Fredeen: provost, chemist, trailblazer

By Amethyst Martinez

Many may know the university provost from her annual speech at graduation, or from her office in the library ground level covered with glass windows, giving her the ability to view students, faculty and staff walking by. 

Maybe they have seen some of the work she has been a part of, such as diversity, equity and inclusion efforts or massive university restructuring.

DonnaJean Fredeen, however, may surprise those she meets for the first time, having an unmistakable Southern twang and a smile that never tires. 

“I was always such a happy baby,” said Fredeen. “I laugh a lot. … If we did not laugh, we would all go insane.”

Nestled in her office bookshelves are bunny figurines, wedding and family photos, awards and books, including “Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team, and A Dream,” a story based on Permian High School, where Fredeen attended. 

Permian is located in Odessa, Texas, an oil-reliant town where Fredeen grew up. 

“When there was a big boom, then things were going great, and then when there was a bust, you saw things close down,” said Fredeen. 

One of her favorite activities as a child was writing on the chalkboard and “playing teacher” — a path that she ended up going down. 

A passion for chemistry

Her father, a medical technologist, first introduced her to the lab, where she grew to enjoy chemistry. 

High school chemistry teachers Jerry Watts and Sam Meador encouraged her to continue her education in the male-dominated field, and Fredeen was doubtful she’d be able to pursue her career goals without their help. 

After high school, Fredeen went on to attend McMurry College, now known as McMurry University. 

At first, she thought that going into medical technology, like her father, was what she wanted to do. 

However, a stark realization hit after her father asked why she was pursuing his passion and not her own.

“I thought he was so proud of the fact that I wanted to follow him in his footsteps,” said Fredeen. “I looked at him and said, ‘Well I really love working in the lab,’… he smiled at me and said ‘DonnaJean, you should be a chemistry major.’”

After that, Fredeen did internships in other labs and ended up being a chemistry major, just as her dad predicted. At the time, she didn’t think she wanted to teach.

She went on to pursue her Ph.D. in analytical/inorganic chemistry at Texas A&M University in the 1980s, where she was told by a faculty member that she would never get her doctorate. 

“There was tremendous gender discrimination, even among my peers,” said Fredeen. “I was back visiting Texas A&M in 2004, 2005, and a friend of mine who was working there … said it was still very pervasive throughout the chemistry department at that time.”

Despite that, Fredeen pressed on and proved her professor wrong.

After marrying her husband and beginning her job search, she scored a job interview for a position in mass spectrometry force, something she didn’t have much experience in.

She stopped the interview, told the interviewer she didn’t want to waste his time, and ran out to her husband, who was waiting for her.

“I just looked at him, and I said ‘I don’t want to do this. I want to go into academics, and I want to go to an institution where the focus is on teaching,’” she said.

From drawing on blackboards as a child to beginning her career in higher education, it couldn’t have been more of a full circle moment for the provost. 

University work

After Fredeen realized that she was meant to teach, she found a job as a professor at the University of Bridgeport, but frequently faced gender-related discrimination. 

“I was the only woman in the department,” said Fredeen. “I didn’t even understand the stress that this job was putting on me, but it really was the environment.”

After a position opened up at Southern Connecticut State University, she took the opportunity to leave. 

“Again, only woman. Again, 25 years younger than the men in the department. But I would also say, those seven men all wanted me to succeed,” she said. 

The university was looking to hire a woman in the chemistry department due to changing demographics in the classes of general chemistry. 

“They had the vision: ‘We’ve got to have a woman standing in front of them, we need to convince these young women they too can become us,’” said Fredeen. 

After moving her way up from assistant professor, to professor, to chairperson of the entire department, to eventually the dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, Fredeen finally found a place that took her seriously as a woman in chemistry. 

“I knew I wanted to get into administration, [but] I didn’t think at that point in my life: more so 10 years down the road,” she said. “I had an impact on our students’ education that would really set them up for success as lifelong learners.”

During her time teaching, she also wrote a book, “Study Guide to Accompany McMurry and Fay’s General Chemistry,” which is now in its sixth edition. 

In 2013, Fredeen made her way to Rider, where she became the university provost, one of the highest positions at the university. 

Rob Stoto, Rider’s vice president of human resources, said that Fredeen comes from “the highest integrity.”

“I think the world of her: as a colleague, as a provost and for the hats she wear,” said Stoto.

She has won plenty of awards in her time as an educator, such as the “Distinguished Former Odessan” award that sits upon her bookshelf, or the “Academy of Distinguished Former Students in the College of Science at Texas A&M,” from her alma mater in Texas, a state she worries deeply about. 

“I would not want to live there now,” said Fredeen. “And I certainly would not want to be part of the higher education system in that state because I think they are really attacking academic freedom.”

Although she worries what’s happening in Texas could spread to the entire country, Fredeen remains committed to her job at Rider. The proof is there, with two of her children even graduating from the university.

“I believe very, very strongly in the power of higher ed,” said Fredeen. “Despite what everybody is thinking and questioning about higher education today, it is what is going to allow us to maintain our impact not only on everybody in this country, but around the world.”

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