What’s the Trend on Women Getting College Presidencies?

“Until you called me, I thought we were making progess.”–Bill Funk

Is the glass half full or half empty? Looking at the numbers of women who've been hired for the top campus job recently, the answer is clearly, "It depends."

Women in Higher Education has been following the progress of academic women for 14 years. Lately it appears that fewer women are getting the top jobs. To test our hypothesis, we phoned several experts. Here are their perceptions on today's climate for women seeking the top position.

It depends where you look

"I think it depends upon which group of colleges you're looking at," said Claire Van Ummersen , director of the Office of Women in Higher Education at the American Council on Education. "Among the members of the Association of American Universities, there are more women presidents in the last couple of years than ever before." Currently 14.4% of AAU's top leaders are women.

Women in community colleges also appear to be faring well. More than 40% of the new community college presidents in the last five years have been women, she said. "They're still at the forefront," said Van Ummersen. "But when meshed with the ones currently in place, the number is about 30%." Each time ACE has conducted its surveys, the number of women heading two-year schools has gone up 4 or 5%.

Unfortunately, the outlook isn't as rosy elsewhere. In 1998,20.4 % of college presidents at baccalaureate degreegranting, four-year institutions were women. By 2001, that number had declined to 18.7%. "My gut feeling is that slide has probably continued," she noted. ACE will verify that trend with its next survey due out in 2006.

Some of that decline may be due to hard financial times. Financially fragile schools-and those whose boards have more corporate members and are heavily weighted toward men-will likely choose a male candidate to fill any open position, she explained.

Van Ummersen noted two areas where women appear to be stalled. One is in the composition of boards of trustees, whose members are 80% male and mostly white. "Because of the difficulties in the economy, there's a tendency to go with what's comfortable, with people who are like you and who know about the things you know about," she said.

Economic difficulties also lead to conservative choices or the desire to bet on a sure thing. In the current climate, many boards look to fill an opening with a sitting president. Because only about 22% of sitting presidents are women, the numbers automatically work against us. "For any opening, there's a one in four chance of naming a woman as president," said Van Ummersen.

Then there's the perception that women are place bound. "1 also have the feeling that men are more willing to move than women," she added. Women leaders have a loyalty to their schools and tend to feel tied to them more deeply than do their male counterparts. Women feel guilty leaving. "Men don't have the same intensity regarding loyalty that women do," she noted. And a school's values are more important to women than they are to men.

A simple shift?

Narcisa Polonio, VP for board leadership services at the Association of Community College Trustees and a leader of presidential searches, sees the glass as half full. "Is it a problem or just a simple shift?" she asked. " Are we gaining in one area and losing in another?"

When we pointed out that men have recently replaced some longstanding, successful women presidents, Polonio cautioned that these positions are not gender specific. "It seems naive and idealistic to think that we'll always replace a woman with another woman," she said. "In my opinion we need to look at breadth, strength, qualifications and fit of the candidates."

Despite the losses, Polonio feels good about women's progress pointing to substantial gains among community colleges. "I think we have some growth in women not only becoming heads of community colleges but also heading community college districts," she said. "There may be some shifting, but in some cases women are moving into more significant positions."

However, Polonio is concerned that the pay in higher education isn't equivalent to similar positions in the private sector. "The better and brighter go into the corporate world," she said. "They have more choices and can make more money. Hopefully we can get the women in the private sector to consider higher education as a second career or to serve on the boards of trustees." In her searches, Polonio has found that whether a school chooses a female or a male president depends upon its level of maturity and development. "Some are looking for an older model of leadership," she admitted. In one state, two community colleges are currently seeking new leaders. One is looking backward while the other wants to try something new. "Universities and colleges reflect the political structure," she said. "In states where there aren't a lot of women political leaders, you get the continuation of what has been before." Polonio pointed out that the presidency isn't the only position women should seek. We also need to look at becoming trustees. "The age of the typical trustee is between 50 to 69," she said. "A lot of people do this in their retirement or at the senior level of their careers."

The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges recently released two reports providing snapshots of current boards. Not surprisingly, the numbers leave room for improvement. Women comprise 30% of board chairs at community colleges, 25% at four-year schools and 13% at higher education systems. For independent schools, that number is 19%.

