What Harvard's Choice Means

The night before Drew Gilpin Faust was formally named president of Harvard University, women involved in efforts to promote female leaders in academe happened to be gathering in Washington for workshops and networking sessions hel

February 12, 2007

The night before Drew Gilpin Faust was formally named president of Harvard University, women involved in efforts to promote female leaders in academe happened to be gathering in Washington for workshops and networking sessions held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the American Council on Education. During a fund-raising pitch at a dinner, women were reminded that the programs they support might just help someone who could become "the next president of Harvard."

While Faust wasn't present in a literal sense, she was very much a presence, given that news of her appointment had leaked a day earlier. One female president at a state university, who had been traveling that day and not seen the morning papers, let out a literal yelp of joy when told the news. She has never met Faust, she said, but that didn't matter.

At a reception, Marie C. Wilson, director of the White House Project and founder of Take Our Daughters to Work Day, said that she was on the phone earlier last week, being asked about a prospective candidate for a presidency other than Harvard. Wilson laughed in hindsight at what she said of this candidate: "She's a Drew Faust kind of leader." To Wilson, and to many here, Faust's selection is significant on many levels, and that she's a woman is just one of them.

Hundreds of women attend events at the ACE meeting organized by the state networks that the council has set up to promote female advancement in the administrative ranks. Rooms full of presidents, of the provosts, vice chancellors and deans who want to become presidents, and of the assistant deans who aspire to be deans -- were analyzing Faust from all kinds of angles. Some focused on her managerial style and some on her scholarship. Others considered how much a Harvard selection would influence the way presidents and trustees would see them, while still others said that the selection raised anew the question of what it means to be a female president.

The mood was decidedly upbeat; references to Faust led to loud applause at Saturday night's events. But many women expressed fear that all the references to half of the Ivy League being led by women would convey a false impression that gender equity in higher education had been "solved," while they consider that decidedly not to be the case.

"Harvard is incredibly significant symbolically," said Carol S. Hollenshead, director of the Center for the Education of Women at the University of Michigan. "This is a very important step."

Hollenshead said that her only worry was one of perception. "People may see this as evidence that there is no longer a gap in gender equity in higher education," she said. However much Faust's appointment is "worth celebrating," she said, "it is still true that at every level of the academy, the higher you get, the fewer women there are."

At Michigan, Hollenshead currently works under a female president ( Mary Sue Coleman) and previously worked under men, whom she called "very progressive." The difference a female president makes is less on specific policies, Hollenshead said, as on the message that is sent to young academics thinking about their career paths, and the possibility of aspiring to senior levels of administration. "It's like the undergrad who told me, 'until I had a woman professor, I never knew I could be one.' "

Several women at the meeting -- while delighting in Harvard's choice -- said it bothered them that Harvard was getting attention for doing something other institutions did years ago (decades ago actually). In 1978, Hanna Holborn Gray became president of the University of Chicago, the first woman to be permanent president of a top research university. Prior to being named, she was acting president of Yale University, where she was also provost. It was 10 years before another woman became head of a major research university: Donna E. Shalala at the University of Wisconsin at Madison (currently the president of the University of Miami). In the Ivy League, Judith Rodin was the first woman to be named president when she was selected at the University of Pennsylvania in 1994. Rodin is now president of the Rockefeller Foundation and when she left Penn, she was succeeded by Amy Gutmann.

Six of the Big 10 universities either have or have had female presidents; women have led huge state university systems (Molly Broad at the University of North Carolina; W. Ann Reynolds at California State University and the City University of New York). Susan Hockfield was named president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2004. And abroad, Alison Richard is vice chancellor (the top position) at the University of Cambridge. (Richard, Hockfield, Rodin and Gray all served as provost at Yale before getting the top job elsewhere.)

Despite all of those appointments, and steady increases in the number of women in the administrative ranks, many women here said that the reason the Faust appointment meant so much was that -- after all these years -- many women in academe are still attending meeting after meeting with only men.

"It's always evident that you are the woman in meetings," said Beatriz G. Robinson, vice president for university planning at St. Thomas University, in Florida. "It's still very solitary."

Robinson said that having women in senior positions influences both policy and managerial issues. On the policy side, she said she's more likely to raise issues about day care for students' children because of her own experience as a mother. "I think we are more likely to think of the full picture," she said.

That full picture includes women's non-professional responsibilities. "If an employee is doing her job well and needs to leave at 4, I'm fine with that," she said. "I know the work will get done -- from home, at 2 a.m.," she said, adding that when she works such a schedule to attend her son's soccer games, that's when she ends up catching up.

Management style and scholarly approach are issues that came up quite a bit in discussions of Faust at the meeting. Donna Shavlik led the ACE Office of Women in Higher Education until she retired in 1997, and she organized many of the first programs to put women in higher education on a presidential track; several women at the conference made a point of noting that Shavlik was working on these issues when most people would have considered the idea of a woman leading Harvard to be pretty much unthinkable.

