What Happens When Women Run Colleges?

Fenster writes:

“What happens when women run colleges?”  Could be just a provocative question.  Could be the opening line leading to a challenging set of discussions.  Could be a joke awaiting a punch line.

It is in fact the title of an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (link here to paywalled article, excerpts to follow).  The Chronicle is higher education’s most important and influential journal and, as such, the topic is covered in a fashion that reveals the culture and concerns of the higher education world.

But before diving into the article: a brief digression on some of higher education’s peculiarities, with a genuflect to the gender concerns that are prevalent in that world.

Higher education has certain oddities by its nature.  If it has, as it fancies itself to have, an academic orientation at its cultural core then one would expect that scholarly and impartial bent to inform how it communicates about itself.  But what would that mean for a publication like the Chronicle?  Is the Chronicle bound to evidence a commitment to academic rigor given the unique nature of higher education?  Or is it a trade journal like Automotive Design and Production or Candy Industry? Surely it aspires to be something more than an industry rag.

And even if it opts to avoid too much of a trade orientation how does it balance its alleged mission core with the ebullient cultural forms that are characteristic of the modern academy?  Are mission and culture in sync or are they in tension?  What can we glean about the culture of higher education–even about its non-scholarly values–from its communications about itself?

We should stipulate at the outset that gender is a big deal in the academy, a central pillar in the diversity trinity of race, ethnicity and gender.  No big surprise there.

To be aware of gender is a necessary and useful thing.  To be preoccupied with it as a central focus has long struck me as unserious at worst and out of balance at best.

But that’s what you might expect a man to say.  And, to be fair, as I have come to acknowledge the likely gendered basis of my default skepticism I have been caused to reflect on how gender really does lurk and loom in places where I thought it not especially germane.  And so while I continue to believe that one can take gender polarities too far I have now a healthy regard for how the sexes, if such things still exist, may differ in ways that have significant institutional, political or cultural salience.

For example consider this old saw: the Democrats are the Mommy Party and the Republicans are the Daddy Party.  There’s some wisdom in that, especially if the sentiment is delivered by the correct messenger and for the right reasons.

And consider public affairs more deeply.  The impulses that give rise to public service are many and in tension with one another: equity, efficiency, fairness, integrity, compassion, duty, obligation and others.  A whole literature exists that probes these impulses.

A gendered view is not wholly inappropriate in any such analysis.  It has been argued that the impulse to serve in the West arises from two main sources: Athens and Jerusalem.  That division, made famous by Leo Strauss, is based on the tension between reason and revelation.  But that plays out in different ways in each tradition.  From Athens we derive concepts like duty, virtue and civic obligation.  From Jerusalem we derive concepts like compassion and charity.  Athens, in a crude gendered sense, is the Daddy Impulse. Jerusalem is the Mommy Impulse.

It tells you something about the drift of the overall culture since at least the late 1960s that within public affairs the Jerusalem side has been dominant and the Athens side recessive.  Nowadays in public affairs we seem to hear more about caring than duty; more about compassion than virtue.  Where are the inherently complex values that call for balance, such as prudence or wisdom?  What do those things even mean anymore?

And if the broad field of public affairs has been pushed in a Mommy direction over the past decades higher education has gone much further.  It is not uncommon to see a prevalence of Mommy values in undergradute curriculum . . . .

A controversial effort to force students to take a diversity course to graduate has passed an important hurdle, as UCLA faculty voted to approve the mandate in a hotly contested vote.

in the training of higher education administrators. . .

UC Riverside’s Diversity and Equity master’s program is excellent preparation for those who seek to support youth of diverse backgrounds in a variety of public and private setting.

or in the hiring of new faculty.

Faculty job postings are increasingly asking for diversity statements, in addition to research and teaching statements.

So in considering the question at hand–what happens when women run colleges?–we must start with a recognition of the role gender has played in the professions overall, and in higher education in particular.  Higher Education is more a Mommy field than a Daddy one.  Indeed it is probably the Mommiest of all of our major institutions.

What are the implications of that for the question of female leadership?  More is better since more is in keeping with the gist of the place?  Or maybe less is better because the institution is itself out of whack?  Or maybe neither of the above and just pay more attention for the right person for the challenges of any given job?

So let’s see how the article’s author, Lee Gardner (he/him), analyzes the question.

He starts, wisely enough, with the facts.

Although academe has a progressive reputation and in the past couple of decades has seen more women assume leadership roles, they’re still in the clear minority at the top. Only 30 percent of all college presidents are women . . . Recent surveys show women are better represented in the C-suite than in the presidency, but still make up fewer than half the chief academic officers and an even lower proportion of deans.

For the record neither of the links provided present the data he mentions on non-presidental C-suite gender breakouts but let’s stipulate he is correct and that “fewer than half” chief academic officers are female.  However you interpret that, it is shy of 50/50.

But does it matter in terms of job performance or approach?  Some female leaders are quoted to the effect that females and males approach their jobs in the same way.  I suppose that if there is feminism in this answer it is of the “equity feminist” school–everybody is about the same and everybody needs to get the same shot.

However, there’s also “difference feminism” to contend with.

But studies suggest that, while the differences are typically subtle and, of course, not universal, women do tend to have leadership styles with some common characteristics.

Research shows that men tend to be more autocratic, says Alice H. Eagly, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University who studies gender and leadership, while women tend to be more democratic, involving other people in decision-making. Women more often than men favor a style of leadership that builds trust with and empowers subordinates. Women in the workplace at all levels tend to display more communal, less self-centered behavior than men — especially when working with other women.

