Woman To Take the Lead?

After 370 years, Harvard could be run by a female

2007 could be the year of the woman leader. A female Speaker of the House. A female candidate for US president. And now, a female Harvard president?

The committee searching for the next Harvard president has declined to comment whether gender will play any role in the search, according to spokesman John Longbrake. But the most recently confirmed list of candidates included at least seven female contenders among its more than two dozen candidates, including the female leaders of Brown, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Cambridge.

In its 370-year history, Harvard has never had a female president. Across America, only 9 percent of presidents at private doctoral-granting universities are currently women, according to a 2001 survey by the American Council on Education (ACE), a D.C.-based association of higher education institutions.

In contrast, 16 percent of public doctoral-granting universities are led by women.

Claire Van Ummersen, who supervises the ACE’s office of women in higher education, attributes this difference to the varying natures of governing boards at public and private universities, which usually hold the final say in selecting their schools’ top leaders.

Public institutions tend to have more diverse boards, with a larger number of women and minorities, and some board members may be appointed by the state, she says.

Private boards, in contrast, choose new members through internal deliberations and “tend to have long-serving members,” she says.

“There’s a tendency for such boards to be more conservative,” she says, “and in doing so you find a greater percentage of men on the board, and that often makes it difficult to have a woman appointed as president.”

It’s not outright sexism that motivates this bias, Van Ummersen says, but simply the tendency of well-meaning board members to choose people with whom they are comfortable—people like themselves.

“It’s a comfort issue and a fit issue. They’re like me and I understand them and I trust them and so forth, and those are the sorts of things that make it difficult for women,” she says.

Harvard’s self-perpetuating governing board, the Harvard Corporation, currently includes four men and two women. Georgetown professor Patricia A. King, the third woman to serve on the Corporation in its history and the first African-American female, was appointed last year.

THE VIEW FROM INSIDE

At Harvard, many students and faculty members say that while appointing a female Harvard president might have symbolic value, they just want the most qualified president, regardless of gender.

But this common response conceals a much more divided faculty dynamic, including a quiet push for a woman president from several influential female professors who say that Harvard’s old-boy’s-club culture is still resistant to female leadership.

Some professors argue that, with female presidents at three Ivies and at MIT, the appointment of a Harvard helmswoman would hardly be groundbreaking.

“I think that the significance of a female president at Harvard would largely be a matter of media coverage rather than major internal impacts,” says Loeb Associate Professor of the Natural Sciences Elena M. Kramer, a member of the 2005 Task Force on Women in Science and Engineering.

But while women have achieved top leadership positions at many of Harvard’s peer institutions, Harvard’s leadership is still dominated by men. Men hold the key positions in the College and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, as well as at 8 of the 11 professional schools.

The Radcliffe Institute, the Law School and the School of Education are currently led by women.

Like the president, the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences has never been a woman.

‘QUIET PRESSURE’

Many influential female faculty members are reluctant to talk with the press about the possibility that Harvard’s next president could be a woman.

Evelynn Hammonds, who led the university’s Task Force on Women in 2005 and is now the Senior Vice Provost for Faculty Development and Diversity—where her duties include improving the climate for women at Harvard—declined to comment for this article.

The chair of the 2005 Task Force on Women in Science and Engineering, Higgins Professor of Natural Sciences Barbara J. Grosz, also declined to comment.

Some senior female professors say they feel hesitant to campaign openly for a female leader.

“I think a lot of us are concerned that the harder we push publicly, the more backlash there will be,” says a senior female professor in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the search process. “We don’t want to impair the chances of the really excellent women who are in the pool.”

Playing “the gender card” only generates resistance against appointing women to leadership positions, the professor says, so she and others believe it’s more effective to lobby for particular female candidates with “quiet pressure” behind the scenes.

“Many of us were among the first women in our departments or in our fields,” she says. “Harvard has not historically welcomed women without a real fight.”

