Opportunities Taken or Not: A Woman President’s Journey

leaders are often
in a position to hear
things that male leaders
may not hear or may
choose to overlook.

Dr. Pamela EibeckDr. Pamela Eibeck

To be successful is to be flexible,” said Dr. Pamela Eibeck, the first woman president of the University of the Pacific. Describing her path to the top of the California school as “very unpredictable,” Eibeck was initially dissuaded from pursuing her first career despite being good in math and science. Ignoring the naysayers, she went on to earn a bachelor’s, master’s and PhD in mechanical engineering at Stanford University CA. But the engineering world was rough for a professional woman. “It was a world of beer, babes and bongs,” with the standard wardrobe being jeans and T-shirts, she said.


Determined to persevere, Eibeck became a tenured professor at the University of California at Berkeley and later, dean of the college of engineering at Texas Tech. She told the story of her career journey during the closing keynote of the Women’s Leadership Institute held in Dana Point CA in December.

Eibeck’s career can only be described as “non-linear.” “It was a series of opportunities that I took and some I bypassed,” she said. The journey was a gradual process of discovering “who I am, what I want to do.”

From being one of five women on the 300-member engineering faculty at Berkeley, she moved to Northern Arizona University (NAU) to avoid the “Mommy track” she found herself on when she had her second child. “I decided that I cannot do it all,” she said. “I was running faster and faster and we had a huge mortgage, so we moved to a beautiful area in Flagstaff.”

Along with the personal challenges, the Berkeley campus had not fit with Eibeck’s values. A colleague at Berkeley told her, “If you spend so much time with students, it will cost you when you’re up for tenure.”

Leadership skills

While NAU could be seen as a step sideways or even backwards, the move was actually fortuitous. “I discovered I had leadership skills and discovered my passion for leadership there,” she said.

Eibeck became the chairman of the mechanical engineering department, relying on her idea of what a good leader does—holds high expectations, mentors direct reports to reach heights—to motivate the faculty. “I held professors accountable to do the same for students,” she said.

Promoted to vice provost for undergraduate students, Eibeck had an epiphany during her first cabinet meeting. She saw other high-level, competent women wearing colors.

“As an engineer I wore black or navy,” she said. “It was easier, with a light blue shirt, just like the male engineers.”

As vice provost, Eibeck learned that she had line authority to get things done but had to reach out and collaborate across departments to be effective. She learned to trust her intuition about people, value collaboration and understand the value of getting buy-in rather than forcing the change from the top down.

Cautioning that women can take consensus too far, Eibeck noted that we need to ask, to attempt to get collective buy in, but in the end, we have to make the decision. “I was told, ‘Don’t get so far ahead that nobody will follow you,’” she said.

Goal: A presidency

Her leadership skills on display for all to see, Eibeck was told she would make a great president. So she found a set of mentors to shift her to a higher level of expectations.

She became purposeful in her planning, which led her to the dean’s position at Texas Tech. There she learned how to budget, raise funds and lead change, all skills necessary for a presidential role.

When she was at NAU, her husband retired early and took care of raising the children. At Texas, he got a post at the law school and was about to get tenure there when Eibeck announced that it was time for her to make the next career move.

“He’s been a tremendous rock for all of this,” she said. “Life is complex and you need a supportive spouse. It makes a huge difference.”

Being part of a couple with two strong, dynamic careers is hard. Eibeck willingly admits that the moves for careers were difficult and friendships shattered.

“I didn’t hug my kids nearly as much as I wanted to,” she admitted. “Every one of us makes a choice along the way.”

Every woman’s decision is unique and dependent upon her financial situation, career goals and family. It isn’t necessarily bad to step out for awhile or, like Eibeck, switch schools and positions to gain new skills and a new perspective. The key is to do what’s right for you, at the right time.

Getting the job at the University of the Pacific involved being in the right place at the right time. Eibeck’s youngest son was looking at colleges and wanted to visit the school.

Coincidentally, the president’s position was posted on the Web. She sent in her application for the presidency at the last minute.

The University of the Pacific was known to be very male dominated. Older women told Eibeck, “We’re so thrilled [that you were chosen.] We couldn’t believe the Regents would hire a woman.” (Her son chose to attend another college.)

Lessons learned

Along the path, Eibeck has learned many lessons:

Opportunities will always be there. The key is to be ready for them. You need to work as hard as you can and learn as much as you can so you’ll be ready for them.

Future leaders must be driven and able to influence others. Start by offering to head a task force. Be ready to move yourself when opportunities arise.

Learn leadership skills in relatively low-stakes situations. Recognize that women’s career paths are nonlinear.

Stay true to your values. When Berkeley’s values didn’t correspond with hers, Eibeck left for a school that provided a better fit. When you do, tasks change from energy-depleting to energy-giving and are much easier to complete.

Help other women whether they’re struggling or being successful. Don’t undermine them.

Seek line authority positions, which can provide you with lots of reports and large budgets. Since money is a key driver in all leadership positions, you must understand budgeting, fund raising and the cost of doing business.

Learn the basics of finance and how to maximize resources. Since many of the costs are directly related to personnel, understand how people spend their time.

Learn how to inspire others to change. It’s the hardest thing to do as a leader, but with the tremendous changes currently taking place in higher education, the landscape is constantly shifting.

Check the career path. Eibeck went to Texas Tech to become a dean. She could have remained a department head, but the peer group selects department heads. “Often they don’t see the need for diversity, for thinking out of the box,” she said.

Invest the time to read and learn about leadership. Eibeck’s favorites, The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell and Jim Collin’s book Good to Great, offer solid examples of sustained success. Both men define good leaders as quiet and unassuming people who hire and delegate to good workers and steer the ship in a steady manner.

Be willing to do the right thing. You’ll see things happening that you don’t think are principled or ethical, such as what has happened at Penn State and elsewhere. Stand up for what’s right even if it costs you your job.

Women leaders are often in a position to hear things that male leaders may not hear or may choose to overlook. Be willing to investigate. If faculty members admit that there may be bias in tenure decisions, you must be willing to open that Pandora’s box.

Eibeck’s appointment as president has unleashed a series of opportunities for women at the school. Women now serve as provost and chair the board of regents.

Learn to admit mistakes and recover from them. Her biggest mistake was taking the job at Berkeley despite its lack of valuing teaching. “I recovered by proving myself there and showed excellence, so I could get a job elsewhere,” she said.

Women need to make themselves visible so that people beyond their supervisors know them. With that visibility comes recognition and more opportunities. If another supervisor sees your work, takes you aside and says “you do good work,” listen to it, believe it and honor it. Then turn to that person when you have questions, especially when faced with turning points in your career.

Recognize that managing work/life balance is a challenge no matter what level. Eibeck is blessed with high energy and a drive to succeed. She runs daily at 5 a.m.

Focus on healthy living and healthy relationships. “I’m blessed that my best friend and lover is my husband,” she said. Do what you need to do to keep your life in balance. “I love my job,” said Eibeck. “You’ve got to love your life.”

For leaders like Eibeck, leadership is not a goal. It’s a way of reaching a goal.

Contact Dr. Pamela Eibeck:

Santovec, Mary Lou. (2012, April). Opportunities Taken or Not: A Woman President's Journey. Women in Higher Education, 21(4), 1-2.

Back   |   Read Archive