From Scientist to Administrator

Women are excelling in senior posts at universities, writes Sue V. Rosser, but researchers who leave the faculty ranks before becoming full professors may limit their careers.

April 25, 2012

In 2012, the American Council of Education reported from its most recent statistics that women constitute 26.4 percent of college and university presidents. This represents a marked increase over 25 years from the 9.5 percent of women presidents in 1986. Significantly, half of the elite private institutions in the Ivy League are headed by women: Brown University -- Ruth Simmons; Harvard -- Drew Gilpin Faust; University of Pennsylvania -- Amy Gutmann; and Princeton University -- Shirley Tilghman. In keeping with the Ivy League tradition where most of the male presidents, with the exception of the two physicians that head Cornell and Dartmouth, have disciplinary backgrounds other than science and engineering, only Shirley Tilghman of the Ivy League presidents is a scientist. Susan Hockfield serves as president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the most prestigious technological institution. Shirley Jackson serves as head of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute .

In 2011-12, women also led many of the most prestigious public institutions in the Big 10 and the University of California System. Four women head the Big 10 institutions. Three of the four women leaders hold terminal degrees in the natural or physical sciences. Women serve as chancellor of three UC campuses. All 10 chancellors, including all three women, of the UC system campuses are scientists, engineers, or physicians.

Why do so many women scientists and engineers head public Research I institutions?

Successful senior women scientists serve as a prime source of leadership for top academic administrative positions. Their experience in obtaining funding and managing large budgets, major projects, and teams of personnel in their scientific laboratories translates well into the expectations and skills needed by deans, vice presidents of research, provosts and presidents.

Eager to reach these higher-level positions, some women have gone into administration too early in their academic careers. Often they were pushed by mentors and/or other administrators who saw their potential and were eager to promote more women into positions in administration. Being lured into administration before reaching the rank of full professor and becoming established as a successful scientist cuts short the career as a scientist. Academic administration, even at the level of associate department chair, associate dean, or associate provost, demands significant attention that leaves little time to devote the hours in the laboratory needed to continue to build a successful scientific career.

Most individuals who go into administration while still associate professors find that they are unable to complete the research required for promotion to full professor while in the administration. Ironically, because they have not yet obtained full rank, these same individuals often find that the path to higher administrative positions is also closed to them. Most Research I institutions will not consider individuals who are not full professors for the powerful academic administrative positions of dean, provost, vice president for research or president.

The interview for my book of professor Sandy Ryan (a pseudonym, as is the case for other interviews referenced in this essay) emphasizes how serving in administrative positions while an associate professor prevented her from reaching full rank. Just as coming up for tenure too early can cause problems, being lured into administration too early can inhibit advancement to full rank. Because of the dearth of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, women are more likely than their male counterparts to receive encouragement to enter administration before becoming full professora. Since scholars who are members of racial/ethnic minority groups receive similar encouragement, women of color stand as particularly vulnerable to getting sidetracked into administration before becoming full professors. Ultimately, this decision to enter administration prematurely not only impedes research advancement but also places a ceiling on the level of administrative position that a woman can attain. Although excellent administrators, these individuals typically remain associate deans, associate department chairs, or associate provosts. The rank of full professor, in addition to considerable administrative experience, becomes a prerequisite for higher-level positions in academia, such as dean, provost, vice president for research, and president.

Geologist Sandy Ryan: Immediately upon receiving my Ph.D., without taking a postdoc, I took a faculty position at a major state university in the mid-South. I remain at the same institution today. Although the dean and upper administration have always been supportive, over the years my department has proved a mixed bag. Some of the older faculty, including past chairs, remained traditional and sexist, assuming that I must be more interested in marriage than field geology. At one point, I considered taking a job offered by industry. Instead, I tried my hand at administration, serving as undergraduate director, graduate director, and eventually as associate dean for seven years. Although I enjoyed administration, I feel that it retarded my research career, with the result that I remain an associate professor.

Currently, I've used POWRE (Professional Opportunities for Women n Research and Education) to refocus and reinvigorate my research program. The NSF POWRE award not only allowed me to redirect my work and to develop a track record in a different area, it also gained me new respect from colleagues. The boost from the NSF funding and my support of two graduate students and one undergraduate are viewed positively by my colleagues. I believe that they will endorse me when I come up for promotion to full professor in a couple of years.

Administration appeals to many women who enjoy interacting with people and applying their problem-solving skills developed as a scientist in another venue. Although administration often draws those women who seek to escape a chilly departmental climate, as Sandy did, getting one’s research back on track for promotion to full professor can be difficult after several years in administration.

Sandy Ryan perceived that her colleagues may have different criteria for her than for some of the men in her department and that she would have to work harder to prove herself. Being judged more harshly than male colleagues seems to apply also to women in administration. One senior woman discusses this harsh judgment that she has seen women administrators experience at her institution:

College Program Head Joanne Maynard: At my current institution, the leadership pushes for women to advance. Many women now occupy positions as dean and vice president. I have observed, however, that women in these administrative positions appear to be judged more harshly, and perhaps different criteria apply to them. Women with women partners receive particularly harsh scrutiny.

What can women scientists who seek to become leaders in academic administration do to ensure that they achieve their goals? How can their mentors promote their success?

Recommendations for Women Seeking to Become Leaders in Administration

1. Develop and maintain state and federal contacts to provide leadership in your area of expertise in setting priorities and agendas.

2. Establish appropriate collaborations with industry, government, and other academic institutions.

3. Accept leadership positions on boards and in professional societies.

4. Accept appropriate positions in government or industry that will enhance contacts and administrative skills without undercutting academic scientific productivity and credibility.

5. Achieve promotion to full professor before taking on major administrative positions such as associate dean, associate provost, or department chair.

6. Seek help outside the institution immediately if you believe you are encountering difficulties in your position.

7. Consider the positive impacts on policies and practices that you can have because of your experiences as a woman.

Recommendations for Mentors Seeking to Advance Women Scientists to Administrative Leadership

1. Nominate women for awards.

2. Nominate women to serve on significant institutional and national committees.

3. Nominate women for leadership positions such as dean, vice president for research,provost, and president at your institution as well as other universities.

4. Do not appoint women to time-consuming administrative positions such as associate dean, associate provost, or chair of the department until they have become full professors.

5. Ensure that the criteria by which you assess the performance of women candidates in administrative positions are not more harsh and stringent than those used to judge men.

6. Watch for signs that a woman new to a leadership position is experiencing difficulties and intervene appropriately and immediately.

7. Spell out to women and underrepresented minority mentees the positive impacts that they can have for others in their institution.


Sue V. Rosser is provost and vice president for academic affairs at San Francisco State University. Her most recent book is Breaking Into the Lab: Engineering Progress for Women in Science (New York University Press).



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