Women and Presidential Leadership

Advancing to the Presidency

S. Georgia Nugent provides some initial advice for women considering the top job.

June 19, 2019
 
 
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Women have now held the presidential office at Brown University, Cornell University, Harvard University, Princeton University, the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Virginia. A woman has also helmed the State University of New York (the largest state higher education system in the country) and the Association of American Universities, which includes 60 of the leading research universities in America. So women have finally fully come into their own in the presidential suites of higher education, right?

Not so fast. Such high-profile presidencies convey a misleading impression of women’s prominence in higher education today. The data are clear. Although women earn the majority of bachelor’s degrees and doctorates in America, they remain substantially underrepresented in the presidential office. The percentage of women presidents has crept up slowly over the last two decades, from about 19 percent in 1998 to about 30 percent in 2016. But, according to the most recent American College President Study from the American Council on Education, the majority of that 30 percent lead “associate colleges” and “special focus institutions”-- in other words, the institutions with the fewest resources and the least national recognition or clout.

The data on women’s leadership more generally are also clear. Researchers at organizations like Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse, McKinsey, the IMF and the Peterson Institute for International Economics have all found that greater gender diversity in leadership roles leads to more successful organizations. The nonprofit organization Catalyst notes that meta-studies have shown women’s leadership to result not only in “increased employee engagement, productivity and commitment,” but also “increased revenue, reduced costs and greater innovation.

Do these sound like desirable outcomes for our colleges and universities today? The fact is, higher education needs more women in presidential roles. And that need coincides with a moment when many presidential positions will be opening up relatively soon: more than half of sitting presidents have indicated they intend to leave their posts within the next five years (again, according to the ACE presidential study).

If higher ed needs more women presidents, that also means that more women must step up to the role. This is not always easy -- and not only because of potential barriers to women’s advancement but also because of reluctance on the part of potential candidates. As chair of the HERS organization -- the purpose of which, for more than 40 years, has been to enable women to advance in higher education administration -- I have seen firsthand how many women are hesitant to aspire to a presidency or even find the prospect downright off-putting. Why? Frequent reasons include: lack of confidence about financial management, concern about the 24-7 nature of the role, reluctance to experience the fishbowl effect (particularly with regard to family members) or hesitancy about being the person behind the desk where the buck stops.

Having served as the first female president at two liberal arts colleges, I can confirm that all of those concerns are grounded in reality. Yes, you do need to acquire some grasp of tuition discounts, endowment payouts, employee benefits and how much more it will cost to build a square foot in a science lab than in a residence hall. But, in truth, these matters are not that arcane. Yes, you will find yourself accosted when you’re choosing tomatoes at the supermarket by well-meaning (or querulous) faculty members or alumni. Yes, you will suddenly hear your name called in the oddest of places. Some of my favorites: carrying my Thanksgiving turkey home (my students caught that on video), strolling through an East Berlin museum, walking into a jazz club. And, yes, you will be the decider. But you will arrive at those decisions in concert with a well-chosen team of highly skilled professional colleagues to advise you.

We hear too little about the deep satisfactions and joyful moments of the presidency. The ability to make a difference in the lives of students and the life of an institution is real. And truly gratifying. Some of the opportunities are easy to imagine: spearheading curricular reform, supporting more equitable tenure processes, building community relationships, developing funds for scholarships and the like. But some opportunities to make a difference are unexpected. When our insurer refused to pay for a cancer treatment for one of the college’s beloved professors, it was easy to decide that the college would pick up the cost. When celebrity parents asked for a special dispensation for their child against college policy, I refused and stood firm on principle. Those are decisions I’ve never regretted.

And the moments of joy are many. How fun is it to have a chemistry professor brew a beer named after you! To participate in Dancing With the Stars with the ballroom dance club! To join in debate when the students founded a new intellectual society!

But perhaps the greatest joy is commencement day -- to see both the proud tears (shed by students, families and faculty members) and the incredibly radiant smiles of graduates crossing the stage to receive their diplomas and shake your hand. Such experiences are what the ancient historian Thucydides called a ktema eis aei, a possession for all time. Presidents acquire a wealth of those possessions.

The Vital Value of Self-Knowledge

One of the opportunities -- in fact, I would say, responsibilities -- of a female president is to do what she can to aid other women to step into these leadership roles. I welcome, therefore, this chance to offer some lessons learned in the course of 11 years in presidencies and almost 20 in higher education administration, in hopes of inspiring more outstanding women to step forward for presidencies.

