According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are more than 4,500 colleges and universities in the United States. Of them, 30 percent are led by women.
In Cumberland County, there are four colleges and universities.
All of them are led by women.
Of the four women, Messiah College’s Kim Phipps has the longest tenure at 14 years. She served in administrative roles as a professor of communications at Malone University in Canton, Ohio, prior to taking the role of academic dean at Messiah in 1998.
She became the provost in 2000, and served as the interim president of the college for almost a year after then-President Rodney Sawatsky retired due to failing health. In December 2004, Phipps became the first woman president at the college, which was founded in 1909.
Phipps said her journey followed “a very traditional path” through the academic side of higher education.
Central Penn College’s Linda Fedrizzi-Williams, the most recently appointed of the four presidents, came to her position in a less traditional way, at least at the start.
Fedrizzi-Williams intended to go into television journalism, but landed a position as a reporter at a radio station in the Hudson Valley where she started her work day at 4 a.m., finished at 10 a.m., and was back in bed by 6 p.m. Along the way, she advanced to become the executive producer and co-host of the morning show.
It wasn’t a sustainable lifestyle, she said, so after five years she went back to college.
“I knew I wanted to be a professor at that point,” Fedrizzi-Williams said.
That’s where her story merges with the traditional track for college presidents. She first taught radio, television and film communications, and took on administrative roles with increasing responsibility, eventually returning to school to earn her doctorate.
“I knew I wanted to be an administrator at that point,” she said. “I knew I could make a bigger difference in that role. I loved teaching so it was hard to make that transition, and I still taught when I was a dean, but I knew that the decisions I could make at a higher level could impact more students.”
She came to Central Penn in 2016, and was appointed co-interim president of the college when the previous president left.
“So that was only one year after I had gotten here, which felt a little fast, but my whole career has been fast,” she said.
Fedrizzi-Williams was appointed president effective June 18, 2018.
Like Fedrizzi-Williams, Dickinson College’s Margee Ensign didn’t set out initially to rise through the ranks of academic life.
“I was never going to go into education,” she said.
She had earned an interdisciplinary doctorate in politics, economics and computer science, but chose against a life in academia after her oral exams. Ensign said she was working for the late Sen. Alan Cranston when a call came from Columbia University that changed the course of her career.
“They said, ‘Will you just come teach one course for us? We’ll fly you up from DC and fly you back,’” she said.
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Ensign was asked to stay on. During her first full-time position there, she became the director of the graduate-level International Political Economy program, the largest program at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.
“It was pretty strange to be a very young scholar — I think I was 27 — and not only teaching at a place that had very few women, very few, but also coordinating this big program,” she said.
From there, she took on leadership positions at Tulane University and the University of the Pacific before stepping into her first presidency as the president of the American University of Nigeria. She took the reins at Dickinson College on July 1, 2017.
That makes Ensign even more rare in the world of higher education as 78 percent of the women who serve as college presidents are in their first presidency.
If Ensign is rare as one of the few women to hold more than one presidency, Shippensburg University’s Laurie Carter is even more so as one of the 8 percent of college presidents nationwide who are African-American.
She refuses, however, to “take on other people’s stuff,” choosing not to approach the world from the perspective that she might be thought of in certain terms or treated differently because of her race. Carter approaches her role from the perspective of making a difference in the lives of her students.
“If someone has a challenge with me because I am an African-American, God bless them. I’m here to get this job done and do right by my students and to service this great university,” she said.
That determination comes from someone who knows what it’s like to be the first of her family to attend college.
“I was a first-generation college student at Clarion. I didn’t have a lot of resources, so a mentor there suggested I find a graduate assistantship to help pay for my graduate education,” she said.
Carter put herself through graduate school with first an assistantship in residence life and then a full-time position. She continued to work in residence life until she answered an ad in the New York Times for a position as director of Student Affairs for the Julliard School.
Her career at Julliard spanned 25 years, creating the school’s student affairs operation, which included student activities and orientation. She also was instrumental in the construction of a residence hall and in international advisement.
A year into her work, she decided to attend law school while working at Julliard. After graduating with a job offer from a district attorney in hand, Julliard convinced her to stay on to create a global affairs office.
That choice was the genesis of her career in higher education.
“I was in higher ed and this is where I was going to be,” she said.
Carter continued her work at Julliard for a time, but eventually landed at Eastern Kentucky University where she continued to take on administrative responsibilities. That put her in a position in which she was the person in charge of the campus if the president had to be away.
“It really solidified for me that I probably had the chops,” she said.
When Carter saw the posting for the presidency of Shippensburg University, she took the chance.
“For me, it was an opportunity to go home, so to speak, to give back to the system that really provided me with so much. I credit my Clarion education with really transforming my thinking about life,” Carter said.
She stepped into the role officially on Aug. 7, 2017.