Judith Shapiro,  who is retiring this year after a successful run as president of Barnard College, was no stranger to women's colleges when she was named its president in 1994. She had spent the previous 19 years at Bryn Mawr College, as a professor and eventually as provost. Last month, Barnard named its next president, Debora L. Spar , who holds an endowed chair and was formerly associate dean for faculty research and development at Harvard Business School. Spar attended a coeducational college (Georgetown University) and has never worked at a women's college.
Spar is not alone in coming to a women's college presidency with less experience with women's colleges than her predecessor. Kim Bottomly  took over as president of Wellesley College last year. An immunologist, Bottomly received her bachelor's and doctoral degrees from the University of Washington and her academic career was at Yale University, where she was associate provost when she was tapped for the top job at Wellesley. The previous two presidents of Wellesley were alumnae.
Bryn Mawr College last week named Jane D. McAuliffe as its new president.  While McAuliffe is a graduate of a women's college (Trinity of Washington), her entire career has been at research universities (Georgetown University, where she is dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and previously at the University of Toronto and Emory University). Smith College's president, Carol T. Christ, spent her entire career prior to her presidency as a faculty member and administrator at the University of California at Berkeley. While Smith has a tradition of hiring presidents from research universities, Christ's immediate two predecessors both also had held senior positions at women's colleges prior to leading Smith: Ruth Simmons at Spelman College and Mary Maples Dunn at Bryn Mawr.
To be sure there are presidents of prestigious women's colleges who have worked at other women's colleges. Spelman is led by Beverly Tatum Daniel, who was a professor and administrator at Mount Holyoke College before taking over in Atlanta. But the trend of women's colleges turning to those without experience in the sector extends beyond the colleges in the Northeast that have made recent selections.
Elizabeth Kiss became president of Agnes Scott College in 2006 after earning degrees at coeducational institutions and a career that included positions at Duke and Princeton Universities. Her experience teaching at a single-sex institution was at Deep Springs College, which enrolls only men. Kiss succeeded an Agnes Scott alumna. When Mary Meehan became president of Alverno College in 2004, following a career at Seton Hall University, her coeducational alma mater, she became the first lay president of a women's college led by nuns from its founding.
The institutions and the women involved in these positions are all different, and have different takes on the significance of the recent round of appointments. But many think that something notable -- and potentially quite positive -- may be happening to the leadership of women's colleges as they are increasingly led by converts to their vision, not lifelong supporters.
Spar, the incoming Barnard president, said "I clearly came to Barnard by a circuitous route, but it doesn't surprise me that I'm not alone" among new presidents of women's colleges. Spar is 44 and when she went to college, in 1980, women's colleges were not on her agenda. "Women of my generation were brought up to believe that because the generation before us had broken down the barriers, we could do anything," and enrolling at women's colleges "didn't seem necessary," she said.
Looking back, Spar said that "the women of my generation are realizing we had it wrong, that even if the most obvious barriers have been taken down, that didn't solve all the problems." At many coeducational institutions, she said, the elimination of overt discriminatory policies "doesn't mean that women get the same education, or that they are going to succeed as well in the work place." Figuring out how to reach female students with this message -- while acknowledging all the options today -- "makes this in some ways the most interesting time to be at a women's college, because there is a real opportunity to define what these colleges will be."
One of the presidents who fits the new model is Joanne V. Creighton, who has led Mount Holyoke College since 1996. Her education and career were at coeducational institutions. Although now she is a strong supporter of women's colleges, she said that when she was hired, she was "agnostic" about women's colleges and that early in her tenure, a review of the college was conducted with "everything on the table," including reassessing the mission of educating only women. When she was hired, the board wanted someone to look at all options.
Today, the women being named to these posts are being hired for their backgrounds, but with coeducation very much off the table. Spar said that the search committee was "very clear" that Barnard was committed to its role as a women's liberal arts college. "The fact that I'm not coming from a women's college background upped the ante. They were clearly concerned, as they should be, about my commitment to women's education. We spent a lot of time on that."
McAuliffe, Bryn Mawr's next president, said she didn't face skepticism about her commitment to women's colleges given that she is a Trinity alumna and also attended a high school for girls. But she said her search committee focused on "whether I could make the adjustment from a research university to a small, elite liberal arts college." What was "very much on the mind of the search committee was they were trying to ascertain: could a person from that [research university] background capture the ethos of a smaller, academic community and one that really did cherish and celebrate its sense of heritage?"
Smith's Christ said she saw the move of these women from top research universities to women's colleges as a sign of "how attractive women's colleges are" to potential leaders. She noted that while these colleges are liberal arts institutions, they tend to have more of a research focus than some other liberal arts institutions because women's colleges attracted top female researchers in the age before they were taken seriously elsewhere. If you are attracted to "undergraduate centered teaching with a research-active faculty," she said, women's colleges are a draw.
