Updated March 16, 2023.
Over the last two years, the demographics of the higher education presidency have experienced a considerable shift. Women and people of color now comprise several historic appointments at higher education institutions, from the Ivy Leagues to technical colleges.
We are revisiting a conversation with four AGB Search Executive Search Consultants about their experiences as women in the top leadership position of higher education institutions. Their paths were varied, but they each excelled at their roles and now draw on their experiences to inform the search process for clients and candidates.
Today, they provide fresh perspectives on the visibility and influence of female presidents.
Dr. Jeanne Foster Jacobs
Dr. Jeanne Foster Jacobs served as President and CEO of Miami Dade College’s Homestead campus from 2005 to 2020.
Dr. Sally Mason
Dr. Sally Mason is President Emerita of the University of Iowa, having served as the institution’s 20th President from 2007 to 2015.
Ms. Ellen Meyer
Ms. Ellen Meyer is President Emerita of Watkins College of Art at Belmont University in Nashville, having served as the institution’s President from 2008 to 2015. She served as President of Atlanta College of Art (Woodruff Arts Center) from 1992 to 2006.
Dr. Nancy Targett
Dr. Nancy Targett served as Interim President at the University of Delaware, where she also served as Dean of the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment and Director of the Delaware Sea Grant College Program.
Here they share their perspectives on the challenges and opportunities of the role, as well as what up-and-coming leaders should take into consideration if they aspire to a presidency.
Tell us about your career path. What led you to pursue the presidency?
Dr. Mason: I followed a pretty traditional route to the presidency, starting as a department head, then associate dean, dean, provost, and finally president. Once I realized that I could cut down on bureaucracy and streamline process by serving in administrative leadership positions, it simply continued to happen. The presidency becomes the normal endpoint. I was careful not to pursue a significant campus leader role (dean) until I had achieved status as a full professor, something that a woman in science in my home department had never done before.
Dr. Targett: Serendipity definitely played a role in my path to the presidency. I was a Dean and quite satisfied in my role. I felt that I was making a difference for my college with some dramatic changes that would better position it for the future. I had strong faculty support. When the then-President announced he was departing, the Chair of the Board of Trustees called to ask if I was interested in applying for the position. I was not. He then asked me if I would consider taking it for a year to steer the institution through its transition. I agreed. It was not an easy year. It held tremendous institutional challenges, but the outcomes were some of the most satisfying of my career.
Ms. Meyer: I emerged into this world as part of a family in business and for 21 years had the honor of serving as president of two colleges of art and design. My presidencies were an evolution rather than a pursuit, beginning with a wellspring as an art historian, ceramist, and inventor of design programs. Mine was an unusual path to the presidency that integrated my love of art, design, architecture, and community planning with a practical sensibility and a desire just to get things done. With leadership in higher education, it is most important to ask the questions: what is the direction of young people now and what will it be ten years from now? These questions prompted my enthusiasm for the presidency to build environments that would encourage, equip, and empower faculty, staff, and students.
Dr. Jacobs: My career path involved making shifts from non-traditional positions in colleges to more traditional positions tracked for a presidency. It took courage, flexibility, and persistence to accept new leadership roles without a roadmap, work at different types and sizes of colleges, and relocate to other states including Alabama, Ohio, and Florida. I began my career in the classroom and found personal reward in transforming lives. Early on, I was tapped for management positions in different areas of a given institution and excelled in each leadership role. My commitment was to create high-performing college environments focused on student success. Each position led to a new opportunity and promotion, and each opportunity added to my body of leadership work. I gained clarity as I ascended toward leadership and solidified pursuing a presidency to improve the social and economic mobility in communities.
What barriers, if any, did you experience in your administrative career?
Dr. Mason: I had gotten used to breaking (or at least cracking) the “glass ceiling” along the way in my career and with that it was much easier to ignore many of the barriers encountered along the way. Persistence (or just plain stubbornness has always served me well) and a passion for serving to help others were my major drivers. There were certainly challenges along the way, some that were clearly related to my gender.
Dr. Targett: I don’t know of anyone whose administrative career has been barrier free. Once when I was faced with a particularly daunting administrative challenge, I returned to my office to find a small box and a note. I opened the box and it was a pebble and beside it was a small vial of sand. The note was simply a variation of a Taoist saying. It read, “Water flows around the rock and eventually the rock is sand on the beach.” The message was that there may be barriers (the rock) but if you have clarity of purpose and persistence the barrier will be overcome in some way (becoming sand on the beach). That provided me with a long-term perspective on university administration that I still find helpful.
Ms. Meyer: By and large, rather than barriers, there were problems to be solved, whether they were structural and financial or issues of management and governance. I defined a challenge as a test of my ability to address the needs and desires of the college through collaboration with different constituencies extending from board members and administrators to faculty, staff, students, and the community. A difficulty at times was to achieve a gender balance at my institution and in associations nationally. This can be a complex matter that involves strength, understanding, reflection, cooperation, and sometimes sheer persistence. In my experience, the same can be said for other conflicts in leadership, as well.
Dr. Jacobs: Having had a long administrative career, I recognize that some barriers were internal and related to underestimating my readiness and power as a leader during times that were considered “not business as usual” – times where higher education faced change, uncertainty, and significant challenges. Even though there were barriers, I focused on staying the course and moving forward, being confident in my capability, and achieving results.
