Several recent resignation announcements by female presidents at top-tier institutions have prompted discussion about the representation of women at the highest levels of university leadership.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Susan Hockfield announced on Feb. 16 that she will be stepping down from her post, which she has held since 2004. Hockfield is the first woman and life scientist to serve as MIT’s president.
“To support our ambitious goals for the future, MIT has begun the crucial work of planning for a significant new fundraising campaign,” she said in a letter to the MIT community. “I have concluded that it would be best for the Institute to begin this next chapter with new leadership.”
Hockfield’s resignation comes several months after Brown University President Ruth Simmons announced that she will be leaving her presidency at the end of the academic year — potentially shifting the equal balance of male to female presidents that currently exists in the Ivy League.
Penn President Amy Gutmann does not believe that these recent events are indicative of a larger trend toward fewer females in positions of higher education leadership.
“I’m proud that higher education has substantially increased the proportion of highly qualified women in presidencies,” she said. “Susan and Ruth made it possible for young women to dream bigger dreams.”
However, she added that “we can’t be complacent — it’s not a question of whether we’re hiring a male or a female, it’s a question of whether there is truly equal opportunity for highly qualified women as for men.”
When Gutmann became Penn’s president in 2004, she joined Simmons, Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman and Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust as the four female Ivy League presidents. Prior to that, Penn was the first school in the Ivy League to have a permanent female president with Judith Rodin serving from 1994 to 2004.
While Gutmann said the current four-to-four ratio in the Ivy League is encouraging, the trend of female leadership is less widespread across the country. According to an American Council on Eduction report from 2006, 23 percent of college presidents are women — up from 10 percent in 1986.
Vice Provost for Faculty Lynn Lees believes that in the long run, more females will reach the top ranks of higher education as a result of new programs designed to advance women in administrative leadership. Some schools that currently offer such programs include Bryn Mawr College, as well as Harvard and Rutgers universities, she added.
“Women have been increasing the proportion of their representation on faculties and have been moving in larger numbers through academic hierarchies to becoming full professors,” Lees said. “Many more women are being trained for top administrative positions, which widens the pool of people who are eligible.”
Penn has tackled these issues through the Penn Forum for Women Faculty — which provides female faculty members with mentorship and leadership training — and the ongoing Action Plan for Faculty Diversity and Excellence, Lees said.
For Gutmann, while there is still progress to be made, women have come a long way in higher education when compared to other fields, such as the corporate world.
She attributed this success to “believing that you achieve eminence through inclusion and really casting the net as widely as possible for talent.”
“It’s going to be important to continue building on the trend of equal opportunity,” she said.
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