THE BLOG

Leadership Equity at Public Liberal Arts Colleges

03/29/2015 12:34 pm ET | Updated May 29, 2015

The disparity between the percentage of women students at American colleges and universities and the percentage of women in senior leadership roles at these institutions has been noted many times in recent years. In 2014, for example, Forbes contributor Lucie Lapovsky wrote that well over one-half (57 percent) of undergraduates at four-year institutions were women, while at the same time just slightly more than one quarter (26 percent) of campuses were led by women presidents. And Audrey Williams June of the Chronicle of Higher Education writes that "the numbers have barely budged" over the past decade.

A different profile can be found at the 29 member institutions of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges (COPLAC). A little-known sector in higher education, the student gender demographic at public liberal arts colleges reflects national trends: 58 percent female and 42 percent male. But where presidential leadership is concerned, COPLAC has reached a nearly 50 percent average with women comprising fourteen of our 29 Presidents/Chancellors. Over the past 15 years, 19 COPLAC campuses, or 65 percent, have been led by a woman chief executive. In addition, 38 percent of our current chief academic officers are women.

How do we explain this gender equity anomaly, especially in light of the more limited progress in other sectors of higher education?

Institutional history may have something to do with it. Five of our member institutions began as women's schools or colleges. St. Mary's College of Maryland, for example, the State's officially designated honors college, was founded in 1840 as a public boarding school for women. The University of Mary Washington in Virginia opened to serve women undergraduates in 1908 and functioned as the women's college of the University of Virginia from 1944 to 1972. Men were almost exclusively the heads of these institutions, but in some cases the faculty was more representative of the student population. Implicit in the institutional mission of these schools and colleges was the advancement of women in specific, albeit low-paying professional areas.

Twelve COPLAC member institutions were created as teacher training or normal schools, a professional field in which women have been in the majority for over a century. The University of Maine-Farmington, led by women presidents since 1994, opened its doors as the State's first normal school in 1864. Right from the start, the school integrated a strong liberal arts program into teacher training. Six years later what is today's Truman State University transitioned from a private institution to become Missouri's first publicly supported teacher training institution. Only in 1985 did the governor designate the campus as a statewide public liberal arts and sciences university. Keene State College in New Hampshire opened its doors as Keene Normal School in 1909. It has been led by women presidents since 2005.

Two member institutions, the University of Minnesota Morris and Fort Lewis College in Colorado, trace their roots to the late nineteenth century as Native American-serving schools. Morris opened its doors in 1887 as an American Indian boarding school, while Fort Lewis followed a similar path in 1891. To this day both campuses, led by women Presidents/Chancellors, retain their deep commitment to this underserved population, affording qualified Native American students a tuition-free education.

According to Karen Wilde, Fort Lewis College's first Native American board chair:

We chose Dr. Dene K. Thomas to be the first woman president in our 100-year history because she offered a remarkable skillset that matched Fort Lewis College's needs at a critical juncture.

She has an unflagging commitment to our mission, particularly to our sacred trust serving Native American students. We value her clear vision, her skill working closely with many communities and her willingness to make necessary, if difficult, changes.

Other public liberal arts campuses began as community-led junior colleges. The University of North Carolina Asheville is the successor to Buncombe County Junior College, established in 1927. In 1936 control of the institution was transferred to the Asheville City Schools system, before becoming a state-supported four-year college in 1963. Since the early 1990s, three of the four Chancellors of UNC Asheville have been women. Clinch Valley College of the University of Virginia, today's UVa-Wise, was a two-year institution from its start in 1954 until 1976. Its original mission was to serve first-generation students in rural Southwest Virginia, and while the four-year campus -- led today by a woman Chancellor -- has grown to enroll over 2000 students, the focus on this historically underserved population remains strong.

Clearly there are multiple factors in play when search committees narrow the field of candidates for the top leadership position. As others have pointed out, gender stereotyping, family commitments, the makeup of governing boards, the role of academic search firms, the modest number of successful role models for women who aspire to top leadership positions -- all must be considered when discussing the slow pace of change in the academy.

But as colleges and universities mark and celebrate Women's History Month, it may be worthwhile to reflect on the relationship between institutional history and efforts to advance gender equity at the presidential level. For public liberal arts colleges, a student demographic that today includes large numbers of first generation, transfer and nontraditional students presupposes a strong campus commitment to equality, and the potential for transformative change. When this powerful student demographic is combined with a distinctive institutional heritage and culture, the effect on opportunities -- and outcomes -- for women leaders at the highest level can be quite significant.