The renovation of the Mary Ellen Jones building, across Manning Drive from the School of Dentistry, is a massive undertaking, a 30-month project with a $117 million budget. When the building reopens in 2019, not only will its 1978-era interior be replaced with modern research laboratory space and new mechanical, electrical and plumbing infrastructure, the nearly windowless pre-cast exterior will be exchanged for a new glass curtain wall system providing natural light.
The building will be the new home of the Neurosciences Center; the departments of dermatology and biomedical engineering; and research in thrombosis, computational medicine and pediatrics. It carries the name of a research pioneer, a biochemist who was the first woman to hold an endowed chair (Kenan Professor) at Carolina and the first woman to become a department chair at the medical school.
And at a point during the renovation’s design process, Associate Vice Chancellor for Facilities Services Anna Wu noticed something special about the team assembled to modernize Mary Ellen Jones.
“That team is a woman-led team,” Wu said. “It was great to walk into a meeting and realize the people around the table tackling this problem were all women. That’s a nice turnaround. I have enjoyed seeing that change.”
Wu has also been part of the change. Hired by the University in 1995 as a facilities architect, she was promoted in 2001 to University architect and director of facilities planning and in 2012 to University architect and assistant vice chancellor for facilities operations, planning and design. She was named associate vice chancellor for facilities services in 2015.
Over that time, she has overseen major planning, design and construction projects for the University, including the first Campus Master Plan, approved in 2001 and updated in 2006. She and her boss, former Associate Vice Chancellor for Facilities Services Bruce Runberg, led the transformation of campus known as the Dynamic Decade, when 6 million square feet of buildings were constructed and 1 million square feet of
historic buildings were renovated during a 10-year, $2.3 billion capital program.
Now the Massey Award winner is leading the way again as the University adapts a new master plan, one that will be guided for the first time by a strategic framework, The Blueprint for Next.
Wu was first inspired to become an architect by her father, an engineer who would let her trace drawings in his office when she was a child. He took the family from their home in the Midwest to New York City to see interesting designs at the 1964 World’s Fair and the new Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
He passed away while Wu was still young, but her mother continued to encourage her studies, first at the University of Pennsylvania then at Harvard University, where she earned her master of architecture degree.
Wu said that her architecture class was about 40 percent female but that, as she progressed in her career, she saw fewer women in the field. That observation is borne out by U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures that say—even now—while nearly half of architecture school graduates are women, only 18 percent of licensed practitioners are women. Contributing to the drop-off? Full-time female architects today still earn 20 percent less than male architects.
“It’s not starting in architecture that’s difficult for women. It’s staying in architecture,” Wu said. In addition to lower salaries and different expectations regarding work-life balance, women in architecture have few female peers or mentors in their field. But when those hires start getting made, the workplace changes. That’s what has happened at Carolina, Wu said.
Gradually, she has seen changes at the companies that do business with the University. “It used to be that the only women who would come as part of the consulting team were their marketing people,” Wu said. “And then, slowly but surely, you would see more women—not just junior architects, but sometimes the project manager or, in some cases, the principal.”
At Carolina, it also helps that there are “women in leadership positions,” she said. That number includes Wu. “I usually never really think of myself as being representative of any group,” she said. “But at some point, you have to live up to that. I’m still learning to be a role model in the workplace.”
Consciously or not, Wu had been a role model for most of her Carolina career, from representing the University at countless public meetings and presentations to leading a large and diverse workforce as an Asian-American woman.
She spoke about that role at the University’s 2017 Diversity THINKposium. “I hope that working in a division under the leadership of an Asian-American woman is something that some of our housekeeping staff find as a source of pride. For that matter, I would imagine some of our building services staff might relate to my gray hair,” Wu told the audience.
“But it is my role to create an environment within Facilities Services in which my staff feel comfortable sharing and learning more about each other than just our race or age so that we can go beyond assumptions to make important connections.”
A new approach
As she did 17 years ago, Wu is once again leading the way in developing a Campus Master Plan, but this time the plan will be shaped by The Blueprint for Next.
“The previous plans were primarily land use plans. The biggest difference now is that we have the strategic framework that really is the lens we view implementation through. We haven’t had that in previous plans,” Wu said. “I actually think the way we’re doing it now is ideal.” Wu will present the new campus master plan in May to the Board of Trustees.
The continued evolution of the campus based on The Blueprint for Next also illustrates a point that Wu made about women in the workplace.
“The way it is now is not the way it always will be,” she said.
Story by Susan Hudson, University Gazette
Photo by Jon Gardiner, University Communications