So vive la diffèrence, maybe.

When Mary B. Marcy, president of Dominican University of California, invites people into her office, they usually sit at a round table. Her choice of furniture is deliberate. A round table has no head — everyone enjoys equal status.

She does sometimes sit behind her desk, she notes, consciously taking a more traditional position of authority. But for the most part, like many women leaders, she prefers an “integrated, collaborative approach.”

OK, you don’t have to be a thoroughgoing difference feminist to believe in gender differences so I am willing to go with the author this far.  Lee Jussim, a researcher often criticized for being on the reprobate side, writes that stereotypes are not universally inaccurate but are often grounded in reality.  I expect that that is the case here, and that women presidents may on balance opt for the round table and what it signifies more readily than their male counterparts.

Add to that that the archetypal institution of higher education is a matrix organization on steroids (estrogen most likely), and therefore more maze than matrix.  Perhaps women are well suited to leadership of an institutional form that does not cotton to the imposition of top-down authority.

That said, what an institution wants and what it needs can be two different things.  And so we are back at the Mommy-Daddy conflict.  From one of many articles asserting that women prefer male bosses:

The research found while women are good at dealing with employees’ personal issues within the office environment most felt men were better at ‘steering the ship’.

‘Men were also revealed to be better at having an overall vision of the direction the business was going to take over the long-term,’ the spokesman claimed.

‘But women were better at dealing with those slightly uncomfortable issues that pop up from time to time because they were felt to be better listeners than men.

Keeping morale high as a first priority while sailing toward an iceberg arguably has more minuses than pluses.  But is higher education in iceberg infested waters?  Seems likely to me. If treating the campus community as family means erring on the side of caring for all of its many close constituencies–faculty, staff and students most especially–do hard questions get stuck on the back burner?

So female leadership may present adaptive challenges relative to the Darwinian niche even if it is functional on the inside and well-suited to higher education’s need for cat herding skills in management.

I am not arguing here that I am right in this view–though I admit that I find the nuanced Darwinian view more persuasive than the feel-good one.  But it says something about the default values assumptions of the author, the journal and the field that a discussion of the point is allowed to proceed without any grit being allowed in the gears.

And that’s just on the question of process!  Having argued that female leadership is different on process, and different in a good way,  Gardner turns his attention to content.

Process is not the only thing that may shift under predominantly female leadership — so may the culture and what gets on the agenda.

Two things are noteworthy about how Gardner treats the agenda side of things.

First, his commentary is all about . . . females!

Last year, Dominican was looking for a new space for faculty, staff, and potentially students who were breastfeeding and needed a quiet place to pump.

. . .  and . . .

As the #MeToo movement became a topic of conversation nationally, (the president) identified herself at several campus meetings as a survivor of sexual assault “in a way that was intended to make the environment more comfortable for survivors of any gender to speak up.”

. . .  and . . .

Female leadership can help make a stronger connection with other women on campus. (One) president says that (a) female student confided that her brother is an addict, another that she was being stalked by a former boyfriend.

. . . and . . .

Beyond the ways in which a campus with more female leadership may create a more empathetic environment lies the possibility of a campus where women’s distinct concerns get the proper attention as a matter of course.

. . .  and .  . .

At the height of #MeToo, (the female leaders) were concerned that, despite the female quorum among senior administrators, they had perhaps not been proactive enough in taking the temperature of the campus climate for women.

Women . . . good for women.  Who knew?

Again, nothing necessarily wrong with that.  With women comprising 58% of undergraduate enrollment there are sound reasons to keep customers satisfied.  But there are those icebergs to worry about, too.  To say nothing of the other 42%.

The second noteworthy aspect of Gardner’s treatment of the effect of female leadership on the agenda is less subtle than the above but in some ways more important.  Note that none of the items mentioned above have any relationship to the academic program, allegedly the vital center of institutional mission.

Before listing the many instances of addressing women’s needs Gardner remarks more generally that

of course, female leaders are just as concerned as male ones with questions like student success, resources, and other pressing concerns.

It seems quite remarkable that even in casting this wide net the language he uses only hints at academics and scholarship in the gentlest possible way.

In the end I find the article more valuable as an artifact than as the literal guide to the future it purports to be.

Now, even an artifact–archeological, anthropological, or present day journal article–can be helpful in setting a new and better direction for the one interpreting it.  But it cannot always be taken at face value.  The value may lie underneath.


One of the links Gardner provides in support of his argument leads you to this academic article.  I will cut to the chase and pass along the article’s conclusion.

Where we did find differences between the pathways taken by women and men, they can be characterized as follows: women deans were less likely than men to have aspired to an academic leadership position. They were more likely than men to have been recruited rather than to have volunteered. And they indicated less interest in ascending to the presidency than did men. Women deans seem also to be more place-bound, or at least less likely to consider relocating for their career advancement.

Got that?  Women aspire less.  They are less ready to jump in and more likely to be asked to apply.  They are less interested in the top position.  And they are less willing to relocate.  That might tell you something about pipelines.

Or it could, if you were of a different frame of mind, lead to the conclusion favored by the article’s author:

These findings reinforce the importance of mentorship and sponsorship for both identifying and supporting women who will assume leadership roles in the academy.

The glass is half empty.  Keep pumping!






About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
This entry was posted in Education, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What Happens When Women Run Colleges?

  1. bluecat57 says:

    Must resist snappy answer to stupid question. H/t Mad Magazine


  2. Edward Valeau says:

    I would like to hear his views on the role of racial and ethnic minorities in positions of the Presidency and does his explanation apply to women of color?
    Ed Valeau


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