When she attended opening convocations at the University of California, Irvine during the late 1990s, Jill Beck contemplated the unintended message new female students were receiving. The convocations were revealing, she recalls, as almost all of the convocation speakers were senior administrators and, most notably, they were all men. With a 10:1 ratio of men to women on the faculty, Beck says she remembers few female faculty members or administrators taking the podium for convocation remarks during her seven years as dean of The School of the Arts at UCI.
A decade later, Beck is the president of Lawrence University, and she and other women who have arrived at the highest levels of professional achievement in academia are still somewhat rare.
Forbes.com, which ranked Lawrence University 41st among the nation’s top colleges in 2009, recently included Beck and 14 other women college presidents on a list of “barrier breakers” — women who have broken through higher education’s glass ceiling. The list is impressive. Princeton. Harvard. MIT. Lawrence. All colleges led by women.
“This is great company,” Beck said. “Alumni often say to me, ‘if Lawrence were only perceived as it is, it would be ranked more highly and it would have a stronger reputation across the country.’ This is a very nice in-road for us to appear in an echelon of schools where we feel our work is comparable, but our notoriety has not been.”
The barrier breaker list accompanied an article titled “Women College Presidents’ Tough Test,” which cited a scarcity of women in leadership positions in higher education. According to the American Council on Education, just 23 percent of the nation’s college presidents are women. The majority of the women on Forbes’ list, including Beck, are the first woman president hired to lead the college. A few lead women’s colleges where a female at the helm has been the norm.
A Legacy of Women Leaders
Its roots entwined with those of Milwaukee-Downer College, a case might be made that Lawrence’s first woman president isn’t Beck. Two women, Ellen Sabin and Lucia Briggs, led Milwaukee-Downer for a span of 56 years from 1895-1951 and paved the way for future generations of women in leadership roles in higher education. College life for American women in the early 20th century was narrowly defined, with both Sabin and Briggs emphasizing the importance of preparation for the “intelligent handling of home responsibilities and possible professional life.” A liberal arts education to improve the caliber of the mind, not just the acquisition of technical skills, was the best path to that goal, according to Sabin and Briggs. While the educational and professional opportunities for women have grown considerably since their presidencies, Sabin and Briggs’ affirmation of a liberal arts education lives on at Lawrence.
“The strong women faculty and alumnae from Milwaukee-Downer are in our collective consciousness at Lawrence,” said Marcia Bjørnerud, professor of geology and Walter Schober Professor of Environmental Studies. “It’s just expected that women will excel.”
Examples of strong women in leadership at Lawrence are abundant.
In the spring of 2009, Bjørnerud was chosen as the first recipient of Lawrence’s new Faculty Convocation Award, honoring a member of the faculty for professional excellence. Her 2009 convocation presentation, “Geomimicry: Good Design from Good Earth,” made a strong case for following the time-honored traditions of the Earth when seeking to solve environmental, social and economic problems. (Video of the presentation is on Lawrence’s website.
Now a leader in the male-dominated geology discipline, as a student Bjørnerud felt like an outsider in the classroom, which hindered her development as a scientist. “Because I remember that feeling, I try to make my own classrooms inclusive and open to all kinds of thinkers,” she said.
Nancy Truesdell, vice president for student affairs and dean of students, did not seek out leadership at Lawrence but, after nearly 20 years at the college, believes her determination to “go above and beyond expectations” led her to greater responsibility.
Early in her career, Truesdell served on the Wisconsin Governor’s Commission on the Glass Ceiling and visited companies and organizations that were led by women or were known for policies that encouraged the development of women. “I was struck by the fact that when women were empowered to seek the highest levels of achievement, goals were accomplished in a caring work environment, other women more freely expressed their desire to succeed and all employees were more likely to be acknowledged for their contributions.”
Are Women Leaders Different?
