Tina Bailey: Portrait of a Pioneer
OVERCOMING HARDSHIP AND GENDER BIAS TO BECOME A TRAILBLAZING SCIENTIST, PROFESSOR AND MENTOR
by nick wilson
Navigating a career in academia as a woman in the sciences in the 1970s was no easy task, and Christina “Tina” Bailey easily could have been deterred at multiple key points along the way.
Subtle and overt perceptions about inferiority and early stumbling blocks presented obstacles in Tina’s career. Instead of letting those hurdles slow her down, Bailey stayed focused and determined, according to former colleagues and students.
Over the course of four decades at Cal Poly, she served as a trailblazer for women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) through her influential roles teaching chemistry and mentoring students and fellow female faculty. Tina, who passed away in 2020, and her husband, Phil, were honored in May 2023 with the approval by the California State University (CSU) of the newly named Philip and Christina Bailey College of Science and Mathematics.
Phil and Tina Bailey in the early 1980s.
A role model as a mentor, teacher and mother, Tina is remembered for her leadership and for helping cultivate a college culture of collaboration, diversity and inclusion. “She had a very strong personality, but in a good way,” said fellow chemistry Professor Grace Neff, hired in 1999. “Some people can be strong and overbearing. Tina was strong but welcoming and encouraging. That was highly influential to me and others around her.”
Letters of support for her CSU Outstanding Professor Award in 1992-1993 shed light on the various ways that Tina uplifted lives. Former student Julie Erickson wrote: “She knows it is important to encourage women to pursue further education, when women are sometimes not prompted to go on to graduate school. I only had Tina for one class, but if someone asks who are the people that touched my life the most, Tina Bailey is one of them.”
A ROCKY START
From an early age, Tina’s journey was far from smooth. She was born in Brooklyn in 1942 to Lithuanian-immigrant parents. Tina’s mother had an eighth-grade education and her father a high school diploma. Both parents struggled with addiction and died in their early 50s, said Phil Bailey, who served as the Cal Poly College of Science and Mathematics dean for 34 years and taught almost every term for 48 years.
Tina was the first in her family to attend college, earning a bachelor’s degree from St. Elizabeth University in New Jersey and a Ph.D. from Purdue University, both in chemistry.
Entering a workplace culture with prevalent bias against women in STEM in the 1960s and 1970s, Tina showed patience and perseverance. “We were both better in our careers because of each other and supported each other tremendously,” Phil Bailey said. “But she had a much more challenging time than I did. Hard work leads to opportunities, they say, and we both worked hard. But there’s no question that I had more opportunities than she did.”
Former colleagues said Tina told them male professors in graduate school failed to show confidence in her work, which she largely cultivated on her own. After earning a doctorate, Tina initially wasn’t allowed to be employed at Cal Poly because of nepotism rules at the time, which often affected female spouses like Tina. Because Phil was hired as a chemistry faculty member in 1969, she was initially barred from a Cal Poly faculty role and took a chemistry teaching job at Paso Robles High School for two years instead, which she embraced, Phil recalled.
After the university’s rules changed, Tina was hired on at Cal Poly as a part-time chemistry lecturer in 1972, when only two of the 152 tenure-track faculty (1.3%) were women in the then School of Science and Mathematics. Examples of unequal treatment cropped up, said Phil, who recalled letters from an administrator referring to her as Mrs. Bailey, not Dr. Bailey, the title commonly used when addressing male faculty peers.
In 1978, after five years as an effective, enthusiastic, rigorous and skillful instructor at Cal Poly, Tina still had to overcome doubts to become a full-time, tenure-track faculty member. It was uncertain leading up to the vote, but Tina was approved, reluctantly by some on the review committee, her husband recalled. “Those things irritated her, but she had no choice but to push ahead,” Phil said. “She couldn’t do her job effectively if she let those kinds of things bother her.”
She learned to instill an inner sense of belief. She was self-assured, and that was inspiring.
Cal Poly chemistry professor
Years later, Tina’s mentorship helped other women at Cal Poly gain self-confidence. “Tina helped me figure out that I needed to present myself more confidently, get past my fears and insecurities, and to have confidence that I knew what I was talking about,” Neff said. “She learned to instill an inner sense of belief. She was self-assured, and that was inspiring.”
“The level of engagement of our undergraduates in the scientific
process is exceptional,” Wendt said. “They’re asking questions. They’re designing their approach. They’re conducting the experiments and analyzing data. They're publishing and presenting their results. They're owning the entire process.”
