Date: 
Thursday, April 2, 2009

It is a great honor to join you tonight to speak about women scientists as academic leaders.

I am especially pleased that we at The University of Iowa now share a distinct honor with Bryn Mawr related to one of the great young women in America today—Lisa Simpson. Several years ago, in an episode of The Simpsons, George Plimpton asked Lisa to throw a spelling bee in exchange for a free scholarship to any Seven Sisters college (and a hotplate). Lisa dreams of the personified “Seven Sisters” trying to lure her to their campuses, including Bryn Mawr. Well, just this past January, Lisa was working on her novel about the woman-centric fantasy land of Equalia with her new best friend Juliet, and they compare the quality of their authorship to the world-famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop at The University of Iowa. Being a reference on The Simpsons is a sure sign of cultural cachet, so I’m glad that Iowa has finally caught up with Bryn Mawr.

Well, clearly, many more prominent women are associated with Bryn Mawr than even Lisa Simpson. So it is also an honor to talk with you about women in Presidential leadership at an institution that has produced two of the most historic female University Presidents of all. Not only did we celebrate your alumna Drew Gilpin Faust in recent years as the first woman President of Harvard University, but Bryn Mawr boasts the first woman President of a major research university period—Hanna Holborn Gray, who served as President of The University of Chicago from 1978 to 1993. And prior to that, she served a fourteen-month stint as Acting President of Yale University.

I am not surprised at the relationship between Bryn Mawr and leadership in higher education. I know that a “Bryn Mawr woman” exhibits a special mix of characteristics:
an intense intellectual commitment, a purposeful vision of her life, and a desire to make a meaningful contribution to the world. Those are certainly the characteristics needed of a University President. And, although I did not attend Bryn Mawr, I know firsthand how those characteristics are important to those who sit as Presidents of major universities. So let me start with a little background on how I ended up in my current job. When I was asked to provide a title for my talk this evening, I couldn’t help but include the words “Unexpected Paths” because, indeed, that is exactly how I arrived at Iowa.

What I’m about to share with you is not at all unusual. Susan R. Madsen published an article entitled “Women University Presidents: Career Paths and Educational Backgrounds” in the journal Academic Leadership in 2007. She demonstrates that what she calls “informal” or “nonlinear” paths to the Presidency—while not universal—are actually very common for women.
Madsen both looks at both previous research and interviews ten current U.S. female Presidents. None in her sample “had an official career path to become a university president. One claimed, ‘I did not plan to go into administration. It just happened.’”
If Madsen were to interview me today, I would have to say exactly the same thing.

One of Madsen’s conclusions is that “successful women leaders did not intentionally look for leadership positions, but instead worked hard in their current jobs and performed to the best of their abilities.” One further conclusion might be that they were rewarded for their good work with administrative jobs carrying enormous responsibility. (Or is that really a reward?) Madsen mentions hard work, and that certainly characterizes an early value that my parents instilled in me, particularly when it came to learning, but generally applicable to every task I chose to undertake. Their advice was “always give it your best effort (or don’t bother doing it), and don’t leave a job half or partially done.”

I come from a family that strongly believed in the power and privilege of education, even though my parents were not able to pursue its higher levels. My mother barely finished high school before she entered the workforce. My father, an immigrant from Czechoslovakia, only finished the eighth grade. But the spirit of learning was fierce in them. Upon arriving in this country at age 12, my father spoke no English. And so they put him in kindergarten. He was mortified—but his solution was to read the dictionary and learn English on his own. Within a year, he was placed in the sixth grade. Although my parents’ educational attainment was limited, they passed their strong beliefs in learning and the importance of education on to their children. I was the only child in my family to go to college, but they supported me wholeheartedly, even when it was financially difficult.

As I said, my dream was never really to follow a path of leadership per se, or to become a university administrator, let alone a President. My dream was to be a scientist. And I developed this dream, like so many young people of my generation, because of Sputnik and the space race. In the late 1950s and throughout much of the 1960s, it was considered patriotic to pursue a career in the sciences, if for no other reason than to win the space race back from the Soviet Union. For a young woman in the 1960s and 1970s, however, science turned out to be an interesting and sometimes tough hill to climb.

Perhaps the key event of my undergraduate career happened right away during my freshman year at The University of Kentucky. My assigned advisor was the most senior and most distinguished member of the biology faculty. Early on, when he asked me what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, I expressed an interest in being a field biologist—just like him. He was clear that field biology was not for women, so if I wanted to be a biologist, I should consider working in a laboratory—and so I did. One young professor in particular—who, by the way, is an alum of The University of Iowa—invited me into his laboratory. He became a very important mentor to me and showed me what research in the biological sciences was all about. He showed me what being a faculty member was like and directed me toward graduate school. We ultimately published a paper together, and he even helped me gain some teaching experience as a freshman lab instructor during my junior and senior years. The experience, though, was more than a simple career-launcher. It sparked my passion for research, for education, and for the world of the university.