Shavlik said that not only was she thrilled with the appointment, but with the fact that Faust's work as a historian has focused on women (in particular on Southern women). "It's extremely important that we have a women's studies scholar in this position," Shavlik said. The message isn't just that women's studies is important, but that to get ahead in academe, "women don't have to be like men."

Phrased another way, on a women's studies discussion list last night, one professor posted a message saying: "And the next time that someone asks in a hostile way, 'What is women's studies anyway?' I recommend answering, 'Oh, it's what the president of Harvard does.' "

Wilson, of the White House Project, said she was particularly pleased by references in articles about Faust's selection to the idea that Harvard's board wasn't judging leaders by some male measure of toughness, but by the ability to get things done -- collegially. "This is part of what many women bring," Wilson said.

Kathy Stevens, an equity and diversity specialist at Montgomery College, said she also noticed the references to Faust as someone who "collaborates" as part of leading. "That matches my values, and I'm really glad to see that Harvard saw that as a value," she said.

There was in fact extensive parsing at the meeting (not in the formal sessions) of the way the press was reacting to the Faust appointment. Several women contrasted the way articles about Faust quoted professors worrying about her ability to lead Harvard because her current position there leading the Radcliffe Institute is not equivalent to being provost or president of a large university.

One female president noted that when Lawrence H. Summers was named president, the articles didn't pay much attention to the fact that his academic experience was strictly as a professor, focusing instead on his youthful brilliance. Likewise, this president noted, the constant references to candidates dropping out of the Harvard search ignore that way candidates enter and leave searches all the time -- and that departures need not mean that Faust was a second choice, but could easily mean those leaving contention didn't want to be passed over.

Generally, women are more likely to be presidents at community colleges than at research universities, and several of those at the meeting expressed hope that Faust's selection (and the successful presidencies of other women at research universities) might change that. "It's the prominent institutions that are looked at to lead the way," said Jean A. Dowdall, who works on presidential searches for Witt/Kieffer.

Dowdall said that in doing searches these days, she does not encounter boards hesitant to pick a woman. The difference is between boards that are "seriously eager" to hire a woman, and those for whom hiring a woman or man isn't something they even think about.

Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Syracuse University, called Faust's appointment "just fabulous" and called Harvard's new leader "a very significant scholar and person of vision." Cantor, who was formerly chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and provost of the University of Michigan, said she thinks many boards are already comfortable with women as presidents, and that Harvard's choice can only add to that.

Asked if -- when being interviewed for top campus jobs -- she thought she was asked questions related to her gender, Cantor answered with an immediate Yes. But she elaborated that she didn't think she was asked about gender in so many words. Rather, she said, that when search committees ask a female candidate questions about style or vision, there is "a tone" of trying to figure out how being a woman affects the candidate and her potential as president.

The fact that a woman makes such news at Harvard also drove home to many the continuing value of role models -- and not just at Harvard. Many at the meeting said that they believe that there are plenty of women with the talent to be presidents who have never been put on the administrative track.

Mari McCarty, who leads the ACE's state network for women in Wisconsin, said that women "aren't socialized" to see themselves as presidents (or at least haven't been historically). While Faust's selection is great, McCarty said that in some ways it is more important for her network to stress the growing pool of Wisconsin women leading institutions. Shalala is well known for having led Madison, and Katharine Lyall led the University of Wisconsin System. McCarty, executive vice president of the Wisconsin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, noted that there are a number of women leading colleges in the state today -- at Lawrence University ( Jill Beck), Marian College of Fond de Lac ( Josefina Castillo Baltodano) and Northland College ( Karen I. Halbersleben), among others.

McCarty said that women rising in the ranks need to see such success stories -- even if they aren't going to end up on an Ivy short list. "We're trying to encourage women to be successful wherever they are," she said.

At Harvard, Faust was winning good reviews for her first appearances as official president-elect Sunday. In her remarks, she spoke about the need for more collaboration (specifically the need to bridge the "two cultures" of sciences and humanities, as identified by C.P. Snow). She praised recent efforts to reform the undergraduate curriculum, sending a clear message that the presidential transition need not delay what has been a drawn-out process of change.

In some of the speculation about the search that annoyed women at the ACE meeting, there were suggestions that Faust's collegial style would mean that she wouldn't push for improvements at Harvard, as Summers was noted for doing. But as if to answer, Faust's talked about the need for change. Making Harvard better "will also mean recognizing what we don't do as well as we should -- and not being content until we find ways to do better," she said. And Faust praised Summers, in a manner of speaking, saying that his "powerful thinking and impatience for results cleared the way for important new initiatives."

While she did not dwell in her remarks on the historic nature of her appointment, she didn't ignore it either. Said Faust: "I would hope that my own appointment can be one symbol of an opening of opportunities that would have been inconceivable even a generation ago."


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