Drew Gilpin Faust
Matt Rourke  /  AP
After former President Lawrence Summers created an uproar by saying that natural ability may partly explain why fewer women achieve top-tier science jobs, Drew Gilpin Faust became his point person overseeing two committees on gender issues.
updated 2/9/2007 6:33:05 PM ET 2007-02-09T23:33:05

In its 371-year history, Harvard University has been led by Puritans and patriots, by clergymen and congressmen.

But so far, the country’s oldest and wealthiest university has never been led by a woman.

That seems likely to change, in what would be a landmark for women in academia. Harvard’s board of overseers will meet Sunday to formally choose the university’s 28th president.

The university won’t say who it will be, but a source familiar with the decision, speaking on condition of anonymity because the announcement has not been made public, confirmed historian Drew Gilpin Faust has been told her name will be put forward.

Harvard behind the curve
Harvard is hardly on the cutting edge. Already, three of its fellow Ivy League schools have female presidents. MIT, the University of Michigan and England’s University of Cambridge also are led by women.

But Harvard remains the ultimate establishment bastion — a launching pad for leading jobs in government, business and entertainment — and it has historically been dominated by men.

It’s also been the scene of well-publicized debates lately about women in higher education, prompted by comments by Lawrence Summers, the previous president, that natural ability may partly explain why fewer women reach top-tier science jobs.

Those factors make Harvard more than just another school to name its first woman president. And Faust’s appointment, if confirmed by Harvard’s overseers, will inevitably prompt reflection across higher education about the state of the glass ceiling.

“It’s a little like having a woman president of the United States,” said Carol Christ, president of Smith College, a prominent women’s college in western Massachusetts. “It’s a very public symbol of the progress women have made in being seen as equal candidates for the highest leadership positions.”

Faust, the dean of Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, was Summers’ point person overseeing two committees on gender issues formed in response to the uproar of his remarks. In the end, those comments may have helped paved the way for Harvard’s first woman president.

From a $17 million budget to $3 billion
Faust repeatedly said “no comment” in response to reporters’ shouted questions as she left a board meeting Friday at her alma mater, Bryn Mawr College.

Moving to the top post at Harvard represents a substantial jump from her current day job. At Radcliffe, she has overseen what is essentially a think tank with 87 employees and a budget of about $17 million. As president of Harvard, she would oversee 11 schools and colleges with 24,000 employees and a budget of $3 billion — not to mention an endowment worth 10 times that much.

“She will need to scale up, and she’s shown all the qualities that suggest she’ll do that superbly,” said Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, where Faust was previously a history professor. “I think she’s an absolutely outstanding choice. It’s a challenging job that needs a leader with a vision who can also get people to follow her, and I think she’s that kind of leader.”

The news, first reported Friday by The Harvard Crimson, fits into a trend: Male dominance of college presidencies is eroding.

But the picture is complicated.

A new survey by the American Council on Education shows the percentage of women college presidents increased from 9.5 percent in 1986 to 23.0 percent in 2006. That’s a far higher percentage than corporate America. Of the Fortune 500 companies, just 10 — or 2 percent — are led by women, according to the most recent figures.

In some ways, the gap in academia isn’t a surprise. It takes a decades-long academic career to be in the running for a university presidency, and women have only recently approached parity with men in earning doctorates. The pool coming of presidential age now is still heavily tilted toward men.

Summers’ comment sparked national debate
But parity isn’t coming as fast as expected. Only about one-quarter of new presidents are women. And the rates are much higher at community colleges than at the more prestigious doctorate-granting universities, where the figure is only about 14 percent.

Women still “leak” from the pipeline along the way. They earn nearly 60 percent of undergraduate degrees but only around half of doctorates. Those who earn doctorates are less likely than men to apply for tenure-track jobs.

The proportion of tenured women faculty is rising, but at doctoral universities, where the standards for tenure are highest, it’s only about 25 percent.

Summers’ comments provoked a national debate about why that’s happening. But it seems clear that the structure of academic careers, which often require the hardest work during childbearing years, plays a role.

“Women, whether it’s caring for their children or their elderly parents, these commitments prohibit them from engaging in the traditional career patterns,” said Michele Wetherald, executive director of the American Association of University Women.

The challenges are clear in the stats on those who do make it to the top.

While 91 percent of male college presidents have children, just 68 percent of women do, the American Council on Education found. Almost nine in 10 male presidents are married, compared with just six in 10 women presidents.

College boards ‘won’t appreciate a woman’
There may be further barriers to women aspiring to presidencies. Presidents are more commonly picked from fields such as science, business and law, where men especially dominate the pool.

And while being a woman has undoubtedly given some individual candidates a boost, there may still be reluctance to hire a woman for the very top job. The attitude of college boards is “we know our donors, and our donors won’t appreciate a woman; they want a man,” Wetherald said.

A number of universities have launched initiatives to improve conditions for women faculty and put more into the leadership pipeline. But Wetherald says universities are still hemorrhaging too much talent along the way.

“You would think higher ed would have led the curve, but our research has always indicated it kind of trails,” she said. “We don’t know, but we think the institutions are more ingrained in higher education than in corporate America.”

Few institutions are more ingrained than Harvard. The historian Samuel Eliot Morison once determined that, in all of North America, there is no list of holders of a single office that dates back longer than the roster of Harvard presidents.

Soon, it appears, that roster will have its first woman.

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