Graduate school was to be the key to my future. But my first experience in graduate school, at Purdue University in the early 1970s, was a lot like talking to my undergraduate advisor. The graduate advisor pulled all of us new women graduate students aside one at a time and told each of us that we were admitted only because we were women, not because we were necessarily good. This was the second time an advisor had suggested that just because I was a woman, I probably wouldn’t be any good at something. Many, in fact most, of my young woman colleagues at the time indeed gave up without finishing graduate school. However, although these disheartening—and frankly objectionable—statements from my professors got my attention, they didn’t discourage me. I had developed a dream, a passion for biology and research.

You may wonder, if I was so passionate about biology research, why am I a University President today? Well, it may be a little too extreme to say I was dragged kicking and screaming into higher education leadership, but I will say that my start was accidental—and very naïve. Put simply, early in my academic career as a faculty member—newly tenure--my dean at the University of Kansas fired our department chair. Then he volunteered me to serve as interim chair. Initially, I said, “No, thank you.” But, ultimately, my colleagues and my naiveté prevailed. Because the department desperately needed leadership, and because my colleagues all thought having me do it was a good idea, I agreed to become interim chair . . . reluctantly . . . for one year. I was persuaded that this could be a wonderful opportunity—to help our department grow in new and diverse ways with new hires, and to, very simply, get more resources. I did get more resources for the department, and we did indeed eventually hire a new department chair—but this ended up taking almost three years instead of one.

My next step up the leadership ladder was as associate dean in a very large College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. I was recruited by a brand new dean, whom I myself had helped recruit to the University. At first I resisted our new dean’s invitations to join his team. I said no initially because of what I had observed was happening to women who aspired to higher education leadership. In fact, I made these observations from having served on the search committee to find the new dean!

During this time—the 1980s—women professors were being aggressively recruited for leadership positions, and this was happening, quite frankly, in inappropriate ways. Many of these women faculty were only assistant professors or newly promoted associate professors and were not truly ready to take on significant administrative responsibilities. And removing them from their teaching and research would cut short their professional development as scholars—something valued above all else in the academy and something that the male candidates for these jobs had all achieved. So I said no to joining the dean’s office the first time I was asked, saying that I had research to complete, papers to write, and grants to be renewed. I did all this thanks to a sabbatical, which positioned me for promotion to full professor. Fortunately, the dean came back to me after my sabbatical and asked again if I would join his team. His offer clearly involved making real decisions about real resource allocations, and he sincerely wanted to build a leadership team.

I spent eleven great years in the dean’s office at The University of Kansas, eventually becoming the first woman Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences there. Before coming to Iowa, however, I also spent six years as the first woman Provost, the leader of academic affairs, at Purdue University—that place where I had been given such a hard time as a young graduate student many years previously. I am proud to have been the first woman Dean of Arts and Sciences at Kansas, and then the first woman Provost at Purdue. One of the many efforts I undertook while at Purdue was focused on diversity, and we accomplished a lot. I was determined to make Purdue a better place for all people, men and women from all walks of life. I saw that in order for the change I wanted to see to happen, action was necessary and persistence was essential. Even so, at the same time I was a successful Provost at Purdue, I was still often reminded of my status as a “woman Provost.” Sometimes I was as much “pioneer,” even “novelty,” as leader.

To tell you the truth, I am very, very happy not to be the—quote—First Woman President of The University of Iowa—unquote. Thanks to the success of President Mary Sue Coleman, the question of my being a female candidate never once entered the interview process at Iowa. This is progress! To some it may feel like slow progress, but it indicates that diversity is indeed taking hold, and our leadership aspirations in this area are becoming easier to realize.

Let me take a moment and outline some of the lessons of leadership that I had learned from these experiences as I took up the Presidency of The University of Iowa close to two years ago.

First, mentorship. You cannot become an excellent leader without support, inspiration, and examples—both good and not so good. Watch for them in your own experience, and benefit from their wisdom, as well as their mistakes.

Second, opportunity. Most of the time, opportunity is not planned. You need to be sensitive to situations that may lead you onto new paths.

Third, engagement and service. I was passionate about biological research.
But I saw that my colleagues, my institution, my profession, and my greater society were confronting issues that needed addressing. Sometimes, we all need to pitch in to make life better for everyone. Leaders do that as the foundation of their work in the world.

Fourth, courage. Becoming engaged in what you believe in often goes against the grain of the status quo. As I said earlier, when my first graduate advisor told us women we would never get anywhere, some of us invoked our courage to rise to that challenge.

Fifth, partnership and teamwork. The best leaders work together with other leaders—and the group as a whole. The best results come when everyone feels valued and makes real contributions. Bring smart people onto the team, turn them loose, and let them be full players.

