University of Virginia Board of Visitors Member Syd Dorsey Reflects on Wielding 'Unintended Power'

February 29, 2008
February 29, 2008 — One of the most consistent things Susan Y. "Syd" Dorsey has done throughout her life is to say "OK" when asked to serve on committees.

Her willingness to serve has brought her "unintended power," said Dorsey, a member of the University of Virginia's Board of Visitors. She spoke Feb. 27 at the annual Black Women's Leadership Dinner, sponsored by the U.Va. Women's Center and the Office for Diversity and Equity.

The U.Va. alumna, who described herself as "an average student," traced how she rose to the governing position.

Although several key steps in her life were unplanned, she said she took them to pursue worthy causes, and they have ended up being excellent experience for her current roles at the University.

She also projects a positive attitude, commitment and fearlessness in her activities, said Kelli Palmer, an assistant to U.Va. President John T. Casteen III, who introduced Dorsey with a David Letterman-style list of the "Top 10 Reasons Why You Should Listen to Syd Dorsey."

Dorsey said she learned from her parents to be responsible for her actions. Even though it looks like "one thing led to another" in her community service, she said the connections she made with people led her to think about using her "unintended power" wisely.

Dorsey is one of three African-Americans and two African-American women on the board — unprecedented in the University's history. The youngest child of a government scientist and elementary school teacher, she said her parents stressed the importance of education. Her experience has shown her education goes beyond the classroom. She encouraged the dinner guests to "learn all you can from as many people as you can, both young and old, both rich and poor.

"I discovered early on as a member of the BOV that a lot of constituencies believe that I represent them, speak for them unlike other members," said Dorsey, who earned a degree in architecture in 1982 and an M.B.A. from the Darden School in 1987. "I feel a great deal of pride in carrying the torch for all who believe no one has played that role before. And I challenge myself to consider the needs of the underrepresented in all of the decisions I am asked to make."

She began her post-graduate involvement with her alma mater after moving to Richmond to work for IBM in the late 1980s. She went to an alumni club meeting and signed up to be an interviewer on the Jefferson Scholars Selection Committee. She eventually became a member of the Alumni Association's Board of Managers and served on the selection committees for the Walter N. Ridley Scholarship Fund, the National Jefferson Scholars Program and the Jerome Holland Scholarship. These roles kept her in touch with students, both in high school and college, as well as with alumni, faculty and staff.

Along with her U.Va. activities, Dorsey undertook other community service. She joined another board in Richmond serving public housing learning centers; a fellow board member happened to be a city councilman named Tim Kaine. A businessman named Mark Warner found out about the program and was impressed with its emphasis on technology. When he created the Virginia High-Tech Partnership with the state's historically black colleges and universities, he asked Dorsey to be on its board of directors.

Those connections led to her eventually being appointed to U.Va.'s board when both Warner and Kaine became governors of Virginia. Gov. Warner appointed her in 2003 and Gov. Kaine reappointed her last year.

"Look around you," Dorsey said at the leadership dinner, especially addressing the student guests. "There is a network of people around you. … People have crossed your path throughout life; some of those end up being mayors, governors, senators, CEOs. Make the most of these happenstance encounters."

The results may be unintentional, but Dorsey said, "Be willing to pay the consequences for your actions, and you may find that your actions are of great consequence."