Among trustees of public schools, women are 31.6% in community colleges, 27.4% in four-year schools and 25.7% in systems. At independent schools, women are 30.2% of the boards at two-year and 28.2% at four-year schools.

Unfortunately, AGB found a slight decline in the number of women on public schools' boards from 1997 to 2004. In 1997,30% of trustees in all public schools were women. Seven years later it had dropped to 29.4%. At independent schools, the outlook was somewhat positive with the number increasing from 26% in 1997 to 28% in 2004.

A checklist mentality

When asked for her perceptions, Judith White, the new executive director of HERS, observed, "I've had friends get their first presidency and others get their second presidency in the past couple of years. But I've also seen friends being replaced by men."

White sees two areas for concern. One is a checklist mentality: Schools believe once they've appointed a woman in the past, they needn't do it again.

The more insidious fear is whether Dr. Judith White the age at which women are being appointed to their first presidency is a problem. "Half of the woman in the HERS program this past summer were 50 or older," she noted. "They're acting on the belief that they have lots to give." But when these women began creating their career map, many were wondering if it was really worth it. Was it too late for them to become presidents?

Search consultants at the Bryn Mawr pro- gram said they have placed women in their 50s. Campus search committees are generally composed of senior people who are more attuned to the energy levels of candidates in their 50s and 60s. But are these mid-life candidates too old for their first presidency? "A woman in her 50s going to her second presidency doesn't have the same stuff to prove," said White. Two questions to consider are:

  • Do women get their first presidencies as early as men?
  • Is there a difference in women getting their first presidency at a later date?

In business and in politics, the male pattern is to make the leap into the executive track in the 30s. "Those who are at the top have gotten into elective office in their 30s," noted White. Yet that decade is when most women are deeply into child bearing and rearing.

Do commitments in the 30s and 40s prepare people for the top job? If so, we need to identify and find solutions to the problem as soon as possible. "I have a concern that it puts us right up against the same barriers that women in corporate life are finding," she said. "If we're off the track already in our 40s, then we have a problem."

Veteran headhunter

Like Polonio, Bill Funk, sector leader with Korn Ferry International, the world's largest retainer-based, international executive search firm, also saw the glass as half full-until he reviewed his list of recently placed candidates. "We're seeing more and more women, but there might be an ebb and flow once in awhile," he admitted.

Over the past 22 years, Funk has recruited more than 250 presidents and chancellors and been involved in the hiring of many provosts, deans and other high-level academics. Funk once predicted that 50% of the presidents would be women by 2010 and that the process would occur naturally over time. "Until you called me, I thought we were making progress," he told WIHE.

When asked for his perceptions on a decline, Funk offered a theory. "We went through a streak there for awhile where a lot of internal candidates were surfacing," he said. Many were at state schools that didn't want the learning curve of working with a legislature and a governor that's associated with a new hire. "When you go internally, it mitigates having more women hired," he said. "In Florida and New York they wanted someone who knew the ropes and could work with the legislature, especially in times of tight budgets."

An internal hire may be a nod toward proven loyalty. "When they're surprised by a move, they may go to an internal candidate or one of a different gender," admitted Funk. If the person was expected to stay and then chose to leave, the board is likely to hire an insider who has "proven loyalty and staying power." As for replacing a sitting woman with a man, he noted that "the thought could be that we've already acted affirmatively."

Although things have been tight lately, Funk expects things to improve in the future. "There are a lot of women out there who are provosts now," he said. "We're seeing increasing numbers of women in feeder positions."

When asked how he recruits women candidates for open positions, Funk revealed a few secrets. He talks to Van Ummersen on every search. His proprietary mailing list of some 600 people includes 125 to 150 women presidents, provosts and deans. For every search, he sends a letter asking them if the particular position is one they'd be interested in. The mailing list is updated monthly and includes search committee members, candidates who make the "final five" and trustees.

With more women now in the pipeline to top jobs, there's hope that half-full glasses will soon overflow.

Contacts: Claire Van Ummersen at 202.939.9390 Narcisa Polonio at 202.276.1983 or nopolonio@acct.org Judith White at 303.871.6866 or jwhite28@du.edu; Bill Funk at 214.954.1834, ext. 3015

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