Even as an administrator, I’m still a classicist, so let’s begin at the beginning. In the ancient Greek world, the Delphic oracle was the indisputable source of truth. The oracle foretold that Oedipus would kill his father and marry his mother. Horrified, Oedipus attempted to thwart the prophecy -- unsuccessfully. The oracle also declared that Socrates was the wisest man in the world. Incredulous, Socrates attempted to prove the oracle wrong. We know how that worked out for him. Conclusion: the words of the oracle at Delphi were true, and that was that. Carved into the entrance of the temple were two words: Gnothi seauton, “know thyself.” This is the first piece of advice I would give to an aspiring leader in higher education.

There are many reasons why I believe self-knowledge is an essential first step on the path to a presidency. One is simple expediency. The college presidency is truly a 24-7 role. The leisure for reflection is not on the calendar. If you don’t know, going into the office, a great deal about yourself, the likelihood of a successful tenure is diminished.

You might think of this as a personal SWOT analysis: What are your own strengths, weaknesses, opportunities (for growth) and threats (to success)? This is a time for reflection -- and for striving for as much objectivity as possible. I don’t think we’ve improved much on Ben Franklin’s strategy for self-analysis: sit down with a piece of paper and consider your virtues as well as vices. What are your strongest skill sets? (Ask people close to you for their thoughts on this, as well -- they may identify strengths you take for granted or aren’t even aware of.) Where are you most -- and least -- confident in your knowledge?

Clearly, one goal of such a self-evaluation is to identify ways to build upon your assets. Could they can be deepened or extended by application in a new context? If you’re a terrific teacher, could you reach new audiences, perhaps outside your college or university, building your competence as a thought leader? If writing is your strong suit, penning an editorial presents an opportunity both to add a new genre to your skills (one very valuable to a president) and to raise your profile as an expert voice in the field. Do you find that others look to you for leadership in a group? Local organizations -- parent-teacher groups, religious organizations, civic groups -- all need volunteers for their various committees and initiatives. Participating with such groups broadens your sphere of organizational knowledge and experience.

Of course, your ledger will also identify limits or deficiencies. Frankly, just as we remember the rotten course reviews more than the ecstatic ones, these flaws are likely to feel to you much more glaring than your shining strengths. Do not despair; think strategically. Consider how you realistically can, or want to, remediate these perceived flaws, and how you could, or would want to, outsource areas that are not your strength.

Remember, the successful president is not an autocrat. That person has the responsibility to build and nurture a strong team of senior colleagues who will be more knowledgeable and experienced in their particular field than the president can be, or should strive to be. Like that of a general, the role of a college or university president is to be a generalist: not an expert in every field but interested and willing to learn in each.

Any effort to know thyself also demands that you inquire more deeply into, well, qualities of character and temperament. Most fundamentally, are you clear about your own ethical, intellectual and even political values? Are you clear about how these would interact with institutional values? When it does fall to you as the president to be the decider in a complex matter, you will be much better prepared to move forward with confidence and without undue hesitation if you have already reflected on those values that are core to yourself and the institution. What are nonnegotiables? Where do the boundaries (or intersections) lie between personal preferences and institutional priorities? In establishing the latter, you will also need to seek alignment with your board chair.

Aspects of temperament matter, as well. Are you an extrovert or an introvert? Some presidents thrive on the public. Every greeting and handshake energizes them. Every opportunity to be out and about is a joy. Probably the embodiment of this personality is the six-time president E. Gordon Gee. His glee in personal interaction is palpable.

But many college presidents (including myself) are actually introverts. And that’s fine, as long as you understand who you are and what you can do. Typically, rather than adding energy to the introvert president, the interaction with numerous publics drains energy over time. This needn’t inhibit effectiveness; it just requires that the president recognize his or her need to recharge, to set boundaries that enable downtime. It’s widely speculated that when Neil Rudenstine needed to step out for a time from the Harvard presidency, it was because his total dedication to this all-demanding role had overlooked his own need for private time. Happily, he was afforded the R and R that enabled him to return and complete a successful presidency.

Finally, a specific area in which it’s crucial to interrogate your own preferences and experiences is in reacting to crisis. What does your past experience tell you? If perceived crisis leads you to freeze, not knowing where to turn or feeling helpless to act, be honest with yourself: the presidency is probably not for you.

Crises -- of one sort or another -- are a given in a presidency. At the worst, it will be the death of a student. (I experienced five.) More frequently, it will be the anger of a graduate or parent; a protest by students, faculty or staff; an indiscretion by a member of the institutional community … the possibilities are endless. They can also be fascinating studies in human nature. If you find that surprising reserves of energy and creativity well up as you tackle problem solving in difficult situations, you’ve probably got what it takes. Go for it!

In a following article, I’ll discuss the importance of being a lifelong learner about leadership.

Bio

S. Georgia Nugent is a senior fellow at the Council of Independent Colleges and president emerita of Kenyon College.

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