At Iowa, my experience has both led me on a new unexpected path and amplified how important partnership and teamwork truly are. This past summer, the University faced perhaps its greatest challenge ever—a historic flood. The Iowa River flows right through our central campus, and it overflowed its banks in June to a degree never seen before. In fact, we were part of one of the 10 worst natural disasters recorded in U.S. history. I never intended my Presidency to involve massive flood recovery, but that unexpected path will no doubt define much of my tenure at Iowa and will be my legacy for this great University.

Nearly two dozen buildings were impacted by floodwaters, including our student union, a high-technology laboratory building, several liberal arts buildings, our main library, and our entire arts campus, including Hancher Auditorium, our performing arts center. We filled over one million sandbags on our campus. Our updated damage estimates put full recovery at $740 million.

We could not have survived the Flood of 2008 without the remarkable response of our community, as well as partnership and teamwork. Literally thousands of people came out to sandbag, to move things to safer quarters, to provide aid and comfort, to do whatever they could.

So what’s a University President to do? There are a lot of things you can do in preparation from becoming a University President. Anticipating natural disasters—especially the worst disaster in the history of an institution—is tough to imagine let alone plan for, so you resort to on-the-job training!

As the University leader, my most important task was to assure our community that we were doing all we could to protect our campus. Equally important was letting the right people do the right jobs. For example, our Facilities Management team had the expertise to lead sandbagging and building protection—so I knew to let them coordinate. At the same time, I had to try to anticipate the unexpected, such as when outside help would be beneficial. So when Iowa Governor Chet Culver called with the offer of sending us the National Guard, I said, “Yes, please; and thank you.”

As an academic institution, we had to answer dozens of other questions—about summer classes, about summer graduation, about summer activities on campus, about displaced faculty and programs, and about how we would manage the opening of the fall semester. My major partners in these academic areas were Lola Lopes, our Interim Executive Vice President and Provost, and her team. In the end, it’s hard to believe that we successfully opened our fall semester on time with enough of our infrastructure restored to offer all the classes we promised to all the students who wanted to come to Iowa—and with an all-time record enrollment.

Our recovery will take years to complete. But we will come out stronger, as a University community and as a physical campus. As our recovery process continues, we realize all our decisions are interrelated—what to do about building repair and flood mitigation has a lot to do with academic decisions, for example. As well, Iowa City, surrounding communities, the state, and even the federal government are implicated in how we proceed. So the teamwork we practiced last summer must continue. I have appointed an internal campus task force to advise the administration on our flood recovery, including experts on flooding and hydraulics in our own backyard from the UI’s globally recognized Hydroscience and Engineering program. We also continue to work with external flood mitigation experts; our city, state, and federal officials; the Iowa Department of Natural Resources; Iowa Homeland Security; FEMA; and the Army Corps of Engineers.

We are now on the verge of major decisions about replacing or restoring our significantly damaged arts complex. Those will be the biggest decisions we need to make in our flood recovery, in terms of the money involved, the way to protect our campus from future flooding, the physical face of the University, and the academic future of some of our most prominent programs. We must tear down some of our buildings—icons on our campus—and build them anew out of harm’s way.

The Flood of 2008 was perhaps our darkest hour, but it has also been, in many ways, our finest hour. That happened in part because I could identify the best people, organize them, and then make decisions based on their advice. But mostly I got out of the way to let talented people do their jobs.

Let me finish my remarks tonight with some more general thoughts about women and women scientists as higher education leaders.

As you know, “Bryn Mawr” is Welsh for “big hill.” I suggested that, early in my career, my women colleagues and I had big hills to climb. Bryn Mawr College is full of women who are not daunted by those big hills, and the world of the university presidency is, too. A couple more examples beyond President Faust at Harvard: A female neuroscientist, Susan Hockfield, has been President of—of all places—MIT for five years. Shirley Tilghman, who has visited you recently in this series, is a molecular biologist who has been President of Princeton University since 2001. And Mary Sue Coleman, a biochemist, has been President of The University of Michigan since 2002. With just these examples, we see women Presidents at perhaps the most technically oriented major university in the country, one of the best private universities in the country, and one of the most elite public universities. That’s doing pretty well, if you ask me.

So we’re certainly making a lot of progress—but it could be faster. The hills are sometimes getting smaller, but there are plenty still there. The most recent and most comprehensive study of women as higher education leaders is the study of college Presidents released by the American Council on Education in 2007. According to that report, in 2006, 23% of college Presidents were female. Twenty years earlier, it was 9%. The study shows progress, but that’s awfully slow progress. A hopeful sign revealed by the study is an impending demographic shift. In 2006, almost half of college Presidents were over 60, compared with 14% in 1986. So there should be a wave of retirements in the coming years.

