Presidential Perspectives: What Can We Learn

“Use logic, creativity and problem-solving, with an eye on the big picture. A problem attacked leaf by leaf keeps coming back.”

Dr. Portia Holmes ShieldsDr. Portia Holmes Shields

After 1986 the percent of colleges and universities led by women more than doubled, topping 21% by 2001. New presidents or chancellors appointed in that period included Dr. Clyda S. Rent (Mississippi University for Women, 1989), Dr. Dorothy L. Lord (Coastal Georgia Community College, 1991), Dr. Linda Hunt Bunnell (University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, 1993) and Dr. Portia Holmes Shields (Albany State University GA, 1996).

That momentum has stalled. In 2006 just 23% of presidents were women, a tiny gain since the turn of the century. Women appointed earlier have either retired or moved on. While two schools tapped Bunnell and Shields for leadership—the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point and Concordia College in Selma AL respectively—many have replaced departing women presidents with men.

Recruitment and retention of women presidents is a focus of the American Council on Education’s Office of Women in Higher Education. It hosted its fifth Summit for Women Presidents in Milwaukee in June, with some 60 presidents and potential presidents attending by invitation only. The four women shared their reflections in the opening panel, “From Where We Sat” led by Dr. Claire Van Ummersen, VP of ACE’s Center for Effective Leadership.

Bunnell: Connections

Soon after she became the first woman chancellor at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point in 2004, Dr. Linda Hunt Bunnell began gathering input for a vision statement. It connected students to their futures, the school to the regional economy and mission to place.

Much has changed since the 1990s, when she was the first woman chancellor in Colorado. During eight years there she oversaw a sharp increase in enrollment, a sevenfold rise in private donations to the university and major growth in federal funding. The city’s Economic Development Corporation named her Community Leader of the Year.

She recalled OWHE’s third Summit for Women Presidents, at Mills College CA in 1996. “As a group at Mills, we were surprised and delighted. Most of us never dreamed that we could be presidents. Most of us had never worked for a woman,” she said. Training programs were rare. Women presidents were seen like Samuel Johnson viewed women preachers: “like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

Today more women are presidents and they’re less of a phenomenon. Salaries have increased. Women lead larger and more visible universities, including Ivy League schools with great symbolic importance. She and her cohort are older now, with honed skills and the wisdom of experience.

She’s seen women presidents make a positive difference in family leave policies, childcare centers, leadership development dollars, openness, salary equity studies, attention to Title IX in athletics and proactive discipline for sexual harassment. Contrary to common wisdom, she finds women to be more analytical and less emotional than men.

Women face different challenges as they struggle to balance work, life and self and revive their energy and drive. Irrational forces—led by males and females—can derail even the best woman president. Bunnell has seen many forced out in very public ways. Chancellor Denise Denton’s suicide at UC-Santa Cruz in 2006 still haunts her.

Lord: Empowerment

Back in the 1960s when Dr. Dorothy L. Lord taught at a Baptist women’s college, she had to go to church each Sunday whether she wanted to or not. “I learned that men had all the power,” she said. The only woman with power there was the dean of women.

After one year she left to join the history faculty at Georgia Southwestern University, the only woman in a department of domineering men. Their wives didn’t like her traveling to conferences with the men.

She was back in school working toward a history doctorate when the shootings at Kent State University OH in May 1970 reshaped the world and her career. She switched to a doctorate in higher education administration.

Lord advised women to be prepared for gender-based challenges, especially in the South. “Many snapping turtles are ready to snap us down,” she said. Don’t enter a presidential search until you consider how you’d preside there.

In 1989 she was interviewed for president at a Florida college. The search chair told her, “It’s a shame we can’t hire the best person for the job, but this community is not ready for a woman president.”

Two years later she interviewed again, this time at Coastal Georgia Community College in Brunswick GA in 1991. She became just the second woman president in the Georgia system; she and Betty Siegel, who led Kennesaw State University 1981-2006, called themselves “the onlies.”

Lord retired this summer, having empowered women and African Americans on her 17-year watch. More than half of the president’s cabinet and administrators are women. A privately funded program to bring 7th grade African American boys to campus for math and language coaching raised their graduation rates and college attendance.

“If we have a program and carry out our goals, we can make things happen,” she said. Aim high, with support and perseverance. Get the necessary experience and competencies. “This will help us sustain the progress we have made. Neither gender nor race overpowers competence for a position.”

Rent: Big picture

Another long-time president is Dr. Clyda S. Rent, president emerita of Mississippi University for Women (MUW) in Columbus MS and a principal of Rent Consulting Group. MUW was the first public college for women in the nation, but she was its first woman president. From 1989 to 2001 she played a key role to turn around the struggling school.

“I didn’t plan to be a president. I followed my nose,” she said. She learned by listening to janitors, bus drivers and the mentor who got her an ACE fellowship. “We stand on the shoulders of others. You don’t do anything by yourself.”

Margaret Henning and Anne Jardim noted in The Managerial Woman (1977) that women may dot their “i’s” and miss the big picture. Sociologist Rent takes a macro perspective. This nation is wasting women’s potential, especially in math and science. Just 15% of valedictorians are boys, but none of the Ivies had women presidents until recently. “Our subliminal prejudices are deep,” she said.

Rent’s advice to women: Learn all you can about human behavior. Partner as much as possible. Practice communication every minute of your life. Negotiate. As Indira Gandhi said, “You can’t shake hands with a closed fist.”

Use logic, creativity and problem-solving, with an eye on the big picture. A problem attacked leaf by leaf keeps coming back. Solutions come from going to the root. When you’re considering a job, try hard to get accurate facts, which is hard because it’s a moving target. And once you’re a president, know when it’s time to leave. Even if you’re an outstanding president, Rent’s husband told her, “You become a used car. Even if it’s running fine, they want a new model.”

Shields: Love wisely

Two years before Dr. Portia Holmes Shields became the first woman president of Albany State University GA in 1996, a devastating flood had submerged nearly two-thirds of the campus. She led the successful $153 million flood recovery effort and helped grow the student body. With a personal mission statement of “Students First,” she led the school to an 83% retention rate, the third highest in the 34-school Georgia system.

Chancellor Stephen Porch, who hired her, brought a vision that women could do the job. He said Georgia needed women’s forward thinking, intentionality and hard work. The Board of Regents no longer supports women as presidents, she said. Men replaced both of them. Shields retired in 2005 because the job was done, things were good and she could walk away with her head held high. After retirement she lost 15 pounds due to Yoga, Pilates and swimming, read 300 books and was bored to tears. Now she heads Concordia College AL. She’s titled CEO because the Missouri Synod Lutherans won’t call a woman “president.”

Looking back on her years at Albany, she saw problems as well as successes. When she asked what she’d done wrong there, she was told, “You loved the students but you didn’t give the same attention to alumni.” Her response: “Thank God it wasn’t something bad.”

She passed on wisdom from her mistakes. One was trust; she trusted everybody. “Trust and then verify,” she advised. Stay connected. Have someone to take your back and a mentor to talk to. “Don’t fall in love too hard. Go when the spirit tells you to go.”

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