Kim Phipps admits she may have overprepared for the Middle Atlantic Conference meetings she had to attend in her role as president of Messiah College when she first stepped into the position 14 years ago.
She wanted to do her best for her students, but she wasn’t an athlete, didn’t have a natural sports background and, perhaps most obviously, was the only woman in the room for the 17-member NCAA Division III athletic conference meeting.
“I had to work to insert myself into conversations and social settings. I knew it was important because I wanted to represent our students and our athletic teams,” she said.
Now, Phipps says she is one of four or five female presidents in the room when the athletic conference meets because the landscape for women in the upper levels of academia is evolving.
In 2006, two years after Phipps became president, 23 percent of college presidents were women. Now, that number sits at 30 percent.
Cumberland County is home to four colleges and universities. Each of them is led by a woman.
Phipps has served as the president at Messiah College for 14 years, making her the longest-tenured of the four. Margee Ensign came to Dickinson College in July 2017, Laurie Carter arrived at Shippensburg University a month later in August 2017, and Linda Fedrizzi-Williams took over as president at Central Penn College in June 2018.
Theories differ as to what makes Cumberland County so open to women in leadership roles at academic institutions. It may start with the individual nature and values of the colleges they have been selected to represent.
Dickinson College, for example, has been revolutionary from its founding, Ensign said.
“Look at our founder. He was the only one running around saying slavery is wrong and women should go to school,” she said.
It’s uncertain how those values play out 200 years later, but the school is always innovating and ahead of the curve, Ensign said.
Just as the values of Dickinson founder Benjamin Rush have worked their way into the college’s DNA, Messiah College is shaped by the values of its founding denomination, Brethren in Christ, which Phipps said has a history of ordaining women and placing women in leadership positions within the church.
“I think that helped create this space that certainly we could have a woman president,” Phipps said.
The skills of the candidates for the presidency themselves can’t be underestimated.
There are now four women serving as presidents at Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education colleges and universities like Shippensburg, Carter said. As the councils of trustees and boards of governors consider applicants for the presidency of institutions, they identify skills that will lead those schools into the future.
“So it’s becoming less about the gender of the person and more about the skill set, as it should be,” she said.
Phipps said the surrounding Harrisburg-area community also features many women in leadership roles in a variety of contexts. Women have, at various times, been part of the leadership of the YWCA, the Harrisburg Symphony board and the Susquehanna Art Museum board, among others.
“In my tenure here since 1998 there have always been women, strong women, involved, I would say, especially in the nonprofit sector, leading those organizations or leading those boards,” Phipps said.
The number of women serving as presidents of colleges and universities across the nation has steadily increased. According to the American College Presidential Survey, 21 percent of colleges were led by women in 2001. That rose to 23 percent in 2006 and to 26 percent in 2011.
“In a couple of decades, things have improved. Do we have a long way to go? Yes,” Ensign said.
While working at Columbia University, Ensign said she became pregnant with her daughter. The dean flatly told her he would not have hired her if he knew she would become pregnant.
“I had to go in and argue for my position, and I also had to continue to teach my courses,” she said.
Because of problems with the pregnancy, Ensign had to teach seminars and classes using the technology of the day, a speakerphone.
“It was crazy, but you do what you have to do,” she said.
The choice between family and career continues to affect the professional path of potential college leaders. According to the American College President Survey 2017, 32 percent of the women who serve as college presidents had to alter their career progression to care for a family member.
Carter said her path diverted at the Juilliard School when her mother suffered severe injuries in a car crash. She left her leadership position at Juilliard to take a position closer to home at a New Jersey performing arts center to help her mother recover from a traumatic brain injury.
Fedrizzi-Williams’ sons were 2 and 4 years old when she enrolled in an online program to complete her doctorate. The classes included residencies in Chicago once or twice a year.
“It was probably the most difficult time of my entire life being a full-time mother, and full-time student, and full-time employee supporting my family,” she said. “It was a struggle for our family.”
Into the future
The American College President Survey predicts that gender parity in the role of college president will be achieved by 2030, based on annual growth of 3.9 percent.
Even with parity a decade away, academia is in a better position than the private sector.
According to a Pew Research study from April 2018, 5.1 percent of the companies in the S&P Composite 1500 have women as their CEO, and 11.5 percent of top-level executive positions are held by women.
Those statistics could affect the shape of the presidency in the future as colleges and universities are increasingly turning to the corporate world and media. This trend comes as the challenges and complexities of the position change, pushing boards to opt for “something different,” Ensign said.
Student recruitment objectives could also be fueling the trend toward hiring college presidents from the business sector.
“Higher education is becoming increasingly competitive in terms of the competition for students, especially in the northeast, the mid-Atlantic where the demographics for traditional students are not in favor of growth,” Phipps said.
Even those presidents who come from a more traditional academic background have to develop a strong business sense to deal with the realities of financial challenges facing institutions.
“People talk about the president as a guardian of the college mission, and that’s absolutely true, but you can’t have mission without margin. You’ve got to be able to actually work with your team and your campus to manage the financial challenges well in order to be able to fulfill your mission,” Phipps said.
Academia, in general, is far more aware of issues like gender and minority pay gaps and promoting diversity and inclusivity, Ensign said.
“These are our values,” she said. “We talk about it all the time. We deliberate. The way decisions are made in a university, in general, are different. It’s not top down. It’s collaborative.”
In society as a whole, though, Ensign said there will always be differences until public policy focus is brought more squarely on health care and child care. That may require more women in decision-making roles, she said, and the country may be starting on that path given the number of women who ran for office in the recent midterm elections.
“Public policy doesn’t change at the national level until women are more involved in making public policy. We might be at a real turning point,” she said.
The women who head local colleges look, in many cases, to their students for a vision of the future of women leadership roles.
Phipps said she was with a group of women students in an informal situation when they brought up how much it means to have her as their college president and asked how she managed it all.
“You try to answer those questions with a lot of honesty and a lot of humility, but I also want to really inspire them to use all of their gifts,” she said.
Carter said she talks to young women about developing a sense of comfort with discomfort. When you are the only woman in the room, you have to be comfortable with who you are to know you can stand in that position and still command a level of authority and respect that you need to get the job done, she said.
It’s important that young people understand they really can do anything they want as long as they are willing to work hard, Carter said.
“That’s why I talk about things like sacrifice and compromise, so that you have the balances that you need so that you can get the skills that you want,” she said.
Fedrizzi-Williams said it is important to identify young women at colleges and universities who have leadership potential, and then give them additional roles to develop that potential. She said she was fortunate in that the president at the State University of New York-Orange saw her leadership potential as did a vice president of academic affairs.
“They knew to get me on certain committees,” she said. “They pushed me out of my comfort zone.”
The women also stressed how vital it is to learn from experiences.
“Take advantage of the opportunities when offered,” Carter said.
She looks to her own journey as proof of concept. Had she not agreed to setting up a legal office when she had just graduated from law school or running a jazz program when she didn’t know anything about jazz or moving to Kentucky when she had never lived in the South, she may not be where she is today.
“All of those would have placed me in a very different position,” she said. “Being able to take reasonable risks is going to be really important, and making the sacrifice.”
Fedrizzi-Williams said a number of retirements are likely to happen in the next few years to open more doors for women at institutions than ever before. Many have made their way through the ranks to the position of vice president of academic affairs or provost and are now ready to take the next step.
“Now that many of us have come through the ranks and we’ve been through some of those vice presidential positions, you’re going to see more women leading institutions,” she said.