It’s been widely researched, documented and debated. But even with all the attention, the nation’s colleges and universities have made little progress in closing the gender gap in academic leadership.
Despite the fact that more than half of America’s population is female, and the gender ratio among college and university students has been increasingly favoring women for nearly 50 years, higher education institutions don’t get very good grades in terms of hiring and promoting female leaders. Research by the American Council on Education has found that only 27 percent of deans of academic colleges and 26 percent of college or university presidents are women.
While those numbers are an improvement from past studies, progress in this critical area has just been too slow. At Rochester Institute of Technology, where I serve as provost and senior vice president of academic affairs, we’re striving to be leaders of change in this arena. In fact, at our nine-college university, where our 18,500-student enrollment is 66 percent male and the majority of students are majoring in male-dominated STEM fields, 44 percent of the deans, 50 percent of associate or assistant provosts and 40 percent of vice presidents are women. In addition, three of our four female deans are in colleges where leadership is typically male: our business school, college of science, and college of computing and information sciences. (The fourth is dean of a college unique to RIT, the nationally ranked College of Imaging Arts and Sciences.)
How did we achieve this? It did not happen overnight, but rather through deliberate focus and corresponding actions, using a systematic approach that we call SERS: Strategize, Encourage, Recruit and Support.
Strategize. You must build on a foundation grounded in your institution’s values in order to diversify its leadership. An underlying thread in RIT’s 2025 strategic plan, entitled “Greatness Through Difference,” recognizes the power of diversity to shape the future of higher education as well as the students we serve. This strategic plan includes goals of increasing the number of female and minority employees in supervisory and management positions; designing, distributing and publicizing career ladders for advancement within each division; and examining our mentoring program to determine if it meets the “personal, profession and career advancement needs of minority and female faculty and staff.” Having such a strategic mandate goes a long way toward building momentum and garnering on-the-ground support for this work.
Encourage. To make important strategic institutional changes, you must instill your priorities in your institution’s culture. So, if you want to diversify your leadership, it is not enough to establish the expectations. You must then put support systems into place.
For example, when working with all of the deans to set the plan of work for the year, we agree on specific goals for diversifying the faculty and staff and provide ample examples of the role that deans can play in achieving these goals. One specific way is to encourage up-and-coming women and faculty members of color to seek out leadership roles and development opportunities. Diversifying committee leadership positions is one approach, but so are more formal professional experiences such as the ACE Fellows, Harvard Higher Education Leadership or emerging leadership programs. We have found that these “grow your own” approaches often produce superior results.
Or if you have an opening for a dean position and are going through a search process, you might consider asking a qualified woman to step in as interim -- something I’ve done on two occasions at RIT. It accomplishes two practical goals: it provides the person with a safe environment to try on the position and decide if it is a good fit, and it gives the community an opportunity, in turn, to try out him or her.
Recruit. Of course, one of the most important ways to help meet the goal of diversifying your institution’s leadership is in the recruitment process. For instance, when forming a search committee for a high-level position, make it clear in your charge to them that you expect they will present the decision makers with a diverse final pool. That means they will have to actively and intentionally recruit, not just sit back and hope diverse resumes fill their inboxes.
That’s not as difficult a task as it may sound. There are many professional organizations, including the American Council on Education’s Women’s Network Executive Council, that keep track of their rising stars. In fact, ACE hosted a round table in June entitled “Moving the Needle: Advancing Women Leaders” that drew 70 attendees. This initiative has set a vision that by 2030 half of the chief executives at higher education institutions will be women. You can begin building your own database of exceptional women in academe by working with one of those organizations. And do not forget that the professional societies, such as the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business and the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, are also great sources for women and faculty of color leaders.
Once the search committee brings you that diverse group of finalists, be prepared to take action that reinforces your strategic imperative. In other words, if you have to choose between two equally qualified candidates, choose the one who brings diversity to your college or university. Without such deliberate actions, we cannot expect to achieve our diversity goals.
Support. And finally and equally important: support women in leadership positions. As provost, it’s my obligation -- and honestly, my privilege -- to recognize our in-house talent and to then work with them to identify and cultivate development opportunities. This support is crucial to their long-term success.
For example, I recently invited our female deans to join me on a development trip on the West Coast. The invitation demonstrated my respect and appreciation for their leadership and willingness to take on new challenges. The time we all spent together gave us a chance to learn more about each other as people and colleagues. I have seen the bond that has formed among these women, who now look to each other for counsel and support. And of course, encouraging our emerging leaders to find mentors and advisers who will carefully provide career guidance is a great way to create a continuum of support. The converse works, too -- all of us should offer to be mentors for our rising stars.
Systemic Change Required
But one person -- or even a group of people -- can only do so much. If we are to balance the scale on gender diversity in higher education leadership, we must recognize the need for systemic change and be the force behind it.
At RIT, we’ve used a $3.4 million transformational grant from the National Science Foundation to establish AdvanceRIT, a project aimed at refining and creating systems and targeted programs designed to increase the representation of women faculty in the STEM disciplines and among our campus leaders. It is a research-based project that includes enhancements to faculty development, refinements to policies and better-related data tracking and reporting -- all to further improve the working environment and support career advancement of women faculty through empowerment and inclusion. For example, AdvanceRIT created a system of “connectivity” grants that allow women faculty to build greater research networks, and AdvanceRIT played a leadership role in clarifying the RIT policy on tenure.
Our ultimate goal is to improve recruitment, retention and advancement among our women faculty. And in keeping with our commitment to diversity, the project is looking into the distinct challenges experienced by women faculty of color and those who are deaf and hard of hearing. To demonstrate our commitment to this project, both RIT President William W. Destler and I serve on its leadership team, along with the principal investigator, mechanical engineering professor Margaret Bailey, and four other talented female STEM faculty members, who are co-principals on this project.
I’m certainly not implying that we at RIT have done everything right, or that we have all the answers. We know that our work is far from done. We can, for example, better diversify our department chairs and our faculty senate and increase the number of faculty of color in leadership positions. But if change is to happen, if we are to do more than talk about diversity and actually achieve it, then we all must take action.
Jeremy Haefner is provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Rochester Institute of Technology, a post he has held since July 2008.
Having more women on committees that select academics for jobs does not increase the chances for female candidates and may actually do the opposite, according to a study of Italian and Spanish universities.