Women Increasingly Likely To Be Leaders in U.S. Higher Education

By Carolee Walker
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington – Harvard University’s selection of a woman as its new president is part of a trend in U.S. higher education to open its leadership posts to women.

More women than ever attend universities, and slating women for leadership positions in higher education is a natural outgrowth of this pattern, says Catherine Hill, director of research at the American Association of University Women (AAUW).

According to published reports, more females than males apply to U.S. universities, and 56 percent of undergraduates are female. Women’s progress has not been achieved at the expense of men because more men are attending two- and four-year academic institutions than ever before, said Hill.

The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that by 2010, some 7.76 million males and 10.72 million females will be enrolled in post-secondary institutions, representing increasing numbers for both men and women. Enrollment figures for 2006 were 7.458 million males and 10.19 million females.

“Diversity in higher education is important because it provides new ways of looking at age-old problems and welcomes different approaches to scholarship,” according to Hill. Also, opening the doors to women as students and leaders is important because it is widely recognized in American culture that higher education holds the keys to economic and political success, Hill said.

“Academia in America is the gatekeeper for many opportunities in this country,” Hill said. “Who gets to decide when the gate opens and what kind of intellectual work gets done will determine how and which young people can move ahead and become decisionmakers.”

Hill said such high-level appointments in academia mean women are positioned better to pursue careers and obtain well-paying jobs, especially in fields traditionally dominated by men.

Harvard University announced on February 11 the appointment of Drew Gilpin Faust, a history professor and founding dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, as its next president. A study released February 12 by the American Council on Education (ACE) shows the rate of diversification in the university president’s office has been slowly but steadily increasing. Hill said the appointment of Faust to lead Harvard is “symbolically important.”

“In academe, there’s no greater symbol than president of Harvard,” Nancy Hopkins, a biology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said in published reports. “It sends a very powerful message.” MIT is led by Susan Hockfield, its first woman president.

Faust is a strong leader who is interested in women’s studies, according to Hill, and her “pivotal position at such a well-known institution will become a podium to shape public debate.”

Founded in 1636, Harvard is the oldest institution of higher education in the United States and a worldwide leader in education and research. Seven U.S. presidents were graduates of Harvard, and 43 current and former Harvard faculty members are Nobel laureates. Radcliffe College, an all-female school closely affiliated with Harvard University, officially merged with Harvard in 1999.

“This is a great day, and a historic day, for Harvard,” said James R. Houghton, the senior member of the Harvard Corporation and chair of the presidential search committee that for the first time in Harvard’s history welcomed student input. Faust “combines a powerful, broad-ranging intellect with a demonstrated capacity for strong leadership and a talent for stimulating people to do their best work, both individually and together,” Houghton said.

Three other "Ivy League" institutions - Brown University, Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania - now have women presidents. The eight private colleges and universities in the Ivy League are considered among the most prestigious of all higher education institutions in the United States.

According to the 2006 ACE study, 23 percent of college presidents were women. “While that percentage has increased from 9.5 percent in 1986, it is clear that women are still underrepresented in this realm of academia,” AAUW said in a press release.

Yet because more than half of all U.S. university presidents in 2006 were older than 60, compared with 14 percent in 1986, the future for women’s leadership in academia is considered promising. “A potential wave of retirements means there is an opportunity to create greater diversity in the [university] presidency,” said Jacqueline E. King, director of the ACE’s Center for Policy Analysis.

The full text of a press release announcing Faust’s appointment is available on the Harvard University Web site. The full text of the 2006 university presidential study is available on the ACE Web site.

For additional information about education in the United States, see Study in the U.S.