We don’t have comprehensive data like the ACE study for this very moment, but we can look at a couple of groupings. The AAU—or Association of American Universities—is an association of 62 top research universities, including The University of Iowa. Today, about 25% of the AAU universities have women leading them as Presidents or Chancellors. So that’s in the neighborhood of the 2007 ACE study.

I’m very pleased to report, though, that in my most immediate peer group, the Big Ten, five of the eleven institutional leaders are women. (Yes, there are eleven universities in the Big Ten.) The first female President of a Big Ten university is a name you might know—Donna Shalala, who was Chancellor of The University of Wisconsin-Madison from 1988-1993. (She now serves as President of The University of Miami and was the Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Clinton Administration.) Mary Sue Coleman was the second woman President in the Big Ten, at The University of Iowa, and, as I mentioned earlier, she now is President of The University of Michigan. While Iowa wasn’t the first to boast of a woman President in the Big Ten, we were the first to hire a second woman when they hired me. Wisconsin (not to be outdone) has recently hired Biddy Martin as their second female Chancellor, but it took them fifteen years to do so as opposed to Iowa’s five. In all, seven of the eleven Big Ten universities—among the largest and most prominent in the country—have had a woman President, at least at one time. Very few major research universities, public or private, have at this juncture had more than one woman President—Iowa and Wisconsin are exceptions.

Let me finish up with some specific comments on women scientists as Presidents, the thrust of your series, and then a few thoughts on women biologists in particular.

First, a couple more numbers for context: Going back to the AAU, nine of the 16 women Presidents are in the sciences. Of those nine, five are in the biological sciences. In the Big Ten, three of the five women Presidents are in the sciences, and two are in the biological sciences, me included. So if these numbers are at least somewhat representative, I think we can safely conclude that, among research universities, over half of the female Presidents are in the sciences, and biology is very well-represented within that group—and in the AAU and Big Ten, anyway, about half again.

So what is it about biologists that may lead us to higher education Presidencies? While there is no research or empirical evidence to my knowledge, I can draw on my personal experience once again and offer some informed hypotheses.

First, historically, being a woman in the sciences, at least as my early history indicated, is no small challenge. Women, unfortunately, have always had a lot to prove in the world of academics. But in a lot of ways, women have had even more to prove in the historically male-dominated sciences. We’ve had to develop a combination of special drive and thick skin on our way to success. As I suggested earlier, most of us have all been “Bryn Mawr” women in spirit if not in fact, with our intense intellectual commitment and purposeful vision of life fueling our desire to make a meaningful contribution to the world. I mentioned earlier that my parents instilled the value of education in me. If they were still with us, they would probably also say my success came about through sheer stubbornness. Let’s just say that I prefer to see it as persistence and hard work. Those qualities have always been necessary for academic success, but they have been especially crucial for women in the sciences and in higher education leadership.

Second, I think there are a couple of characteristics of the biological sciences that prepare us well for higher education leadership. Whether our specialties involve genetics or molecular biology, organismal or evolutionary biology, or perhaps larger entities like ecosystems, biologists are trained to think in systems and to solve problems analytically. It is in our nature to see the ways in which the parts fit with the whole—and that is exactly the job of the university or college President.

For better or worse, women made their way into the life sciences more rapidly than into the other sciences, so there are more of us now who have the experience and background to lead a university. If you need more evidence of this, check out how many women are admitted to medical school each year now, or veterinary schools, and see how dramatically the numbers have changed over the past four decades.

Finally, I think the placement of the biological sciences in the academy is fortuitous for institutional leadership training. Biology is part of the liberal arts and sciences. From day one as faculty members, we are not only interacting with our scientific colleagues, but also those in languages and literatures, the social sciences, and the arts. I’m not saying that leaders from other disciplines do not interact with other disciplines, but doing so is part of the “faculty DNA” of biologists, if you will. We come to the Presidency with a strong understanding of the breadth of fields that make up the academy. Perhaps we have a special sense of what makes faculty in other disciplines tick, and we certainly have plenty of experience seeing how all the disciplines integrate into that marvelous thing we call a college or university.

I said before that I had developed a passion for science. Passion is certainly a requirement for success in any academic field, and most definitely necessary for women in the sciences. But it is also a final lesson of leadership. Good leadership comes about not just through a sense of duty and obligation. It happens when people cannot imagine doing much else. I have cultivated a new passion in life—the well-being of The University of Iowa. And in pursuing that passion for cultivating excellence in higher education, nothing thrills me more than seeing students at The University of Iowa—and students everywhere—succeed and contribute great things to our world. I know that spirit of commitment and leadership is alive and well here at Bryn Mawr, too, and I have the same great confidence in you.

It has been an amazing journey for me. And a lot of amazing things are in store for you. I wish you the best on your paths, wherever they may lead you. Thank you so much for inviting me to share my thoughts and experiences with you tonight.

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