The women who are becoming presidents without women's college backgrounds also say that they in many cases have philosophical ties to their new institutions that create the sort of bond that might have happened previously by spending a career at them. Alverno's Meehan noted that 70 percent of her college's students are the first in their families to attend college, just as she was for her family. Sharing that background, she said, she could see how Alverno students gained from the female environment.
"Most did not come to Alverno with female role models who could help them to see themselves in leadership positions," she said. "Many of our students are actually told by their families that college is not necessary as they will only get married and college is a waste of money. This may sound like a message from the 1950s, but for first-generation students it is as loud and clear and disturbing as it was to women 50 years ago. The focused attention a women's college pays to these issues is often the difference between success and resignation for these students."
From that perspective, Meehan said, what matters for a president is embracing a mission, not having a women's college degree or career.
Kiss, of Agnes Scott, said her thoughts about the role of women's colleges were based in part on what she saw at Duke. She noted the results of the reports of the Duke Women's Initiative,  a study of campus climate that found, Kiss said, "elements of campus culture and especially peer culture which may subtly discourage women from fully pursuing leadership roles and achievement opportunities." She said that Duke found that, on average, women's social and intellectual self-confidence dropped over the four years of undergraduate education. "As someone with a longstanding interest in women's rights and issues the discussions around this initiative made me think about how hard it is for campuses to counteract (instead of reflect or magnify) the prevailing message in our culture that a woman's status or significance depends on things unrelated to what's between her ears," Kiss said. "So when I had the opportunity to see Agnes Scott and feel what a difference it made to students to have an entire institution devoted to their success, it was exciting and attractive to me."
Her status as someone who came to a women's college after achieving success elsewhere may be a plus, Kiss said. "I've been giving a stump speech of sorts to various groups entitled 'Are women's colleges still relevant in the 21st century?' and my board chair, who heard me give an early version of it, made a comment that has stuck with me. She remarked that she thought it was easier for me to be an advocate for women's colleges because I had fallen in love with them as an outsider, rather than having to be defensive about my own educational background."
Creighton of Mount Holyoke agreed. "I think it is actually quite valuable coming in from a different perspective," she said. "It helps you to see what's there." Having long abandoned her "agnostic" status for one of "convert," Creighton said that she considers herself a student of institutional culture, having worked in coeducational and single-sex, public and private settings.
Based on that experience, she said that a big part of her commitment to Mount Holyoke's women's college status is the "powerful culture" about its mission, and the "sense of moral purpose" about educating women.
Shapiro, who is finishing up her Barnard presidency, also considers herself a convert, in that prior to her arrival at Bryn Mawr, she didn't think much about issues raised by the relative isolation of women in many institutions. She remembers having only one course at Brandeis University, where she was an undergraduate, that was taught by a woman. In graduate school at Columbia University in anthropology, she doesn't remember having women as professors. It was at Bryn Mawr, she said, that her views changed about the value of women's colleges.
"I think not only about how good they are for women, but for relationships between women and men, as a faculty, as trustees, as administrators," Shapiro said. The model is different in a way that promotes genuine equity. "Women's colleges are always being asked to explain themselves while coeducational colleges are treated as if they are a neutral concept," she said. Another way to think about many coeducational institutions, she said, would be as "male dominated institutions that accept women as students." Comparing the relationships among women and men at women's and coeducational institutions, Shapiro said her question for many of the latter would be: "How coeducational are you really?"
Of course, if the recent appointments suggest that women's colleges can successfully be led by presidents who are not alumnae and never worked at women's colleges, that raises a question about whether they can be led by ... men. (Many women's colleges of course were led for years by men, but prior to the women's movement not always by men committed to equity for women.)
Creighton is quick to answer the question about male presidents in the affirmative. "Sure. They have in the past. There are good men out there who could be good presidents. I think they have been considered along with women for these jobs," she said. "I think they should be. I think there is no gender barrier. People love to see women doing the job, but I think there are men who care just as much."
Shapiro agreed that there are men deeply committed to women's colleges and the education of women. But she said she isn't as enthusiastic about the possibility of men as presidents. That's based on her view that college presidents tend to be somewhere between two poles on types of institutional leaders. She said that she views some presidents as being in the Clint Eastwood model. "You ride into a town, any town, size up the town, fix it, and ride off to another town." The other kind is the "incarnational president," someone "who embodies the specific values and identity of an institution and wouldn't be a president just anywhere."
She favors the latter model. "There have been over time some really terrific men who have been heads of women's colleges, and feminists come in both genders," she said. "But I think there is something to be said about a president who in some way symbolizes the institution," she said. So while a man or woman can lead most colleges, there is something to be said for women leading women's colleges, just as she said the same is true for historically black colleges or other types of institutions with particular missions.
With women's colleges embracing new presidents who aren't alumnae, some may wonder about the women's college alumnae who aspire to lead colleges. There's probably no cause for concern. Just ask Drew Faust, Bryn Mawr '68.