The Life and Work of Kate Ratliff

Equipping Students to Cultivate Rationality and Tolerate Ambiguity
by Michael G. Cartwright with contributions by Mary Moore
Vice President for University Mission

This semester our focus is on persons whose lives exemplify aspects of the UIndy Mission Statement.

Recently, a UIndy undergraduate student told me about a conversation that took place during one the “What Matters to Me and Why Dinners” last year. These mealtime conversations — funded by a grant from the Council of Independent Colleges — brought students, faculty and staff to talk about aspects of the UIndy mission statement. In this case, the segment of the mission statement that was the focus of discussion was the charge to faculty to equip students “to cultivate rationality and tolerate ambiguity.”

The student recalled, “We weren’t sure that we liked that part of the University’s mission statement.” I didn’t ask him what they thought would be an appropriate substitution, but I appreciated his candor. I think I understand the temptation. Some students would prefer to cultivate rationality without having to learn to tolerate ambiguity, and vice versa. If we are honest with ourselves, that is sometimes true of faculty and administrators as well. Disrupting the status quo is almost always unsettling to us.

After talking with the student, I wondered what difference in might make if UIndy students, faculty, and administrators knew more about the life and work of Dr. Katherine G. Ratliff (1958–1990). From everything we know about Dr. “Kate” Ratliff, she was committed to the imperative to cultivate rationality and tolerate ambiguity. Sadly, the thing most people at UIndy are likely to remember about her is that she died of a heart attack in February 1990 after serving almost five years as an assistant professor of clinical psychology.

John McIlvried recalls that she graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Florida and soon after began graduate studies. “After receiving a PhD from Auburn University in 1985, she and her husband Carlton Ray, volunteered in Costa Rica for several months before settling in Indianapolis where she began teaching.”

At the time of her death, the managing editor of the Reflector newspaper wrote a story about how Dr. Mary Moore and other faculty remembered their colleague and friend.

Dr. Katherine Ratliff, 32, an assistant professor here and a licensed psychologist, died Sunday of a heart attack. Dr. Mary Moore, a close friend of Ratliff’s read a paper at the College of Arts and Sciences meeting on Tues. about Ratliff.

Ratliff, mother of three, was a very caring individual and loved the university, community and academic life, said Moore.

“Kate was a truly social person. She opened her home to students, her emotions to her colleagues and her heart to others’ needs,” said Moore. Ratliff pushed herself to “conform to the highest standards articulated by her professional community, her understanding of good parenting, and her view of a just America,” said Moore.

“Kate risked all balance by combining parenting and counseling. She was different than many of my generation of women who feared that these commitments were mutually exclusive and for the sake of control, sought one at the expense of another,” said Moore.

The article by Sarah Myers ’92 concluded with information about the funeral service and brief mention about the prospect that a memorial fund was being established in honor of Katherine G. Ratliff.

Part of what I find striking about this article is that Dr. Ratliff was viewed by members of the UIndy community as quite unusual at the time of her death. Looking back at Kate Ratliff’s life from the distance of 27 years, it is tempting to think that the pattern of her life and work is no longer unusual. Perhaps, but only if we choose not to look beyond the surface. But if we take seriously Dr. Mary Moore’s observations about her friend and colleague, we cannot hide from the truth of the matter.

Recently, I invited Dr. Mary Moore to elaborate. Here is what she had to say about “the tensions Kate created for herself by tolerating ambiguity (living with multiple roles) in her cultivation of rationality (doing what was right).”

Kate made her colleagues her friends and thereby took on the extra work of caring deeply for members of the University community. She always made time for others even when she had no time. She was inclusive and refused to let the details of everyday life redirect her plans.

As Kate reported multiple times, she was struck and overwhelmed by the needs of her students for psychological support. Many students found their way to her office prior to having the counseling center. Kate advocated for the establishment of a counseling center on campus and stepped up to develop it; this occurred at a time when she could have done many other things as an accomplished teacher and scholar. It was rational to establish the counseling center in the face of the identified needs. As such Kate lived with the ambiguity of being a faculty member who was not teaching, and was instead practicing her discipline as a psychologist and center administrator.

Kate was direct and honest about parenting at a time when the advice to women was to not share their personal lives or family obligations in the workplace. Kate would leave a note on her office door that her daughter was sick. (At the time of her death, she had three small children one of whom was six months old.) Kate lived with the ambiguity of multiple commitments, and with the demand that she placed on herself to excel in each.

Kate believed in social activism and this included her time living in Costa Rica, and it extended to ongoing activism for social and global justice while a faculty member. Kate could be found speaking up on campus or marching at the State House in Indianapolis for causes that mattered deeply to her. Kate was not restricted by any one role in her pursuit of what she believed to be just and true.

I know more than a few people today who try to juggle being a parent alongside their professional responsibilities and I doubt that any of them would claim to find it achievable to balance the competing expectations of personal and professional responsibilities. Faculty parents still run into one another when they pick up their children at the University Heights pre-school and joke about how much work each has left undone at the office at the end of the day.         

Unlike some colleges and universities founded in the early years of the twentieth century, UIndy has had women faculty from the beginning. In the earliest years, women faculty tended to be married without children or single. Currently, more than half of UIndy’s fulltime faculty (155 of 279) are female – probably more than at any time in the history of the university. No one pattern predominates. Some, like Katherine Ratliff, are parents with spouses. In a few cases, both spouses work at UIndy. Others are single, and still others are married without children.      

Meanwhile, gender expectations and professional roles continue to be spread unevenly between men and women. Students may get angry with a male faculty member who leaves campus to go home to tend to a sick child (that happened to me on a few occasions), but they are more likely to expect that men can rely on their spouses to care for the children’s needs. The status quo remains such that women who try to combine career and parenting “risk all balance.” All of which is to say that there are more than a few reasons why faculty, administrators and students alike might find it uncomfortable to cultivate rationality and tolerate ambiguity.

Unlike Dr. Anna Dale Kek (see September 2017 edition of Mission Matters), Kate Ratliff is unlikely to be lost to the memory of current generation of UIndy students. Thanks to an endowment established by the Ratliff family, the university has an annual event “The Katharine Ratliff Memorial Lecture on Ethics, Values and Human Responsibility.” In 2016, the Ratliff lecture was given by former Surgeon General, Dr. Joycelyn Elders. I believe that those who attended that event would readily agree with my judgment that Dr. Elders challenged us to “cultivate rationality and tolerate ambiguity.”

At the time that the university received this gift, Dr. John McIlvried was serving as the Dean of the School of Psychological Sciences. Here is what he had to say about the Ratliff endowment. “Given the complexity of our world, we are continually challenged to maintain high ethical standards. This conference will help people keep in perspective the importance of values and ethics in every aspect of life. With this gift, we will be able to bring esteemed speakers representing a wide range of fields such as business, religion, politics, psychology and medicine, to benefit the community at large.” McIlvried concluded: “We are very grateful to Mr. Ratliff for honoring his daughter in such a meaningful way.”

I understand that our colleagues in the College of Advanced Behavioral Sciences have not yet finalized plans for this year’s Ratliff Lecture. When the announcement is made, I encourage you to participate. In the meantime, we would do well to remember Dr. Katherine G. Ratliff as a paragon of this particular UIndy mission imperative that calls upon faculty and administrators to equip students to inhabit multiple roles (thereby tolerating ambiguity) while cultivating rationality in the context of doing what is right. 

If you have suggestions of persons whom you think are paragons of the UIndy mission, please send suggestions to me at missionmatters@uindy.edu or contact me by phone.  In the meantime, thanks for taking the time to reflect with me.   

Remember: UIndy’s mission matters!