Where did you find support, inspiration, and/or mentorship?
Dr. Mason: I had very few women mentors in my career, which was not unusual for a woman in a STEM discipline. There were some amazing men who both inspired and mentored me at every stage in my career. They have remained friends and colleagues, and they continue to inspire me to do my best and keep making a difference.
Dr. Targett: Hearing a diversity of viewpoints leads to better decisions and thus better outcomes. I have always looked to a variety of individuals, both internal and external to higher ed, for support, advice, and inspiration. These individuals do not fit neatly into any specific category. A few are long-time confidantes; others drop in and out in specific areas and at specific times. They are institutional elders, young upstarts, and rogue thinkers. They come from diverse backgrounds and fields. I find support and inspiration in all of them because they all contribute to generating what I call the tapestry of ideas that moves an institution forward.
Ms. Meyer: Inspiration was easily found. I have an unwavering conviction that the authentic work of higher education plays a most important role in forwarding culture—spiritually, aesthetically, environmentally, and in corporate life. One of my proudest times as a president, inspirationally speaking, was the development of a required core undergraduate, four-year curriculum that addressed the significance of tolerance and respect for other cultures; the effects of global electronic communication; the responsibilities of cultures to each other as they struggle to define identity; and the conflicts that arise from divergent political agendas, religious customs, gender, and race. Mentorship is another topic for discussion. I was fortunate that my mentor, a vice president for academic affairs, found me when I was 30. He continues to be my mentor today.
Dr. Jacobs: I was fortunate to have support and mentorship from leaders at each institution for which I worked. My mentors provided regular access to them and shared great advice. By having professional networks, through national/state/local associations and organizations, I found important support groups that were focused on common work. Throughout my career, I have been inspired and supported by colleagues, students, and the communities in which I served. My parents remain my greatest inspiration as first-generation college graduates and educators who instilled in me the power of education and the importance of paying it forward.
What advice would you give to women considering the presidential path?
Dr. Mason: No matter how well prepared you feel you are to assume a presidency, understand that it is the hardest (and loneliest) job you may ever have. No matter how resilient you are or how immune to criticism you might think you are, the presidency will test your limits. That said, the rewards that come from succeeding in a leadership role like this are immeasurable, both in terms of those you help or influence and in personal fulfillment.
Dr. Targett: Institutional cultures vary and it is critical that you do your homework prior to taking a position to be sure that your values/vision/goals align with those of the institution. If they do, then you will find that your time in any senior level role in higher education administration can be a tremendous opportunity to affect change at an institution-wide level and make a difference. However, if your values/vision/goals don’t align with the institution’s, the position can be a frustrating one and a waste of your time and talent. So, do the work up front, ask the hard questions and, most importantly, listen carefully to the answers before deciding if it is right position for you. Ultimately you want your time in office to be a win for you and for the institution.
Ms. Meyer: Recognize that it is an extraordinarily volatile time. • Embody great enthusiasm and capacity for discovery, dedication, and sheer perseverance. • Take initiative at your college or university in planning and implementation through authentic collegial participation. • Acknowledge that you cannot know or be an expert in everything. • Collaborate and communicate (like crazy). • Whenever possible, assertively take opportunities for continuing education. • Never lose sight of the big picture, while accepting responsibility for your current environment. • Be aware that as a president you will most likely need to diversify and increase earned and raised revenue streams, while keeping or making tuition affordable and re-thinking curricula and their support systems. • Know that this is a time that calls for great courage, passion, flexibility, and optimism.
Dr. Jacobs: Know who you are as a leader; be confident in what you offer; and remain true to your core values. As you prepare for a presidency, evaluate your circumstances and choose wisely in terms of the type of presidency and institution you want to lead; understand that this work is challenging yet rewarding. So, stay connected to your professional networks and find a respected leader who can be a sounding board and help with your transition to a presidency. In turn, it is important for you to help and cultivate others who follow and aspire to be executive leaders.
How have the responsibilities of the presidency changed since you were in office? Do female presidents face additional challenges?
Dr. Jacobs: While there is an urgency to address the challenges in higher education and convey its value, it is an opportune time for presidents, and female presidents in particular. The responsibilities of the presidency have continued to become more complex due to the unforeseen disruption and change in higher education. Presidents are called upon to pivot quickly, be forward thinking and entrepreneurial, and create compassionate teaching and learning environments. There is a heightened focus to strengthen community alignment and develop flexible paths for student learning, engagement, and success. Female presidents may face additional challenges, but they bring unique leadership qualities, which add to their resilience and capacity to overcome barriers.
This upcoming fall, six Ivy League universities will welcome new female presidents, some for the very first time. Do you foresee this having a positive impact on the future of hiring female presidents in higher education?
Ms. Meyer: Another way to think about this is to imagine a female president of the United States, a woman in the highest office, and the empowering effect her appointment would broadly have upon women. Many of the Ivy League institutions have a similar influence on higher education because of their privilege with strong endowments, highly competitive student entrance requirements, and faculty with strong histories of research, creative practice, and scholarship, all of which permit for flexibility of hiring standout, innovative leaders. Women in general have played a consistently more important role in higher education with an increase in numbers at every level - from graduate students, faculty, chairs, and deans to provosts, vice presidents, and now presidents. This is a sea change at Ivy League universities that has the potential for great influence in hiring practices at every college and university.