Top Women Campus Leaders Share Key Lessons

What kind of leader are you? A carrot? An egg? or a coffee bean?

What kind of leader are you? Picturing yourself as an ordinary kitchen ingredient may help you to determine your style.

Imagine that you submerge a carrot, an egg and a coffee bean in a cup of boiling water. The carrot enters the water strong and hard—unrelenting—but becomes soft and mushy. The egg is fragile, with a thin shell protecting a liquid inte-rior, but it emerges hardboiled. The coffee bean, however, doesn’t change—it changes the water around it, making it rich and strong.

In difficult circumstances, like being thrown into boiling water, do you get softer, or harder, or change the world around you?

That question was posed by Amy Levine , director of the Center for Gender Equity at the University of California-San Francisco, as she introduced a panel of three senior women leaders at the Northern California network coordinator’s annual meeting in San Francisco in March, an American Council on Education’s Office of Women in Higher Education program.

The session “Where There’s a Woman There’s a Way: The Path to Leadership in Higher Education” featured three “coffee bean” type of leaders from California: Dr. Marye Anne Fox, chancellor at UC-San Diego; Dr. Norma Rees, president of CSU-East Bay, and Dr. Fran White , president of College of Marin.

Using a question-and-answer style, it included these exchanges which are presented here as paraphrases of the speakers’ words.

Do you agree that, ‘Whatever you do, you must do twice as well and half as fast as a man’ to succeed?

  • Well, the other half of that question is that it’s not very hard to do so. —Dr. Fox
  • You really do have to be better, stronger and make better coffee. —Dr. White
  • The expectations that men and women have of women are different. We have to find our own ways. —Dr. Rees

What do you think it takes to be a successful leader?

  • Listening and decision-making abilities. —Dr. Fox
  • Always hiring people smarter than you. —Dr. Rees
  • People are always either talking or getting ready to talk. You have to be a person who is willing to think outside the box and be unconventional in strategic thinking and dealing with people. These are skills you might not have been born with. You get experience as you go. —Dr. White
  • Following a traditional path does help. A leader needs to understand how all these pieces fit together and what each person on campus does. —Dr. Rees

How does being a woman change you as a leader?

  • We raise children. Those skills play well: We’re able to listen, bring people together, understand divergent views and opinions and put ourselves aside. The problem with men is they can’t get away from themselves. —Dr. White.
  • We can’t just keep walking around and posturing and getting our country in trouble. The next president will be a woman. —Dr. Rees
  • Having kids taught me time management. Your productivity goes up. I took my kids to daycare at 7 a.m., and left at 5 p.m. for daycare. My colleagues with relaxed schedules, they think they’re working 18-hour days, but they’re taking coffee breaks, then lunch breaks, then leaving for handball. There’s definitely a time management and multitasking cor-ollary. I was dictating letters during little league games. —Dr. Fox

What are some assumptions that disadvantage women and elevate men?

  • I remember once working on an internal search for an associate dean. The president told me later that the dean, after the first round of identifying people, said, “What about a woman?” It was so insulting. The first cut was men, and after they didn’t find anyone, they said, “Well, let’s look outside the original box.” —Dr. Rees
  • Being a woman can be an advantage if you are willing to be prepared. I had my first presidency at 51. Most men are in their 30s during their first presidencies. —Dr. White
  • There’s a study that’s shown that you have to have someone present who echoes you. If a woman says something is important, she should have a colleague who echoes it. Otherwise it dies. If you know you’re disadvantaged, you can set yourself up to be supported or bolstered so that you are successful. —Dr. Fox

What are some things you’ve learned about working with and supporting other women?

  • Use networks and offer encouragement. I want to be in a position where I can help women improve. —Dr. White
  • Women have to be careful and do their homework before entering into any public conflict. With women, it’s a cat fight. With men it’s an intellectual discourse. Ask yourself: “Is this the right position for me?” —Dr. Fox
  • One of the reasons it was easy to think of myself with ambition and one reason that I had an advantage was be-cause I was raised by a single mother. Women and their fathers have a relationship that colors their relationships with other women and with men that affects them throughout their lives and their careers. I was never someone’s little girl. Women who have a relationship with men in that way have to find other ways to define themselves. —Dr. White
  • I was a preacher’s daughter in a very patriarchal family with six girls and one man. It wasn’t until 5th grade, when we moved to Texas, that I learned about slavery. My dad said, “Yes, you’re black, this happened. Get over it. Be strong, be educated, be the best you can be.” With successful people, parents told them that they could be and do anything they wanted to do. —Dr. Rees

Do you have any advice for women of color, as traditionally, higher education institutions have not been kind to women of color?

  • Women in leadership positions have to be careful to be leaders/role models. Ask yourself, what is the value in this ac-tion—is it moral, does it make me look good, does it demonstrate my commitment? And what I’ve realized about the value of multiculturalism is that the way in which we all rub up against each other means that if we are inclusive, one thing can’t grow out of proportion to the rest. —Dr. Rees
  • There are very few people in the pool. We are facing a tremendous problem. At UCSD, we are 60% women and 40% men, and equal among Caucasians and Asians. It’s a moral imperative to be inclusive, and to allow people to be successful according to talent. —Dr. Fox
  • It is, above all, a value. —Dr. Rees
  • When you are in a position to make a difference, you have to keep at it. —Dr. White

Have you any final tips for women rising through the ranks to a leadership position?

  •  Have a vision and stick to it. Evaluate it periodically. Get a mentor to help you achieve the vision. —Dr. White
  • When you are on your way up and even after you’ve gotten there, have people to whom you can ask stupid questions and not feel dumb, people you can be frank and candid with. —Dr. Rees
  • Be proactive and have a thick skin. Ask yourself, do I have the capability in this position to make change? Changes are hard on people and in return, they are going to be hard on you. You have to have a thick skin. —Dr. Fox
  • Recognize that you want to be leaders, not administrators. Administrator is a passive word. —Dr. Rees

Dr. Marye Anne Fox at

Dr. Norma Rees at

Dr. Frances White at s


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