A CULTURAL CHANGE
Over the years, as cultural shift s evolved, Tina’s exceptional work was recognized by her peers and students. She became department chair and achieved prestigious honors such as Cal Poly’s Distinguished Teaching Award, a Cal Poly nomination for the CSU’s Outstanding Professor Award, and a chair appointment on Cal Poly’s Academic Senate Curriculum Committee.
Among her many contributions, Tina spearheaded the transition to combine lecture and lab facilities in the same space. Studio classrooms are now the norm for general chemistry courses at Cal Poly, but they didn’t exist at the university until Tina’s implementation.
“She had a vision to get things done that needed to be done,” said biological sciences professor Elena Keeling, hired in 1996. “She made up her mind that this was going to be how we were going to teach and it’s going to be better. Tina was like that in general.”
AUTHORSHIP AND MENTORSHIP
As her career took off, Tina coauthored several editions of organic chemistry textbooks with Phil.
She created Cal Poly’s first “Drugs and Poisons” class (Chemistry 377, see photo textbook on right), drafting a text which opened with a brief history of drugs that have been around “as long as animals have sought relief from physical and mental pain.”
She referenced Egyptian medical records written on papyrus around 1500 B.C. and the ancient Romans, Greeks and Chinese, who used many types of drugs, herbs and drug formulations.
“Some of these prescriptions were effective,” Tina Bailey wrote. “Most were not.”
She wrote that it wasn’t until the turn of the century when 1908 Nobel Prize winter Paul Ehrlich ushered a new, modern era of pharmacology with the concept of drugs which were tissue and cell specific.
“The concept has guided the work of drug research to this day,” she wrote in the opening pages of her 220-page text, a comprehensive overview with chemical formulas and context of diseases, poisons, and various treatments. Sections cover antibiotics, toxins, cancer, pesticides and more.
Tina’s demeanor as a teacher was demanding but also inspiring, students recalled in letters to CSU trustees. “To this day, she remains my all-time favorite instructor,” former student, Roxanne McKenna, wrote in 1992. “She was always prepared for her lectures and expected no less of her students. Dr. Bailey made the world of chemistry come alive and she was not afraid to make learning fun.”
In turn, Tina wrote about her teaching approach. “If the student is not open, trusting, present and willing to become a part of the experience, no learning will take place,” Tina wrote. “Therefore, my role is to create an atmosphere which is inviting and non-threatening yet challenging, with an internal as well as external reward system.”
Phil recalled a female student telling him that “Tina was the hardest teacher that I ever had, and she was intimidating … but that was a good thing.”
In addition to teaching, Tina and Phil supported more than a dozen first-generation students of various backgrounds and ethnicities (including Black, Hispanic and Asian students; and refugees from the Vietnam War), who faced difficult financial or personal times.
Students stayed a few months to a few years with the Baileys, becoming like family members and participating in shared house chores. They received rent-free room and board rather than having to make choices about skipping meals, missing rent and dropping out of Cal Poly. “They needed love because of difficult circumstances, and we developed close relationships and kept in touch with many of those former students for years after, and still do,” Phil said. “They’re now college instructors or contributing in different jobs in industry, making a difference in other people’s lives.”
To continue this support to students in need, Phil recently made a gift to establish the Philip and Christina Bailey Endowment Fund for Cal Poly Students, which will provide emergency funding for students in need to use toward housing, food, health support and other needs.
When students faced difficult times throughout her career, Tina stepped in to lend support in various ways.
“Dr. Bailey was incredibly warm and understanding when I was a student and had to deal with my mother’s battle with cancer,” wrote Jeffrey Jasper, a senior vice president of research at Terns Pharmaceuticals in Foster City, California. “Dr. Bailey would set everything aside to listen to how I felt and find out how things are going. She always seemed to know the right thing to say and encourage me.”
The Baileys’ eagerness to open their hearts and home led them to adopt four children — each of mixed race — now grown with their own lives and careers.
At the May 2023 dedication of the new William and Linda Frost Center for Research and Innovation and college renaming announcement, attendees including the Baileys’ children and former students who greeted the college embodied and different time and place than when Tina first arrived, with women and those of various socioeconomic backgrounds and ethnicities well represented.
A monument in Tina’s honor can be found on the Frost Center’s second-floor rooftop garden, which is named the Christina Bailey Learning Terrace. Inside the Frost Center, Bailey College students will develop valuable skills engage in in real-world research alongside faculty mentors, finding solutions to unsolved programs while navigating unexpected challenges.
The idea of embracing an academic challenge was exciting to Tina, which carried over to the next generation.
“I’ll always remember the time when I had a really rough day in the studio, trying to work with 64 students and it was chaotic,” Neff said. “Afterwards, I went up to Tina and I told her how crazy it was to try to manage. She looked at me and said ‘I know. Isn’t it great.’”