The path to leadership in academic medicine can feel like walking a labyrinth, explains Mary Dankoski, PhD, executive associate dean for Faculty Affairs and Professional Development (FAPD) at Indiana University School of Medicine.
“It’s a windy path with twists and turns that may not be the path you thought you were on,” she said. “I truly, never in my life, thought I would be an executive associate dean at the largest medical school in the nation.”
As a member of IU School of Medicine’s senior leadership team, Dankoski focuses on fostering a vibrant and supportive environment for the school’s 6,500 full-time, part-time and adjunct faculty—helping individuals navigate a complex organizational structure to grow their careers while making meaningful contributions to the school’s mission.
“Sometimes taking a risk in your career is really important, even if you don’t feel totally qualified,” said Dankoski. “It can stretch you and move you in a direction you didn’t anticipate—to something better than what you thought you would do.”
That wisdom comes from experience. Dankoski, a marriage and family therapist, joined the IU School of Medicine faculty in 1999 to complete a one-year internship with the Department of Family Medicine to finish up her Purdue PhD program. She never envisioned working at a medical school in faculty development.
“Steve Bogdewic was vice chair at the time, and as a family therapist with an incredible reputation in family medicine, he became a mentor of mine,” Dankoski said.
Bogdewic, PhD, would go on to become IU School of Medicine’s first executive associate dean for faculty affairs and professional development, and subsequently the school’s first executive vice dean in charge of schoolwide strategic planning. When he was tasked with starting a faculty affairs and professional development office in the mid-2000s, he asked Dankoski to join him.
“Mary was No. 1 on my list,” Bogdewic said. “When I left family medicine, I turned over the faculty development things I was doing there to her, so I knew what she was capable of. With our training in family therapy, we are able to think about a person within the complexity of the family system, which is much like a complex organization.”
Dankoski, then an assistant professor, wasn’t sure she was ready. “I remember saying to Steve, ‘I need faculty development myself,’” she recalled.
But Bogdewic liked the way Dankoski thought. He further lured her by appealing to Dankoski’s passion—the opportunity to build programs for the advancement of women.
“That really appealed to me because my clinical and research interests were in the areas of gender bias and equity, as well as sexual harassment and violence,” she said.
When the Faculty Affairs and Professional Development Office was created in 2005, IU School of Medicine didn’t have any female executive associate deans, and there was just one female department chair. There were very few women who were full professors or even on the tenure track, Dankoski said.
She started the Women’s Advisory Council with Karen West, MD, in 2007. The following year, FAPD launched the “Stepping Stones of Women in Leadership” workshop series to highlight the careers of successful women in academic medicine.
“It uses storytelling to inspire people,” Dankoski said. “We’ve interviewed women from diverse backgrounds and who have diverse roles and career paths. The path to leadership is never straight.”
Megan Palmer, PhD, senior associate dean for FAPD, has worked alongside Dankoski in faculty development since 2008 and has watched her leadership skills grow.
“Mary cares deeply about the success of our faculty,” Palmer said. “She is a leader who is innovative, open-minded and evidence-based. Mary has touched almost everything we have done in FAPD. This includes the development of our executive recruitment team, the development of the faculty vitality and chair 360 surveys, programs for the advancement of women, training related to promotion and tenure, and so much more.”
‘We are making strides.’
Dankoski grew up in Jackson, Michigan, in a large, Irish and Polish Catholic family with several first cousins—four of whom were in her high school graduating class. Although neither of her parents had a four-year degree, education was emphasized in her family culture. Dankoski and her three siblings attended a private Catholic school and never doubted they would all go to college.
“My mom was very much a feminist,” Dankoski added. “She said girls can do anything boys can do.”
That might’ve played into Dankoski’s initial disinterest in sewing and quilting—a craft enjoyed by her grandmother and aunt.
“I resisted learning to sew because it was too girly and domesticated,” she said.
But in 2020, as the COVID pandemic forced everyone to stay at home, Dankoski found herself looking for a creative outlet. While she wished she had learned from her skilled relatives, Dankoski taught herself by reading books and watching YouTube tutorials.
“I like quilting because it’s both precise and creative,” she said. “You have to be exact when cutting fabric, but it’s also a very creative process when you put the pieces together.”
