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Future Shock

Women Higher Ed Power Hitters

These leaders are breaking through the glass ceiling in the ivory tower of academia.
University Business, Sep 2005

At first, it was almost imperceptible, that gut feeling that something had changed in the rarefied atmosphere of higher ed leadership circles. Indeed, as we travel across the nation speaking about our new book, Presidential Transition in Higher Education, we more frequently encounter women CEOs as the designated hitters in their public higher education systems.

Make no mistake about it: The glass ceiling in the ivory tower of public higher ed systems is still as ominous as in the corporate boardrooms of America. That said, we increasingly sense a change, albeit glacial, in the presence, prominence, and proliferation of women public college and university CEOs.

Paradoxical though it may seem, the American Council on Education ( has reported that the number of women in these positions more than doubled in the past decade--although some believe that the rate of growth has plateaued. What this megatrend means, in our experience, is an increase from one out of 10 to one out of four CEO slots going to a female candidate. Add to the presidential gene pool the reservoir of talented chancellors, provosts, deans, and department chairs, and one quickly realizes that the CEO ratios and rules of engagement have changed on many of our public campuses.

Intrigued by the quantitative trendline and fascinated by the cultural shift, we longitudinally tracked the professional paths of several female college and university CEO colleagues. Their stories, which may seem anecdotal, nevertheless provide what we believe are fairly representative profiles of contemporary women higher ed power hitters.

Take Piedad Robertson, recently elected president and CEO of the influential Education Commission of the States in Denver. A comrade and later adversary of Fidel Castro in the Cuban Revolution, Robertson rose through the ranks, both political and collegial, first to senior vice president of one of the fastest-growing community colleges in the nation, Miami Dade College, then to the presidency of Boston's Bunker Hill Community College, and impressively next on to become the first secretary of education of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Thereafter, she went on to serve as president and CEO of Santa Monica College (Calif.) and as a high-ranking member of the California governor's higher ed kitchen cabinet.

At one moment, Robertson could be hosting the president of the Getty Foundation--and, of course, Governor and Mrs. Schwarzenegger--and the next moment throwing down Jack Daniels with former Gov. Bill Weld and the boys in the national Republican Party leadership--a fairly amazing story given that she was once heralded as the next great Democratic comer in Florida state politics.

Then there is Jo Ann Gora, president of Ball State University (Ind.). Insiders know that Gora's gracious manner provides an elegant veneer for a tough, single-minded will and conviction to press an agenda for change and excellence. As Boston Business Journal editorial writers, we best remember Gora as the "moxie" of Massachusetts public higher education.

Ask former co-workers at Old Dominion University (Va.) and the University of Massachusetts, Boston: Even Gora's detractors admit she's energetic, creative, and decisive--with a fast-forward, "pedal to the metal" style that can take would-be adversaries by surprise.

On deck is Vicky Carwein, president of Westfield State College (Mass.). It's 6 a.m., and Carwein is already planning the college's next strategic market-positioning moves. As the 18th president, Carwein became the first female CEO of Westfield State. Previously serving as chancellor of Washington State University, Tacoma, for eight years, Carwein had already achieved national recognition as a prominent nursing and health science leader.

Carwein has caught the attention of Beacon Hill higher ed leaders like state Senate Higher Education Taskforce Chairman Stephen Panagiotakos. "President Carwein brings the kind of creative vision that can make Massachusetts state colleges the envy of the nation," Panagiotakos observes. Her yen for institutional partnering represents the wave of the future, transforming competitors into collaborators. If truth be told, Carwein is equally comfortable in sophisticated higher ed power circles, or on her own, target shooting in the high desert, and pursuing such eclectic fields as contemporary war history--go figure!

Next up to bat, Cheryl Norton stands out as not only the first woman president of Southern Connecticut State University in its 111-year history, but the only woman higher ed CEO we have met with a black belt in tae kwon do. With impressive credentials and achievement in the fields of physiology, kinesiology, and physical education, Norton spent most of her 25-year career at Metropolitan State College (Colo.).

Yet, for all her success, Norton retains a practical, down-to-earth quality, communicating easily with all kinds of constituents. One second she'll be hosting Connecticut's executive and legislative leadership at the ribbon cutting of a new campus facility, and the next moment she'll be overseeing new construction in a hard hat. For her, it's not just an extreme makeover of campus infrastructure; it's a renaissance and celebration of economic and workforce growth and renewal in Southern Connecticut.

If you think that daunting lineup of leaders was tough, last up to bat is University of Nevada, Las Vegas President Carol Harter, a veteran higher ed leader in Nevada, where what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

A native New Yorker, Harter arrived at the school after serving six years as president of SUNY-Geneseo and nearly two decades at Ohio University as a faculty member, dean, and vice president. Harter entered UNLV with a vision of transforming the institution into a premier metropolitan research university.

In a state known for its adult entertainment and cowboy culture, Harter has survived--and created a legacy of an engaged research university well beyond the contributions of her predecessors. Yet, some would say this progress came at a high cost--Harter's assertive style and strong commitment to change has sometimes led to criticism both on and off campus.

Still, few will dispute Harter's tenacity, vigilance, and persistence. Under her leadership, enrollment, fundraising, and research grants have all increased significantly. Nearly 40 new graduate and professional programs have been added, along with several new campus buildings. She has even overcome the baggage she inherited with UNLV's unfortunate athletics problems, and, as she has said, "built a university the basketball team could be proud of."

What really joins these several remarkable higher education leaders is a steel magnolia will and conviction to advance their institution's agenda and achieve national recognition, ranking, and distinction.

Sadly, Larry Summers' embarrassing missteps at Harvard early this year tell us that higher ed has a long road to hoe before aspiring women leaders are really empowered to lead. Summers and his minions had better think twice before they launch their next fastball to this lineup of women higher ed power hitters.

James Martin is a professor at Mount Ida College (Mass.). James E. Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance. Their book is Presidential Transition in Higher Education: Managing Leadership Change (Johns Hopkins University Press).

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