Three women started new terms as presidents at Ivy League universities in July. Their appointments mean that six of the eight highly selective schools are led by a female president.
Sian Beilock is now the first female president at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Nemat Shafik, who was born in Egypt, is the first female president at Columbia University in New York City. And Claudine Gay is the first Black person and the second woman to lead Harvard University.
They joined Christina Paxson at Brown University in Rhode Island, Martha Pollack at Cornell University in New York, and Elizabeth Magill at the University of Pennsylvania.
The two Ivies with male presidents are Princeton University in New Jersey and Yale University in Connecticut.
Are the numbers similar anywhere else?
While women lead six out of eight Ivy League schools, the story is far different at other American colleges and universities.
Only about 32 percent of college or university presidents are women. That number comes from the American Council on Education (ACE).
The organization says in its 2023 report that the data is important because of the makeup of college students in the United States.
Today, there are more women in colleges – about 60 percent of all students – and more minorities. But about 70 percent of college presidents are white, and 46 percent are white men. Only 10 percent are women of color. And most college presidents are about 60 years old.
Hiro Okahana led the research team for ACE’s report. He called the news of the three new Ivy League presidents “a very exciting thing to see,” but he also called it “an anomaly.” An anomaly is a piece of information different from the expected result in a study.
Choosing women and minorities, he said, “sends a good message” to colleges and universities. But he did have one concern:
“It is important that they are bringing into a place where they are set up for success, and being able to thrive as leaders. So we will continue to see how their presidencies will shape up to be and lead these institutions toward the future.”
ACE’s study showed that some women who became university presidents felt they did not get enough information about the university’s health before they took the job.
Felecia Commodore teaches higher education at Old Dominion University in Virginia. She wrote about the Ivy League presidents for The Conversation. Commodore suggests the news is important, but it would be a bigger story if large public universities in the U.S. had more female or Black presidents.
Of note, large universities such as Ohio State, Penn State and Texas A&M recently appointed female presidents.
Do students care about their presidents?
Carolyn Pippen is a college advisor for IvyWise, a company that helps students prepare for college. She said students have so many things to consider -- study programs, housing, and post-graduation -- they don’t often think about the president. She gave Harvard as an example.
“I don't think there are any students that are worried that Harvard is going to be anything other than a fantastic experience and certainly going to set them up for success.”
Some students, though, see women taking leadership positions at colleges as “wonderful.” That is what Ava Ayala said. She will start her second year at Colorado State University this autumn.
“I think that having more women in these roles really opens up pathways to allow other people, maybe of different race or gender, to step into those roles next.”
Colorado State appointed a female president in 2023.
Okahana, the research leader, said colleges and universities should work to widen their search for future presidents.
If they are looking for leaders who better reflect their student population, they should consider business leaders, medical experts, and others. “We know there are many different pathways … to rise up to the college presidency,” he said.
Sometimes, that can include people who were international students.
Okahana is from Japan, and he went to college at a large university in California. He said seeing and talking with the school’s president made him think about working in higher education.
And his report showed nearly 10 percent of American college presidents were not born in the U.S.
“So,” he said, “there are some readers and listeners of this piece who might lead an institution in the United States one day.”
I’m Dan Friedell. And I'm Jill Robbins.
Dan Friedell wrote this story for Learning English with contributions from Andrew Smith.
Words in This Story
appoint –v. to name someone to a leadership position or a job
selective –adj. careful to only choose the best people or things
thrive –v. to grow or exist in a healthy way
institution –n. a school, university or a place where people are taken care of
graduation –n. the act of receiving a degree from a school or university
fantastic –adj. out of the ordinary, exciting
role –n. the part, job or position someone has in a society or other group
allow –v. to permit something
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