THE LAST LAUGH: A study of Gendered Politics in Presidential Regimes
by Mary Dee Wenniger, Editor/Publisher

As a journalist, I greatly enjoy my daily scouring of various news sources for real-life stories about gendered issues in higher education. Sometimes I have been known to laugh aloud or scream an obscenity. With the usual WIHE twist, they often become items in our monthly Newswatch section. Those who pay attention to our mission […]

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As a journalist, I greatly enjoy my daily scouring of various news sources for real-life stories about gendered issues in higher education. Sometimes I have been known to laugh aloud or scream an obscenity.

With the usual WIHE twist, they often become items in our monthly Newswatch section. Those who pay attention to our mission statement often find items there that fulfill its “enrage” goal.

One couldn’t make up a more perfect opportunity to observe gendered politics than by comparing the summer’s two hottest news stories. They come out of Penn State University and the University of Virginia, campuses that are only 258 miles away from each other but light years apart.

For those readers who have been on sabbatical or institutionalized, here’s the Newswatch summary:

An extensive investigation found that ex-president Graham Spanier was one of the four most powerful men at Penn State University who enabled a football ex-coach as a pedophile, by failing to report him for raping young boys in its football locker room shower since at least 1998.

At the University of Virginia, founded in 1819 by President Thomas Jefferson, an over-zealous head of its board of visitors forced President Teresa Sullivan, its first female president, to resign for not leading like a corporate exec, only to have the full board reverse the decision and reinstate her in the face of outrage by faculty, staff, alumni, students and the public.

Polar opposites

Although the two presidents are both sociologists, they are polar opposites in almost every other respect.

Tenure. After 16 years as president of Penn State University, Spanier was a good old boy, trusted by the board and given a free hand with little oversight.

Teresa Sullivan had barely been president of the University of Virginia for two years. An academic, she was charged with strengthening its academic standing at her hiring.

Motivation. Spanier’s job was to keep the money flowing in, and the football culture—later described as “horribly awry”—brought in at least $60 million annually as a valuable “brand” that needed protecting.

Sullivan believed that Thomas Jefferson’s university should continue to protect its strong academic reputation, that the liberal arts are very important and “A university that does not teach the full range of arts and sciences will no longer be a university.”

Departure. Spanier was one of the four Penn State leaders who were fired for helping to conceal evidence that excoach Jerry Sandusky was sexually molesting young boys.

Sullivan was fired for being an unrepentant “incrementalist,” and refusing to cave in to corporate-style demands by the real estate developer who heads its governing board.

Supporters. Despite his 16 years as president, Spanier did not appear to have visible support. Once the board learned of his vocal, public defense of his fellow-enablers, it ordered him to keep quiet, and then fired him.

Teresa Sullivan received strong campus support from the faculty senate, campus protest vigils by students and faculty, associations of campus governing boards and others.

Outcome. Though still a tenured professor at Penn State, Spanier has mostly dropped out of sight and is preparing a legal defense of charges expected to be filed against him. He recently dropped his lawsuit seeking copies of the “smoking gun” documents linking him to the cover up. He may serve jail time for perjury.

Just 16 days after she was forced to resign, Teresa Sullivan was reinstated as president by a vote of the entire board. She and the board head who fired her, Helen Dragas, symbolically walked into the board meeting together.

Gendered politics?

In true feminist fashion, I was reminded to put on my gender lenses and examine the issue, checking whether a reversal of the sexes might have brought different results in both cases. If so, then it is a gender issue.

It’s the same basic question that enforcers of Title IX ask to determine whether there is gender equity in a school’s athletics program: Would the team of the opposite sex be willing to change places with that of the underrepresented group regarding an item on the gender equity laundry list—be it coaching, scholarships, equipment, transportation, scheduling or whatever?

Role reversal

What if Graham Spanier had been president at the University of Virginia?

• Would he have stood up for the liberal arts under pressure?

• Would the head of the board and her second-in-command have acted in secret and demanded his ouster?

• Would he have quietly resigned or fought back, demanding a vote of the entire board and rounding up support?

What if Teresa Sullivan had been president of Penn State University?

• Would she have sat by quietly for 14 years, knowing that a pedophile ex-coach was attacking youngsters on her campus?

• Would she have let Penn State’s football program create a campus culture that put itself above the rules?

• Would she have listened to former Penn State VP of student affairs Vicky Triponey, who was forced out in 2007 by ex-coach Paterno demanding disciplinary control over football student athletes who broke the law?

It’s the answers to questions like these that make me realize that despite statistics showing a trend toward more women becoming college and university presidents, we’ve still got a long way to go to create campus cultures in which presidents of both genders can thrive—and get the last laugh.

Mary Dee



Wenniger, Mary Dee. (2012, August). The LAST LAUGH: A study of Gendered Politics in Presidential Regimes. Women in Higher Education, 21(8), 20.

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