to give back.

“I’m a believer in luck, drive and commitment,” she said. “But oftentimes, things happen because people see in you what you don’t see in yourself. And that’s what happened to me. I was helped along the way, so it’s my time to use my skills and expertise to give back to other people. This opportunity is a way to give back.”

Get to know Veney better with this week’s five questions.

1. Where’s your favorite travel destination?

Any place that has a beach! It’s hard to choose one—the Caribbean, California, Lake Malawi, Mombasa. If I must choose one, it is Barbados.

2. What’s up next on your reading list?

My next reading will be An American Marriage by Tayari Jones.

3. What’s one local spot you recommend every out-of-towner check out? Or, what’s one local spot you’re looking to check out?

I am looking forward to exploring the many stops in Cleveland that were a part of the Underground Railroad such as the Cozad-Bates House.

4. If you could have one superpower, what would you choose?

Teleportation is the superpower that I would love to have.

5. What’s your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?

My favorite thing about CWRU is the walking spaces that allow one to view and enjoy the beauty of the campus.