Shirley Sears Chater: A Role Model, a Pioneer and an Inspiration to Generations

    • September 17, 2012

Shirley Sears Chater was only 20 years old when she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in nursing from the University of Pennsylvania, winning the Florence Nightingale Award as the student who showed the most promise.  When she earned her PhD, she was among a mere 64 nurses in the country with that degree. Today, Chater is a pioneer who has inspired countless others to become nurses and countless nurses to become leaders.

In the decades since, she has lived up to her early “promise” and much more, earning a nursing master’s degree from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), a doctorate in education from the University of California, Berkeley, and a post-doctorate certificate from the Sloan School of Management at MIT.  Today, Chater also holds 12 honorary doctorate degrees.

When she was named the vice chancellor for academic affairs at UCSF in 1977, Chater became the highest ranking woman in the University of California system.  By the time she was chosen to become president of Texas Woman’s University (TWU) nine years later, she had published dozens of times in nursing and education journals.    

Chater took the helm of TWU at a demanding time and quickly used her powers of persuasion to stave off efforts by state legislators to merge the unique women’s institution with the University of North Texas. She was successful in preserving TWU, and the hallmarks of her stewardship there included a deep commitment to increase diversity, high quality programs, and shared governance. She made public spaces at the University accessible to people with disabilities and refurbished residence halls to accommodate students who were married or were single mothers. The special baccalaureate program she established for single mothers became a model for institutions of higher education.  Chater established a Woman of Achievement Award at the University, and brought local public school children to join the celebration when the first Award was bestowed on Coretta Scott King. 

While she was still at TWU, Chater was appointed by Texas Governor Ann Richards to lead the Texas Health Policy Task Force, which promoted childhood immunizations and worked to make health insurance available to more people.

Chater’s many accomplishments in health and education led President Bill Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala to appoint her to serve as Commissioner of the United States Social Security Administration in 1993.  For four years, she ran an agency with 65,000 employees that some 42 million Americans depended on for income, becoming known for her “putting customers first” initiative and for streamlining the process of handling applications for disability benefits.  Chater initiated the system through which Americans receive annual statements detailing their Social Security contributions.  Her grace, compassion and steady leadership were especially welcome when the agency lost 16 employees in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

When Chater left the Social Security Administration in 1997, Terrance Keenan, then a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) vice president, asked for her help in creating a nurse leadership program. In the years since, the RWJF Executive Nurse Fellows program has become one of the Foundation’s signature initiatives. Chater chairs its national advisory committee and has given generously of her time and expertise as a mentor to generations of nurses who have become vital leaders in our changing health care system. 

Chater also helped establish RWJF’s Nurse Leaders in the Boardroom program and has shared her wisdom and experience with RWJF Nurse Faculty Scholars and many other new nurses and aspiring nurse leaders. 

Chater was elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences and serves on the boards of dozens of public, private, philanthropic, health, medical, education and other leading institutions.

She likes to say that, throughout her long career and in all the diverse and powerful positions she has held, she never left nursing. In 2000, the American Academy of Nursing named Shirley Chater a “Living Legend.” 

In September of 2012, after decades of extraordinary service, Chater will retire as chair of the national advisory committee of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Executive Nurse Fellows program. Another prestigious leader will take the post, but Shirley Sears Chater will never truly be replaced.

She has been a transformational nurse leader and a true nurse of the future throughout a career that spans more than 50 years.