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An Uncommon Position

February 24, 2012

James F. Conneely is boldly going where no man has gone before.

The Board of Trustees of Notre Dame of Maryland University, a Roman Catholic women’s college, announced Thursday that it was hiring James F. Conneely as the university’s next president – a position that, until Conneely’s appointment, had always been held by women. When he assumes office on July 1, Conneely, who is currently associate provost and vice president for student affairs at Eastern Kentucky University, will be one of only four male presidents at colleges and universities built around predominantly female undergraduate education.

While male presidents were once common at predominantly female institutions – particularly when there were few women in any kind of leadership roles – but recent decades have seen them all but eliminated from the sector. Administrators at women’s colleges say boards often find a better fit with female candidates, who can serve as role models at institutions designed to inspire female leaders. Others in higher education say unfamiliar culture keeps men from applying for positions at predominantly female institutions.

And these days, there is no shortage of women in presidencies and women who have the background to be good candidates for the roles, regardless of whether the institution in questions primarily serves women. “There are many, many qualified females out there,” said Patricia Mitchell, chairwoman of Notre Dame’s Board of Trustees.

Administrators at Notre Dame knew Conneely’s selection would raise eyebrows in the wider community, despite what they say is broad support for him on campus. In their press release announcing the selection, board members explained that they thought Conneely represented what the university needs at this time, while also spelling out his record of supporting female leaders and his respect for and understanding of single-gender education.

Mitchell said most individuals involved in the search figured the university would hire a woman at the end of the process. “It’s our tradition; it’s what we’ve always done,” she said. Most of the applications for the job came from women, and the finalist pool comprised  two women and Conneely.

But Mitchell said it was apparent when Conneely came to campus that he was the best fit for the job. “It had to do with his ability to articulate what Notre Dame was all about,” she said, noting that when Conneely visited campus he spoke eloquently on the importance of women in Notre Dame’s history and founding. “He is what I call an inspirational leader. He has the energy and emotion you have to have to lead an institution this diverse.”

She also noted that his student-centric approach to administration was something the college was looking for.

Mitchell said the desire to have role models in place had often compelled institutions such as Notre Dame to hire women. While it’s still important for students in such an environment to have female leaders to look up to, she said, it’s not necessarily important to have a woman in the presidency. She pointed to herself; Irene Keeley, a federal judge in West Virginia who chaired the search committee; and other alumnae as strong role models for female students. “There’s a predominance now of visible women role models,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be just the president.”

Women, including Harvard’s Drew Gilpin Faust and Brown’s Ruth Simmons, hold some of the country's most prominent presidencies, though they are still underrepresented in higher education leadership. According to a 2008 study by the American Council on Education, only 23 percent of college presidents were female.

But that number is significantly higher at women’s colleges, where women hold the vast majority of presidencies. Men only hold the presidencies at three other women's institutions: Brenau University, Midway College, and Judson College – all in the South.

Ed L. Schrader, president of Brenau, said his institution is a slightly different case. The institution has about 2,800 students, 845 of whom are part of the undergraduate women’s college. The university has 1,000 graduate students and the rest are part of the institution's coed undergraduate college. While the heart of the university, he said, is still the women’s college, it tends to view itself differently from other women’s colleges. “Brenau University is a university that has a women’s college as a component, not a women’s college that has coed programs,” he said.

For instance, Schrader does not regularly attend meetings of women’s colleges. Instead, Andrea Birch, dean of the Undergraduate School and the College of Fine Arts, tends to represent Brenau at such meetings.

The growth of some women’s colleges into diverse universities with larger coed graduate programs, like what has taken place at Brenau, might make women’s colleges more open to hiring a male president.

Before working at Brenau, Schrader was at Shorter College (now Shorter University), which was formerly an all-women’s college but became coeducational in the 1960s. He said that he is comfortable leading a college rooted in an all-female tradition, but many men might not be. He said he would have been more hesitant taking the job at Brenau had he been coming from his previous job at Millsaps College.

Conneely said he was not at all put off by the idea of running a women’s college. He and Mitchell both said that he has long advocated women’s issues on campus and has hired many women to serve in administrative roles. He also said he supports the idea of women’s colleges. “The women that attend these schools have been supported and challenged,” he said. “This is an engaging environment.” He has also put his money where his mouth is – his oldest daughter is a student at Converse College, a women’s college in South Carolina.

Mitchell said she is likely to encounter some backlash over the decision from alumnae who have not gotten to know Conneely. “The issue will be for them to meet Dr. Conneely, me, or any of us that were part of the search process so we can explain what we were thinking and why we chose him.”

 

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