Gender balance could be broken with Brown president's resignation
While Ivy League presidents have held an even gender ratio for four years, women's progress in higher education leadership has slowed nationwide
October 2, 2011, 9:50 pm · Updated October 3, 2011, 11:58 pm·
The balance of male and female presidents in the Ivy League may soon undergo a shift.
Brown University President Ruth Simmons announced Sept. 15 that she will step down from her presidency at the close of the academic year. Simmons, who came to the helm in 2001 as Brown’s first female president, is also the first black president in the Ivy League.
Though Simmons’ announcement has no direct impact on Penn, it does draw attention to one fact: over the past four years, the eight Ivy League institutions have featured an even male-to-female ratio of presidents.
In 1994, Penn became the first Ivy League school to bring in a permanent female president when Judith Rodin began her tenure at the University. The year before that, Claire Fagin had served as interim president of the University.
Current Penn President Amy Gutmann has held her position since 2004. For Gutmann, having a four-to-four gender ratio among Ivy League presidents has marked “a real sea change in modern history.”
“You don’t have to go that far back in history to see when it was taken for granted that every Ivy League president would be a male,” she said. Today, “one doesn’t need to pay attention to whether the most qualified person is a man or woman because we’ve basically broken through that glass ceiling.”
But a look outside the Ivy League tells a different story.
In 2007 — the most recent year for which data exists — the American Council on Education reported that just 23 percent of presidents at colleges and universities nationwide were women. Though this marked an increase from 10 percent in 1986, ACE observed that women’s progress in higher education leadership positions had slowed in recent years.
Gutmann said she “would urge everyone to look at the broader universe of university presidents because that’s what’s more significant.” She reiterated, however, that the Ivy League’s progress alone has still been “remarkable.”
In addition to Rodin, Simmons and Gutmann, other female presidents in the Ivy League have included Shirley Tilghman, who began her presidency at Princeton University in 2001, as well as Drew Gilpin Faust, who took the reins at Harvard University in 2007 after serving on Penn’s faculty for 25 years, holding positions like chairwoman of the Department of American Civilization and director of the Women’s Studies Program.
While there has been no indication as to whether Simmons’ replacement at Brown will be a man or a woman, the possibility for a change in the current gender balance does not seem to concern many.
Felicity Paxton, director of the Penn Women’s Center, said the notion of Brown bringing in a male president “does not put me in a state of panic whatsoever.”
“I’m far more interested in what someone is actually doing with their presidency,” she said, adding that “there’s no guarantee when you get a female president that you’re going to get an advocate for women.”
Princeton professor Nannerl Keohane, who has served as president of Wellesley College and Duke University, agreed.
“Having one woman more or less in these very visible posts doesn’t dilute the basic accomplishment,” she wrote in an email.
For Gail Cohee, director of the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center at Brown, Simmons’ announcement may be a setback when it comes to having a diverse set of viewpoints reflected by Ivy League presidents.
“It’s been great for students of color to have [Simmons] as such a powerful force … and I’m concerned about what might happen if that were to disappear,” she said.
Gutmann added that she sees “a lot more progress to be made” when it comes to gender diversity in traditionally male-dominated fields like science, engineering and business.
Penn last released a University-wide report on gender equity in 2009. Though the report — which was based on faculty diversity numbers from 2007 — showed substantial progress for women overall, representation of standing female faculty in the School of Engineering and Applied Science still stood at just 12.7 percent, with representation in the Wharton School at 19.3 percent.
“It’s important to get more women in these fields so they can serve as mentors,” Paxton said. “We need women leaders to inspire other women to reach for the highest heights.”