“Never” is a strong word to use with Veronica McComb, Ph.D.
“I love proving people wrong,” she says with a laugh from a vintage library chair in her office, which overlooks a campus coming alive again in early spring. Take the arts at Bryant University, which operated as a business school for much of its 160-year history. When McComb was appointed dean of the College of Arts and Sciences in 2021, she was told the arts would never be a big thing at Bryant.
“But what I want people to understand is that the arts were always a thing for our students,” she says, pointing to myriad visual and performing arts opportunities on campus and a new student-run Arts Weekend in April. “The curriculum is just catching up to that.”
At the start of her deanship, McComb was charged with professionalizing the liberal arts at the institution by bringing each major into industry alignment — a challenge that felt distinctly personal to her. Bryant expanded into a university with separate colleges of business and arts and sciences in 2004; that same year, McComb graduated from Dartmouth College with a degree in film, concentrations in Spanish and Portuguese, and no job prospects in sight.
At the time, she had just wrapped up a film and essay project about racial theory and identity with high schoolers in her home city of Brockton, Massachusetts — a place where very little was expected of students, “but I, and others like me, are proof of the unexpected,” she says. McComb’s mother is Cape Verdean, Irish, and Jewish, and her father is Panamanian and Barbadian, and she says she felt like an outsider looking in, always observing instead of participating, which is why filmmaking appealed to her.
"There’s a certain obligation we have, as higher education leaders, to ensure as much return on investment as possible for students and prepare them for life on the other side of that diploma."
“I was helping these students grapple with these issues while I was also wrestling with who I am and where I came from,” she says. She enjoyed working with students and applied for an opening as an English teacher at the school. But she didn’t get the job, and she couldn’t afford to wait around for another one. She cobbled together work as a scheduler at a yoga center, a clerk at OfficeMax, and a teacher’s assistant. She even peddled Mary Kay on the side — “very badly,” she admits. “I used more of the inventory than I sold.”
McComb graduated from an Ivy League school and couldn’t land a full-time job, she says.
“I felt that there was tremendous value to the education I got, in terms of improving my intellect and becoming a better person,” she says. “But there’s a certain obligation we have, as higher education leaders, to ensure as much return on investment as possible for students and prepare them for life on the other side of that diploma. That’s the promise Bryant brings to students, and it’s one we make good on time and time again.”
Today, McComb helped create the major she wishes existed for her when she was an undergraduate. In the fall of 2023, Bryant students can enroll in a new Arts and Creative Industries program, which emphasizes practical and artistic coursework — think: microeconomic principles; nonprofit management; film theory; studio art — to prepare students for creative careers.
Spearheaded by Associate Dean Terri Hasseler, the major would have appealed to many of McComb’s peers, her siblings included. A fine arts major, McComb’s sister now creates as a hobby; her brother is a professional comic book artist who makes ends meet working for small presses.
“This is an opportunity to honor that creative side and still make a living and not struggle to do so,” she says. “Thinking for thought’s sake is good for everyone, but some of us can’t afford to do it forever.”
McComb, who comes from a working-class background, says she knew she couldn’t support herself on gig work alone after college. She enrolled in Boston University’s American studies Ph.D. program, which afforded her a generous stipend and, through a conference presentation, connected her to an adjunct teaching role at nearby Wheelock College. After completing her Ph.D., McComb landed a position at Lenoir-Rhyne University, a private Lutheran institution in North Carolina, where she taught American, African-American, and Africana studies.
“I had a terrible, terrible first two years,” she says. “I was very young, and I think I was overcompensating for all these layers of insecurities: I’m young, I’m Black, and I’m a woman. How much are they going to respect me?”
One of her greatest teaching lessons came from an artist friend who encouraged her to paint automatically: Fill the white space on the canvas, and don’t overthink it.
“I learned how much I should let my process flow, and I had a renewed sense of creativity in the classroom. I suffered a bit from kitchen sink syndrome early on,” she says, referencing her love of competition shows like “Project Runway,” where contestants fail if they can’t self-edit. Leading with empathy and supported by an iterative framework, her teaching transformed into a craft.
As she discovered her path in the classroom, McComb also learned that academia could be very lonely; she yearned for a shift from competition to community. Forever a volunteer — case in point: in high school, she switched from the trumpet, her instrument of choice for many years, to the euphonium because the school band needed one — McComb spent her spare time at Lenoir-Rhyne engaging in service and faculty development activities.
“I really loved the scholarship of teaching and learning, and how to be a better teacher and mentor, and I loved being a contributing member of the overall campus community,” she says.
“I grew up in this profession and raised children at the same time, and that deepened my empathy for both students and faculty.”
McComb ascended to chair of the history department and, later, director of the honors program and dean of Lenoir-Rhyne’s College of Humanities and Social Science — all of which she balanced while raising her two sons, now nine and six.
“Being a mom is a central part of who I am and what keeps me going,” she says. “I grew up in this profession and raised children at the same time, and that deepened my empathy for both students and faculty.”
She’s cognizant of the balance professional parents must strike when trying to be present for their children and be engaged employees at the same time. The pandemic showed us we could be flexible in the workplace, she says. But it also showed us what matters most.
“I’m a recovering type-A personality who believes in a plan, and a backup plan, and a backup plan for the backup plan; my kids cured me of that,” she says. “They’re just amazing. There’s a gentleness to them that I don’t want them to have to lose. I’m fighting tooth and nail to help them preserve that.”
McComb might do it all, but she doesn’t do it alone. Her mother provides significant support with childcare; when they were in North Carolina, her in-laws helped, too. McComb also credits her husband as her accomplice and her strongest ally. The pair met while she was in graduate school and, over dinner and date nights, they often talked about racial inequality and other topics from her coursework.
“I wish more people in the majority groups could move through the majority groups in the way my husband does: by creating space and purposefully supporting others,” she says. McComb, who leads diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) workshops in the community, says such skills can be taught. To facilitate that, she’s envisioning another new College of Arts and Sciences major for DEIB professionals.
As she builds industry-aligned programs and fosters community among faculty and students, McComb is also working on a collection of essays and oral histories centering women of color in higher education leadership. Titled Emerging from the Margins, the book would have provided a strong playbook for success as McComb navigated those first trying years as a young academic. Looking ahead, she says she’s eager to learn from those who have walked the path before her — women who, like McComb, have strived to effect real change, and with empathy.
“A lot of the examples of great leaders work within a framework of dominance and competition rather than collaboration and compassion,” she says. “And I thought: Why can’t we rewrite the game? I wouldn’t be in this position if it wasn't possible.”