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June 15 2017

Harvard's First Woman President Retires--and Lectures on Why We Need More Women College Presidents Begin

by Charlotte Allen

Drew Gilpin Faust has announced her retirement  next year as Harvard's first woman president in its nearly 500 years of existence.

When Faust, a historian of the American South, took the top slot at Harvard in 2007, my first thought was: join the club. The University of Pennsylvania has a female president, Amy Gutman, Brown University has a female president, Christina Paxson (the second female president in a row), and the entire University of California system has a female president, Janet Napolitano.

Women presidents could be said to be a college hiring fad these days, a way in which trustee boards can signal that they've come a long way. But that's, well, looking at the glass as half-full.

But if you're a feminist, you want to focus on the part of the glass that's half-empty. Or, as the Chronicle of Higher Education's Audrey Williams June points out, the glass that's three-fourths empty or nine-tenths empty or whatever. No sooner had the ink dried on Faust's retirement announcement than the complaints began to fly:

Over all in higher education, the share of women presidents has barely budged, remaining at about 25 percent over the past decade. As shown in the chart below, among the 19 non-Ivy League, private U.S. universities that are members of the Association of American Universities, for example, only four have had a female leader in a permanent position since 2000. (A fifth was led by a woman in an interim role.)

The record at public universities that are members of the AAU — an organization of top research institutions — is better, with 16 of the 34 having been led by a female president at least once since 2000.

That doesn't sound so bad, except:

The prominence of women leaders in the Ivy League can mask the stubborn lack of progress for women as college presidents over all, one researcher says.

"Women presidents in the Ivy League provide highly visible examples of women leaders and so, on the one hand, some people may say, ‘I guess we’ve made it,’" says Susan R. Madsen, a professor of management at Utah Valley University whose research includes female leaders in higher education. "But they don’t really represent the big picture. Progress is still very slow."

Now for the boilerplate:

Female presidents bring a different perspective to the job, raise different concerns, and ask different questions than do their male counterparts, says Kevin Miller, a senior researcher at the American Association of University Women. Those are useful traits in making decisions.

"At the highest levels, where people have decision-making powers, women still aren’t in the room," he says. "The things that they would be focused on just aren’t being discussed because they’re not there."

Mr. Miller says that no matter where women serve as top leaders in higher education, they send the message that the presidency isn’t just a man’s job. It’s a tough bias to break, he says.

I'm not sure--Miller didn't specify--exactly what "isn't being discussed" in the C-suites of colleges that currently don't happen to have female presidents: a women-only campus screening of Wonder Woman?

But can't Drew Faust Gilpin just retire in peace? Does everything a woman college president does really have to turn into a lecture on why we must have more women college presidents?

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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