According to several of the women in leadership roles at Lawrence, women do lead differently than men, but not only because they are women. Nancy Wall, associate dean of the faculty at Lawrence University and associate professor of biology, is convinced gender is one of many factors influencing the way she leads, and that there are many variables, her background as a scientist among them. “It is difficult to separate them and to think how my style might be different if all the other things being the same, I was simply a male rather than a female.”
The same holds true for the Lawrence president. According to Beck, every president comes to the job with a background that influences his or her style of leadership and decision-making. Socioeconomic, disciplinary backgrounds and other factors are just as important, or, perhaps even more important, than gender.
“I think being a first-generation college student impacts the way I’m leading,” Beck said. “It has made me more sympathetic to diversity, perhaps, than some of my colleagues across the country, and to the need for more advising and support for first generation college students so they succeed.
“Coming from an arts background influenced me because I believe in the expressivity of the arts and the cognitive traits that the arts develop in people that provide them with the skill set for leadership.”
For some, being a woman opened doors to opportunities in higher education. Beth De Stasio, professor of biology and Raymond H. Herzog Professor of Science, said gender brought opportunities her way. “When I was hired, there was only one other woman in the sciences (Mary Blackwell) and not so many women elsewhere on campus, so we were asked to do a lot of service when gender balance was desired,” De Stasio said. “I was put on big committees right away and had the opportunity to observe up close the leadership style of many different campus leaders.”
The Path to Leadership
If the women in leadership positions at Lawrence have something in common, it’s that aspirations of college leadership developed naturally over time — there was no single moment of declaration: “I want to be a (insert college leadership position.)” For some, however, there were early inklings that a career in higher education could be on the horizon.
Beck recalls feeling pride when her parents pointed out that one of her distant male ancestors was a college president, even though her parents didn’t have the advantage of the education they wanted for their children. “There had been many teachers in the extended family and leadership in education was something the family was proud of,” Beck said. “But I can’t say I set a goal to be a college president. I think that careers evolve and that people follow opportunities mindful of doing the best they can in each position and wanting to have as much influence and positive impact as one can have.”
Kathy Privatt, associate professor of theatre arts and James G. and Ethel M. Barber Professor of Theatre and Drama, also credits a family member for helping to shape her career plans and inspiring her to pursue greater professional achievement in higher education. “My papa was a tenured professor of cello. As I got older and more curious, he talked about tenure and his position at the university,” Privatt said. “He taught me that tenure was a privilege, but most importantly, a responsibility to speak for what ought to happen, particularly if expressing that position might make someone without tenure vulnerable.” Born in the 1960s, Privatt said she grew up seeing women and men both doing everything, and never considered that gender would affect her career choice. “I certainly encountered people that told me — implicitly or explicitly — that ‘girls do this and boys do that’, but I really just thought they were ignorant and ill-informed.”
Kim Tatro, head softball coach and senior woman administrator, knew she had a passion for coaching but knew little about the potential for leadership in college administration. “My move into administration at Lawrence was really a more natural progression and less planned.” A proponent of the concept that people will evaluate a person based on what they do, Tatro doesn’t think much about how her gender influences her role. “The liberal philosophy at Lawrence certainly supports this concept. I don’t feel the need as a female to be ‘something more’ to prove that I belong in a leadership position. When you enter a situation with that mentality, it can be distracting and you become less effective. I’m thankful to work in an environment where that mindset isn’t necessary.”
We’ve Come a Long Way
If Lawrence is a gender-blind community today, it has not always been that way. In spite of being heralded as one of the first coeducational institutions in the country, Lawrence historians note that in the college’s early days, female students cleaned the rooms and did the laundry for male students. The Milwaukee-Downer legacy notwithstanding, there were few women faculty and no women administrators at Lawrence until the 1990s. “If we want to see Lawrence’s history as fl owing in part from Milwaukee-Downer, we have to admit that women have had to recover a lot of lost ground,” said Eilene Hoft-March, professor of French and Milwaukee-Downer College and College Endowment Association Professor.
