HOTSEAT- Power nursing: Lancaster's cap and clout

Nursing students at UVA are taught to be aware of cultural differences and to pick up on patient cues. Those lessons also apply in life, as Jeanette Lancaster discovered in 1989 when she accepted appointment as UVA's nursing school dean– without one vital piece of cultural information. That except for its longtime admission of female nurses, UVA was pretty late on gender and racial integration.

"I didn't know this institution didn't admit women or minorities until 1970," says Lancaster. "I could have used that." Knowing the history, she says, would have helped her understand why men and women in leadership roles were treated differently when she arrived.

Flash forward 17 years. Lancaster has been at the helm longer than any other other current UVA dean, and she's one of the "300 most powerful people in nursing" today, according to Modern Healthcare magazine, which ranks administrators based on reputation. But considering that she was just named president of the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, she's probably in the top 10.

It's no secret that nursing school enrollment has been declining since the mid-1990s. Lancaster's mission isn't just attracting more students– she also wants more faculty to train them.

"In terms of solving the nursing shortage, the faculty shortage is the show-stopper," Lancaster says. One faculty member is needed for every eight students in a clinical setting, and UVA has decided not to increase that ratio. "It's unsafe," she says.

"We thought with new technology, we'd need fewer staff," Lancaster says. "Instead, we need more– and a better-educated healthcare workforce."

Plans for a new nursing school building reflect a warmer, more inviting profession. That means lots of natural light, bike racks, showers, a "green" roof, cozy seating areas, an emphasis on staircases rather than elevators, and even a fireplace. The healthy building "incorporates our values," says Lancaster. "We're trying to say to people, 'You're important.'"

And unlike her early days at UVA, when she says female leaders weren't heard, "We chose the architectural firm because they listened to us."

Lancaster was a psych nurse before she took the academic route. "A disproportionate number of nursing school deans had their nursing preparation in psychiatry," she reveals.

The first in her family to go to college, she knew she was going to be a nurse after she had her tonsils out at age five. "I was struck by the fact the nurses were so professional," she remembers. "I was impressed by the orderliness."

And when pressed, she admits she liked the regalia. 

"I really think that in giving up the white uniforms and hats, we gave up our professional identity, which diluted the public's understanding of who a nurse is," she says. She concedes that her fondness for traditional garb puts her in a minority, but she does think nurses wearing pant suits is "very smart."

The stereotype that peeves her? "TV shows in which nurses are portrayed as not particularly bright– that's just not true," she says. "Many of our students could have so easily gone to medical school, and it's interesting to hear why they chose nursing instead."

Living on the Lawn, Lancaster gets up close with students– at least as much as their more nocturnal schedules allow. "The students are the most incredible young people you'll ever meet," she says. And while she enjoys being neighbors with 54 of the university's best and brightest, summers are also nice. "No one," she explains, "gets in your parking space."

Age: 61

What do you like best about Charlottesville? The Lawn

What do you like least? The traffic

Favorite hangout? My lake house

Most overrated virtue? Meekness

People would be surprised to know: I listen to mystery stories on tape while I walk or jog.

What would you change about yourself? I'd be able to sing.

Proudest accomplishment? Leading a great school of nursing

People find most annoying about you: I don't set limits on others enough.

Whom do you admire? Lillian Wald

Favorite book? The Number 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith 

Subject that causes you to rant? Manipulative people

Biggest 21st-century thrill? The enormous opportunities that abound for people who grab them

Biggest 21st-century creep out? We aren't teaching our children science, math and languages and are lax about PE.

What do you drive? A mid-life Mercedes Benz 

In your car CD player right now: A book on tape– Up Jumps the Devil by Margaret Maron

Next journey? To chair a board of the AACN in Jackson Hole, Wyoming

Regret: I have taken too little time to smell the roses.

Favorite comfort food: Breyer's Light Vanilla ice cream

Always in your refrigerator: Milk, wine, spinach, blueberries and ice cream

Must-see TV: News

Describe a perfect day. Hanging out in a pool with my granddaughter

Walter Mitty fantasy: Speaking Spanish

Who'd play you in the movie? Goldie Hawn

Most embarrassing moment? I was keynoting a conference, and in my head I had it a day off. About midnight, before I was supposed to speak at 9am, they called to ask why I didn't get off the plane.

Best advice you ever got? Be kind to people as you move up in your career because you may see them again as you come down.

Favorite bumper sticker? "Hang up and drive."

Jeanette Lancaster