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Ivy League to Become Collegiate Outlier in Top Women Leadership

Come July 2023, six of the eight Ivy League schools will have women leaders.

The Ivy League, with some of the oldest institutions of higher education in the U.S., recently announced bold choices in leadership. Dartmouth College, Harvard University, and Columbia University named new presidents, each to take office in July. For Dartmouth and Columbia, these are the first women presidents in their history, while Harvard welcomes its first African American president.

Dr. Sian Beilock (Dartmouth), Dr. Minouche Shafik (Columbia), and Dr. Claudine Gay (Harvard) will join current presidents M. Elizabeth Magill (University of Pennsylvania), Dr. Christina Paxson (Brown), and Dr. Martha E. Pollack (Cornell) in leading institutions. All except one have been coed at the undergraduate level since the 1970s or 1980s.

“They are without a doubt powerhouses in their field and have proven themselves as effective, innovative leaders,” said Dr. Taylor Odle, assistant professor of educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “I do think that folks should be excited about this because for better or worse in American higher education, institutions unequivocally mimic the Ivy League or the Ivy League Plus (institutions such as MIT and Stanford).

“Now, these three new women presidents can bring new vision and energy to these roles, where women have not always been in those spaces before,” he added. “I’m excited to see what their visions might entail and how those might even diffuse down the ladder to other institutions.”

Historical perspective

Dr. Felecia CommodoreDr. Felecia Commodore“It’s notable considering that women still do not make up a majority of college presidencies while women make up a large percentage of student bodies,” said Dr. Felecia Commodore, associate professor in the department of educational foundations and leadership at Old Dominion University.

Although it is somewhat unusual for the presidencies of three Ivy League institutions to come up in the same year, it is not unusual to choose women leaders, according to Dr. Robert McCaughey, retired professor of history and Janet H. Robb Chair in the Social Sciences at Barnard College (women’s undergraduate college of Columbia University). McCaughey is author of the books Stand Columbia: A History of Columbia University in the City of New York, 1754–2004, which he is currently updating for a revised edition, and A College of Her Own: The History of Barnard.

“I wouldn’t exaggerate the moment,” said McCaughey.

McCaughey noted that Harvard, Brown, and the University of Pennsylvania have had women presidents dating back more than two decades. He said Columbia seriously considered female candidates prior to the hiring of outgoing President Lee Bollinger in 2002.

“They’re meritorious candidates; I just want to see their agenda,” said Evan Mandery, professor of criminal justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and author of the book Poison Ivy: How Elite Colleges Divide Us. He said he sees more continuity than change. 

“When the Penn Gazette announced [Magill’s] hiring (in 2022), Scott Bok, the chair of the board of trustees, said, ‘One thing that is for certain about Penn — and we made this clear to all the candidates we spoke to — is that there’s nothing broken and there’s nothing that really needs to be fixed,’” said Mandery. “One part of the problem is that the boards of these institutions look more like the management committees of Goldman Sachs and McKinsey than they do America.

“The question is whether these women, who have become custodians of institutions that were racist and sexist in their recent past and are classist in the extreme in their present, will work to make a meaningful commitment to promoting socioeconomic diversity,” continues Mandery.

Commodore said it would be interesting to know the makeup of the boards that selected these women leaders. Boards have been traditionally male dominated. She said she wonders if there has been a gender shift on boards that affects presidential selections.

Potential impact

“In the case of Columbia, the trustee search committee selected someone (Shafik) who has had very little contact with Columbia or with New York City or even with private American research universities,” said McCaughey. Shafik is an economist and current president of the London School of Economics and Political Science, which McCaughey notes is quite different from an American research university that has a substantial undergraduate program. He characterizes her as an outsider in comparison to selecting someone within Columbia or other Ivy League administrations.

Odle said Ivy League schools are increasingly global institutions, and Shafik’s presidency can be an asset for the university in attracting international faculty as well as developing international programs.

“It’s potentially an exciting opportunity for a fresh perspective of someone who hasn’t been steeped in the isomorphic tendencies of U.S. higher education,” Odle said. “She has the powerful excuse to ask why we’ve been doing things the way we have or thinking a certain way. Someone from a domestic peer institution maybe wouldn’t be able to ask those exact same questions.”

Commodore said having so many women in presidencies at the same time could have a broad impact. “Where we still don’t see a plethora of women presidents are at our large public research institutions,” Commodore explained. “What I hope, if nothing else, is that the Ivy League having this many women sitting presidents will signal to other institutional sectors in higher ed that women can lead large, complex institutions.”

Forward momentum

Dr. Taylor OdleDr. Taylor OdleOdle said greater diversity is a distinctly possible outcome from these presidencies. “Being an innovator, bringing innovation and being an example, occupying that role has a lot of power in and of itself regardless of what you do with it,” he said. 

While there is data to support the idea that these women presidents will be role models, Mandery said he does not expect any of them will implement reforms to significantly diversify the undergraduate student population or the faculty. There are what he considers to be simple things they can change. This would include eliminating practices such as preferences for legacies and the children of donors and faculty members. Also, he said, the institutions should expand capacity.

“They should make sure the lion’s share of the additional opportunity they create is available to students of all means,” Mandery said. “They should be transparent about the data of not just who they admit, but who applies to the school.

“I think schools should be equitable,” he continued. “They should provide opportunity to all with pathways that are equally available to all. … The potential is intrinsically there by virtue of the extraordinary means that these institutions have.”

Commodore said as these women move forward in their presidencies, she hopes to see meaningful institutional change, such as being thoughtful and reflective on critiques the schools received about diversity, equity and inclusion, and bringing about cultural shifts. Their connections to Ivy institutions — either as students, faculty or administrators — are advantageous.

“It is limiting to assume that because of these candidates’ past backgrounds with the institutions or [because they] are from within that culture, that they can’t shift the culture if it needs to be shifted,” Commodore said. “We’ve seen how insularity can go wrong, but the other side of that is who better to understand what needs to be changed than people who understand the culture. 

“The other thing is we lay a lot of things at the feet of the president — the successes and the failures,” she said. “The reality is that leadership at an institution is a team of people. … What we really want to see is will the board support the president in whatever her vision is for the institution and will the president be able to have a cabinet that can work as a team to set some goals and priorities for the institution that would ensure that they are executing their mission.”

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