Nancy Harrington was more than the longtime president of Salem State University, she was a trusted, well respected leader on the North Shore. So too her successor, Patricia Maguire Meservey, who led the college through growth — of both of its campus and endowment — in the decade she spent there. Both were exceptional leaders. And both, as it turns out, were exceptions.
Added to the list of things that probably didn’t need a report to confirm, women occupy a little more than one third of the president’s offices of the 92 public and private colleges in Massachusetts, according to a report out this week by the Eon Foundation’s Women’s Power Gap Initiative. Specifically, it’s 37%.
The slow evolution of leadership in higher ed is especially striking since the majority of students enrolled at those colleges are women. And that’s not a new development. At Salem State, enrollment is 64% female, according to the report. At the University of Massachusetts’ flagship campus, it’s exactly 50%.
Also not a surprise is the fact that women leaders in higher ed generally work at community colleges or smaller colleges. And, generally, they make less money than their male counterparts in other places, the report documents.
The exhaustive, 66-page study also measures the diversity of other campus leadership jobs — as deans or members of boards of trustees. It identified 26 schools in the state it regards as “unsatisfactory” based on their leadership structure and pay. It highlighted four others — including Merrimack College — that it says “should give serious consideration to immediate changes to improve women’s representation other leadership teams, boards and among their highest paid professionals.” About 1 in 5 of the highest paid employees at Merrimack are women, according to the report. Yet, female students represent 54% of the college's enrollment.
Notably, the report holds out the University of Massachusetts campuses from its ratings because the publicly supported schools have a different financial structure. For those who wonder, none of the presidents of the nine state colleges is female.
Clearly there’s much that needs changing in the presidents’ offices, particularly if these institutions we look to for leadership are to reflect their communities and their customers, that is, the students they enroll. The goal shouldn't so much be checking a box or hiring women for the sake of hiring women, of course. Instead it’s about encouraging leaders, the Harringtons and Meserveys of the world, with a unique vision who will be role models on campus and beyond.
But, the foundation’s report is not entirely negative. In fact, it's findings tend to be encouraging.
The report shows that women occupy 48% of the provost positions, and 55% of senior leadership roles, of the state's public and private colleges. Those jobs are the “bench” of academic leaders typically chosen as presidents. Also, half of the 14 new Massachusetts college presidents named during the past academic year were women.
It’s also worth noting that more than half of the presidents in the state’s network of community colleges are women. Patricia Gentile, for one, became the first woman to lead North Shore Community College when she was inaugurated as president in September 2014.
“There is still a long way to go, particularly with our major universities,” Andrea Silbert, president of the Boston-based Eos Foundation, told WBUR, “but what’s critical to look at is the direction and the fact that the incoming class is 50-50.”
It is a hopeful trend indeed as we look to these institutions for leadership not only in academia but in our communities.