Margaret McKenna One and Done

How Do You Explain the Decline of Women in Leadership Roles in Higher Education in Massachusetts?

Over the last decades, women have moved up the ladder in most fields, sometimes much too slowly, but in the right direction. In the last few years, we have seen a dramatic rise of women in elected office and an even more dramatic rise this past year of women choosing to run for office. We have seen a push by shareholders to put more women on corporate boards and at least one state, California, considering mandating companies to do so.

With that as a backdrop, it is difficult to explain the decline of women in leadership roles in Higher Education in Massachusetts. When I became the President of Lesley University in 1980, there were only a handful of women presidents in the state but over the next two decades that increased significantly. At one point during this time, five of the nine State Colleges were headed by women and many institutions hired their first woman president. Today none of the state’s public colleges are led by women.

There were actually a few days in 2007, the year I left my position, when all three universities in Cambridge: Lesley, MIT and Harvard had women presidents. Today, all are led by men.[1]

With rare exception, I have seen the phenomenon of “one and done.” A college selects a woman or person of color and then that person is followed by a white male. We can count the exceptions to this pattern on one hand. Some boards seem to believe they have checked that box, at least for a while and then go back to the more traditional candidate (white male).

While the number of women and people of color in presidencies has continued to grow nationally, though admittedly that growth has slowed considerably, in the last decade. In Massachusetts we are at best stagnate, and in some instances in decline.

How do you explain this? Women are the majority of students, majority of senior academic leaders, majority of those in many graduate programs.

Why does it make a difference? Because we model for our students, fairness, equal access, and opportunity. Because we give both young women and men diverse models of power and leadership. Because Presidents with words and actions set the tone and standards for a campus climate that respects all individuals. We encourage young women to speak up for what they believe in, including themselves, without fear of being stereotyped “abrasive,” “strident,” or “bossy.”

One can argue with the data or methodology, and people will, but no matter how you manipulate the numbers the story is the same…women are severely underrepresented in positions of power in Higher Education in Massachusetts.

So, what needs to be done? If search firms do not bring qualified diverse candidates to search committees, find another search firm. If search committees do not bring forward diverse candidates to the board for selection, send the pool back to the search committee. If the board continues to select white male candidates for presidencies, then the board needs to be replaced, particularly the board leadership who play such a pivotal role in the selection of both the search committee and the candidate selected.

Colleges and universities, unlike corporations, do not have shareholders but they do have alumni and donors who can and should play the role of shareholder in demanding equitable treatment and diverse leadership of their former institutions. Women have been the majority of college students since 1979 and students of color will become the majority within the next decade.

Higher Education is an engine of economic development and is vital in maintaining our democracy. University leaders are highly visible in our communities and serve as examples of what is possible in terms of educational opportunity. It is vital that presidents represent the range of Massachusetts citizens.

[1] I have to note that Larry Bacow, the new president of Harvard, made his first public appearance in his home town of Pontiac Michigan in front of a very diverse group of high school students…which does make a statement on opportunity