On Monday, three women will create history in the Rochester area as each one officially becomes the first woman to preside over her respective college or university.
As University of Rochester, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Colgate Rochester Crozier Divinity School all welcome their new presidents, seven out of 12 colleges in Monroe County and its bordering counties will be led by women and six will be first-female presidents.
The percentage of female presidents locally will be nearly double the national average of 30.1 percent.
“My first thought is Susan B. Anthony must be smiling down on Rochester right now!” wrote Anne M. Kress, president of MCC.
RBJ interviewed by email the Rochester area’s four current female presidents about advice they might have for the new presidents and their thoughts on the wave of women in higher education. They are:
The first three were breakers of glass ceilings at their institutions. Battles is the second permanent female president at Geneseo. (A female interim president immediately preceded her.)
The three new presidents reporting to duty Monday are:
“The fact that these three campuses represent vastly different institutional types – a research university, theological institution and liberal arts college – is particularly noteworthy,” Battles said. “For example, national data show that women are far less likely to lead research universities than, say community colleges.”
Being on the leading edge of a national trend may not be the first thing Mangelsdorf, Jacobsen and Sims deal with Monday morning. Besides familiarizing themselves with the lay of the land, the location of the presidential restroom, and the names of their staff, all three will be in some uncharted territory; none have been presidents before. That’s not unusual for top academic administrators in the Rochester area, regardless of gender. Candidates for these jobs often have their first presidential-level job at colleges and universities here before either moving on or retiring.
Those who’ve gained experience on the job locally suggested the three be true to themselves.
“Be yourself; your authentic voice and vision of leadership was central to your selection as president,” Kress said.
“Lead from your strengths,” offered Porterfield.
Another common suggestion was to start off by learning the institution and its culture.
“It is important to value what was done before and also create new strategic pathways for the institution using your gifts and abilities,” Porterfield said.
Kress added, “Honor the past while preparing for the future: As you learn more about the history and culture of the extraordinary institution you lead, you will learn how your unique experiences will help it advance and thrive in the years ahead.”
Macpherson also stressed transparency.
“A successful presidency is about communications, transparency and clarity,” she said. “People don’t have to agree with all of your decisions, but if they understand why you’ve made them, they will accept them. It’s important to establish early on how you work with others, and how you want others to work with you.’
Macpherson also brought up the invisibility that women – even at the presidential level – sometimes experience.
“Don’t sweat the small stuff,” she said. “There will be times when you enter a room and people won’t realize you are the president. They may even address someone else standing next to you. How you handle those moments will be remembered.”
Kress, the most experienced female college president in the area, also suggested the newbies reach out to their colleagues. “The depth and diversity of leadership within the Rochester region is powerful, and your new community stands ready to support your success.”
According to a study by the American Council on Education, though the percentage of female presidents across the country is growing, the rate was slower between 2001 and 2016 than it was in the previous 14 years. And upon closer examination of the 2016 statistics, when 30.1 percent of colleges and universities had female presidents, the study found that women are more likely to be presidents at community colleges and limited-scope institutions than universities with greater resources, as Battles pointed out.
Private nonprofit colleges had a female presidential rate of 27.3 percent while public institutions were at almost 33 percent and community colleges hit 36 percent, according to the June 20 edition of Inside Higher Ed.
The article also reported that public colleges and universities are about twice as likely to hire minority presidents as are private ones. Perhaps surprisingly, while many African American administrators are trained at historically black colleges and universities, the percentage of those institutions that have black presidents is declining.
But with seven out of 12 – 58.33 percent – colleges in Monroe County and its bordering counties now having women at the helm, Rochester is certainly ahead of the curve.
“It is extremely exciting to think that the Rochester area is leading the way across the country in female presidents of higher education institutions,” Porterfield said. “It is fitting that in the birthplace of women’s rights that we would be a model for women leaders.”
Several of the current presidents said the wave of female presidents can only inspire other women to do the same. “If she can see it, she can be it,” Macpherson said, echoing the motto of the Geena Davis Institution on Gender in Media. “I like to think that motto works for higher education, too.”
Women now in presidential seats owe a debt of gratitude to their female forebears, Kress said. “Their success in the face of great odds opened the door for us. We need to do the same.”
Macpherson said concerted efforts to mentor women, along with the American Council on Education’s “Moving the Needle” campaign, have helped move the percentages in the direction of parity, even though they haven’t reach the goal yet. Moving the Needle has set a goal of parity by 2030.
“Women in positions of influence can and should help with this; we recognize the barriers that women might face (both internally and externally,) since we faced them ourselves. And we can purposefully offer women opportunities to demonstrate their ability to success,” Macpherson said.
Battles added demographic shifts are playing a role, too.
“Part of that increase is no doubt attributable to greater numbers of women in the higher education pipeline,” she said. “As more women enter academia, those qualified for the role of president also increases.”
Indeed, “women make up the majority of students pursuing undergraduate degrees in the U.S., and the same is true in our region. Yet, only about a third of college presidencies are held by women, so it is powerful and empowering that women studying in the Rochester area can look to the leadership of their college or university and see themselves,” Kress said. “In turn, the women leading these institutions will undoubtedly reflect back on the challenges they experienced in reaching these positions and work to remove them for the next generation of leaders.”
Last week, as outgoing UR President Richard Feldman bid farewell to many of his colleagues, he took pains to note that he has faith that Mangelsdorf will be a great president and said she was hired because she was the best candidate.
But two local female presidents said woman also bring unique gifts and challenges to the presidential suite, too.
“Research shows that women lead using different gifts and skills in building teams, creating vision and moving communities forward,” Porterfield said. They create “robust community engagement and communication,” she said.
And they disproportionately face family responsibilities that conflict with career progression, Battles noted.
“Data show that women presidents are twice as likely as men to have altered their career progression to care for others. Those life choices can influence a person’s desire or opportunities to pursue, assume or continue a presidency,” Battles said.
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Other women have served at area colleges
It should be noted that the MCC, Roberts, Brockport and Geneseo presidents are not the only female presidents who have served in the Rochester area. Nazareth College, founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph as a college for women, has had six female presidents, starting with Mother Sylvester Tindell in 1924.
Three of the last four presidents at Nazareth have been men and all of them came after that school went coeducational in 1971. President Daan Braveman plans to step down in 2020, so it’s possible Nazareth could return to female leadership then.
St. John Fisher, which started as a college for men, also went co-ed in the early 1970s and more than two decades later was led by Katherine Keough from 1996 until her death in 2006.
And Finger Lakes Community College was the first community college in the area to hire a female president: Barbara Risser, who served from 2007 to 2016.
The first woman to be president at Geneseo was Carol C. Harter, who served from 1989 to 1995, when she left to become president at University of Nevada, Los Vegas. There she became that institution’s longest-serving president.
Of 12 local schools, only Rochester Institute of Technology and Genesee Community College have never had a female president.
—Diana Louise Carterd