THE GHOST OF LARRY

The discussion of female leadership in academia inevitably raises the specter of the Summers scandal. Harvard became the center of a nationwide controversy over the place of women in academia in 2005, after then-President Lawrence H. Summers suggested that intrinsic gender differences might be partly responsible for the low representation of women in the sciences.

Now, some wonder whether a female president would be seen simply as the anti-Summers.

“You can easily imagine that there’s a concern that the choice of a woman who in her own right totally deserves to have this job would be perceived as a reactive choice against the Summers comment,” chair of the History department Andrew D. Gordon ’74 says.

“It just doesn’t make sense, but it’s also inevitable that some people will interpret it that way,” Gordon adds.

But both Gordon and Kramer say they do not think the search committee’s work is influenced by the public perceptions of the women in science controversy.

“I can imagine a scenario where the press might try to make it out that a female candidate was chosen based on their gender but, having met with representatives of the search committee, I am entirely confident that this is not a motivating force in their decisions,” Kramer writes in an e-mail.

Nancy Hopkins ’64, the MIT biology professor who walked out on Summers’ 2005 women in science speech and told reporters that Summers remarks had made her physically ill, said it would be wrong to associate the choice of a female president with the Summers scandal.

“If people said that’s a corrective action for what the previous president did, I think that would be unfair to that woman,” Hopkins, a long time advocate for women in academia, says.

And a female president might not necessarily advance the climate for female faculty at Harvard, says Hopkins, who adds that a president’s understanding of gender issues, not their gender, is what matters.

“Some women don’t really understand the issue that well,” Hopkins says. “Some women are afraid to promote other women.”

“A man,” she says, “could be absolutely as effective as a woman.”

SHE FEELS YOUR PAIN

But Summers’ tumultuous legacy could have another kind of impact on the chance of a woman being selected as president. In the wake of Summers’s tenure, which some say was characterized by a domineering and insensitive leadership style, both students and faculty members are suggesting that a woman’s leadership may be exactly what Harvard needs.

Whether or not the next president is a woman, Harvard Graduate Council president Cheng Zhu says that Harvard’s next chief should possess “a feminine style of leadership.”

Zhu said that although the new president should not be chosen because of gender, he or she should practice what Zhu calls “traditional” feminine leadership characteristics, including horizontal coordination across Harvard’s schools, using emotional intelligence to handle crises, and relying more on open communication than hierarchical command.

Zhu says she bases her opinions on both real-life observations and leadership courses she has taken at Harvard. She also mentions the concept of “soft power,” coined by Joseph Nye, former dean of the Kennedy School of Government, as a more effective, feminine way of conducting Harvard politics.

Nye, in an interview last week, says that “soft power is the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion.” He adds that university presidents—unlike corporate executives or military leaders—do not have much “hard power,” such as the ability to hire and fire faculty members.

“A lot depends upon their ability to attract others to their persuasion,” Nye says. “Very often women have an intuitive sense of soft power.”

“Often, women’s style of leadership is more integrative and cooperative as opposed to commanding and controlling. There is empirical evidence that shows there is some relationship there,” he adds.

And although Nye says that “soft power” can be wielded by a man or a woman, he says he would be “delighted” if a woman moved into Mass. Hall, the home of Harvard’s central administration.

“I just think it’s time,” he says. “If you look at some of the talent available...we should avail ourselves of it.”

—Staff writer Lois E. Beckett can be reached at lbeckett@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Katherine M. Gray can be reached at kmgray@fas.harvard.edu.

For additional coverage of the presidential search:

Alums Stick to Summers' Agenda (Dec. 17, 2006): Major donors say that they’ve been giving to Harvard because they agree with the Summers agenda and that, regardless of who the next president is, they want that agenda to move forward.
Does Harvard Need an Inside Man? (Dec. 15, 2006): Three of the prominent candidates are Harvard insiders, but experts and sources close to the search aren’t sure that it will weigh in their favor.