At the time this article was written, near the end of the 2009 Fall Term, there were 104 women and 140 men in full and part-time faculty positions at Lawrence; 13 women and 33 men serving as department or program chairs. There were 13 women and 10 men holding director-level or higher administrative positions.
While the number of women leaders has grown considerably since the early 90s, questions remain about whether Lawrence is free of gender bias.
According to Hoft-March, “It requires that colleagues — male and female — work to understand some of the obstacles to career advancement that still exist, most of them subtle but palpable. I don’t think we can downplay gender until we’re sure it’s not affecting our judgment and actions negatively.”
The challenge today is to be inclusive and supportive of everyone, including women. “I firmly believe this kind of gender definition is equally constraining to males,” said Privatt. “I absolutely try to mentor, suggest and reveal an examination of those definitions and boundaries for all my students. I was gifted with a social situation that allowed me to follow my passion; I want that for each of them — male and female.” ■
Forbes’ 15 Barrier Breakers
Jill Beck | Lawrence University
Catharine Bond Hill | Vassar College
H. Kim Bottomly | Wellesley College
Pamela Brooks Gann | Claremont McKenna College
Rebecca Chopp | Swarthmore College
Carol Christ | Smith College
Joanne Creighton | Mount Holyoke College
Jane Dammen McAuliffe | Bryn Mawr College
Drew Gilpin Faust | Harvard University
Joan Hinde Stewart | Hamilton College
Susan Hockfield | Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Maria Klawe | Harvey Mudd College
S. Georgia Nugent | Kenyon College
Debora Spar | Barnard College
Shirley Tilghman | Princeton University
Lawrentian Leader at Otterbein College
After 26 years as an administrator at Indiana University and Ohio University, Kathy Krendl ’72 knew plenty about leading large, public colleges. She rose through the ranks: professor, department chair, dean, provost and, in 2007, she was named executive vice president and provost at OHIO. But when it was time to consider the next logical step on the higher education career ladder — a college presidency — Krendl looked in another direction. She remembered her days as an undergraduate at a small, private liberal arts college named Lawrence University.
“If I were going to consider a presidency, I wanted it to be at an institution that was small enough that I could know the students and work with the students, as well as knowing and working with the faculty,” Krendl said. “I wanted to be part of an integrated community. It wasn’t the fact that there was a presidency that interested me, it was finding a community that I wanted to be a part of.”
In October, 2009, Krendl was inaugurated as the 20th president of Otterbein College in Westerville, Ohio, a private liberal arts college with some similarities to Lawrence. Founded in 1847, the same year as Lawrence, Otterbein was among the first colleges to be founded as coeducational and to admit women to the same programs of study as male students. Notably, Otterbein employed female faculty members from the day it opened and was one of the first three colleges in the United States to be open to students of color.
Today, Otterbein is a college where the relationships between students and faculty are very strong, another similarity with Lawrence.
Almost 40 years ago, Krendl’s academic advisor was Professor Herbert Tjossem, a mentor who became a lifelong friend to his student. During Krendl’s years at Lawrence there were many visits to Tjossem’s home for talks and dinners. Since then there have been occasional letters, phone calls and brief visits with the Tjossem family. “At my inauguration I received a bouquet of flowers from them. I graduated in ’72. It’s been a long time but he’s still thinking of me and monitoring my career and staying connected.”
It’s the same at Otterbein. In doing her research about the college Krendl discovered Otterbein faculty were “looking for ways to help students realize their potential, looking for special talents and looking for ways to help students build the foundation that can lead to success.”
Like Jill Beck, Krendl is the first woman president at Otterbein but being first is far from a new experience. She was the first female dean on the Bloomington campus at Indiana University, the first female dean of the Scripps College at OHIO University and the first female executive vice president at OU.
Which isn’t to say Krendl doesn’t appreciate the significance of being first. She knows the female students at Otterbein have taken note.
“For them to have a female president is much more symbolic and much more important than I had anticipated. In some respects, the transition was probably bigger for the community than it was for me.”