Dankoski recently crafted a small hanging quilt to symbolize the concept of intersectionality as a gift for the newly created Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice (DEIJ) at IU School of Medicine. Diversity affairs formerly fell under the purview of Dankoski’s office but now has its own executive associate dean, Chemen Neal, MD.
“It’s bittersweet because it’s work that I am incredibly passionate about it,” Dankoski said. “I have worked in that space of equity for years.”
Yet Dankoski recognizes the opportunity to reach even higher with an office devoted to DEIJ.
“I’m really proud of the work that has been done and the foundation that has been laid, not just through our team but through the work of a lot of other people who advance diversity initiatives in their departments or units,” Danksoski said. “There’s still tons of work to do.”
Her office will continue to work closely with the diversity office, as faculty affairs and development initiatives are intertwined with issues of equity and justice.
In the area of women faculty, Dankoski said, “We are making strides.” About 39 percent of IU School of Medicine’s full-time faculty are women, and 20 percent of department chairs are women, counting two interim positions. On the school’s executive leadership team, half of the executive associate deans are now women.
“The needle is moving,” Dankoski said. “It’s not as fast as I’d like. There’s still work to do on climate issues—like everywhere in academic medicine and science. But we are seeing more women go for promotion every year, and our women and men faculty are equally successful when they go up for promotion. When we compare how long they stay in rank, women tend to move up at the same rate as men.”
‘Work within your values.’
Dankoski’s life motto is taped to the bottom of her computer monitor: “Keep the promises you make to yourself.”
“It’s consistently living and working within my values—the things I’ve promised my own self about how I’m going to be in the world as a person,” she explained. “I think when people start doing things inconsistent with their values, that’s when it can lead to less satisfaction and burnout. In the big picture, for overall career happiness and success, it’s critical to work in a space where you are consistently working within your values. For me, what that looks like day-to-day might be different, but it’s always aligned with my values of seeing higher education as a vehicle for advancing equity.”
Dankoski’s colleagues and mentees say she is adept at recognizing the strengths an individual possesses and creating opportunities for those strengths to be amplified to benefit the medical school system.
“Mary has really pushed me to think about how I can be a leader within my own strengths—not just take on the traditional qualities of leadership,” said Krista Longtin, PhD, assistant dean for FAPD. “As a leader, Mary listens very closely and observes. Rather than trying to make someone in her own image, she tries instead to make them a unique leader based on their own strengths.”
Longtin said Dankoski sponsored and supported her growth throughout the system, much like Bogdewic did for Dankoski in her early career. In 2009, when the Family Medicine chair position became vacant, Bogdewic recommended Dankoski for the role of co-interim chair, along with Kevin Gebke, MD, who became chair after the interim role ended in 2011 and served in that position until September 2022, when he became senior vice president of community medicine for IU Health.
“Mary's skillset complimented mine perfectly,” Gebke said. “She has a deep knowledge and understanding of our academic system which allowed the Department of Family Medicine to forge a path forward in the areas of education and research during a very difficult transition.”
Dankoski is grateful for the experience leading a department.
“It was an incredible learning opportunity for me,” she said. “I had a window into what department chairs experience, and that has informed my thinking about the work of faculty affairs and professional development.”
Gebke considers Dankoski’s greatest attribute her “confident humility.”
“Despite her rank and title, Mary has always been approachable, loyal and, above all things, honest,” he said.
In her faculty affairs role, she often deals with “swampy” situations, including faculty grievances or misconduct. Just as she did for her family therapy clients, Dankoski tries to steer faculty members from complaints to solutions.
“Back when I did therapy, I told my clients you only get two sessions to vent because venting doesn’t solve anything,” she said. “After two sessions, you have to start thinking about what you’re going to do differently to improve the situation.”
Dankoski’s training allows her to handle these situations with aplomb, Bogdewic said.
“Mary has what I would call executive presence,” he added. “She respects other people, stays calm, and is a superb listener. Mary is consistent, and consistency is the hallmark of trust.”
ABOUT THIS SERIES
Women are leading the way in helping Indiana University School of Medicine fulfill its mission to advance health in the state of Indiana and beyond by promoting innovation and excellence in education, research and patient care. The Women in Leadership series celebrates the contributions of women who have emerged as strong leaders within the medical school and in their respective fields of expertise.