In a historic first, Harvard on Wednesday (May 2) hosted “Women at the Top: The Changing Face of the Ivies,” a summit of the five women who lead, have led, or will soon lead America’s most prestigious universities.

The panel spent 90 minutes in public conversation at a crowded Loeb Drama Center on Brattle Street. Rare in any theater setting, the standing ovation came first, before a word was said. A largely female audience greeted the five groundbreaking women with hoots and cheers and prolonged applause.

Judith Rodin, the first woman named president of an Ivy, was on the panel, which was billed as a Voices of Public Intellectuals Lecture. Rodin, a research psychologist, broke a centuries-old barrier in 1994 when she stepped into office at the University of Pennsylvania. Under her tenure, Penn doubled its research budget and tripled the size of its endowment. She is now president of the Rockefeller Foundation.

“Of course, it’s been a glorious surprise,” said Rodin, a former provost of Yale University. “These things are never planned.”

The meeting itself was planned two years ago, “in circumstances quite different” from today, said moderator Drew G. Faust, who was named president of Harvard just over two months ago. She is currently Lincoln Professor of History and dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, which sponsors the lecture series.

Joked Faust, “I arranged a tutorial for myself.”

Filling out the panel were the three women who currently head Ivy League institutions.

Shirley M. Tilghman, a scientist who specialized in genomics, took office at Princeton University in June 2001. “I’m just going to bulldoze my way ahead,” she said of the difficulties of such a high-profile post, “and damn the torpedoes.”

Comparative literature scholar Ruth J. Simmons A.M. ’71, Ph.D. ’73 started her presidency at Brown University less than a month after Tilghman took the reins at Princeton. “I could not have imagined this was possible, on several counts,” said Simmons, who spoke up for black scholars outnumbered in academe. “It’s still a challenge to be seen and heard for what we do.”

Political scientist and philosopher Amy Gutmann ’71, Ph.D. ’76 took the helm at the University of Pennsylvania in 2004. “I never sought the next position,” she said of her rise through administration ranks at Princeton, first as dean of faculty, then as provost. “And before you know it, Penn came knocking.”

Gutmann, Simmons, and Tilghman were all young administrators at Princeton, where they shared a mentor, one-time Princeton president Harold Shapiro. “He was a pathbreaker,” said Gutmann. She called the present number of female Ivy League presidents “a tipping point for higher education.”

Mentors are important, but not everything. Rodin said she had “no grand plan” to be the first to break the glass ceiling at an Ivy League institution. But she did have ambition. “In our time, it was called aggression – it wasn’t called ambition,” she said of cracking through early gender barriers. “I was, am, and am proud to be, fiercely ambitious.”

The presidents agreed that women do not have a separate and distinct management style. “It’s absolute nonsense,” said Simmons, setting up for a laugh line. “We’re better, but ….”

Leadership styles for women are on a “very, very broad continuum, just as … for men,” said Rodin, though while at Penn her “maternal instinct brought out a side of my leadership.” Gender and scholarly discipline, she said, both enter into “giving voice to your wholeness.”

By the time Faust assumes the Harvard presidency in July, half of Ivy League campuses will be led by women. But all agreed that the Ivies are an anomaly, since most research universities continue to be headed by men.

“We have to think of more,” said Gutmann, who enrolled at Radcliffe in 1967 with the idea that she would be a high school math teacher. Having women at the top of the Ivies “is really deeply encouraging to many people today,” she said, but there are other barriers to break, including “openly gay men and women” in leadership positions, and more African Americans and Latinos.

“It’s too early to declare victory, or defeat,” agreed Tilghman. “We have to be very cautious. We have a long way to go.”

That long way to go, the Ivy presidents agreed, includes building up faculties and student bodies that include more women and more people of color. In 10 years, “universities are going to look far more like America than they do today,” said Tilghman, in praise of diversity. “The degree to which we are different is our strength.”

Changing the face of the present-day university has to address “the increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots,” said Gutmann, who grew up poor. “We are living in a plutocratic age.”

Tilghman agreed, calling universities “the greatest engine for social mobility.”

They are also “role models for civic engagement,” said Rodin, acknowledging the power of the Ivies in particular to effect change. “The wider world deserves some of these resources being deployed for the greater good.”

That means using the power of these powerful universities. “You have open access to the leadership of the world,” said Simmons of being an Ivy League president. “I don’t think we’re using it as we should.”

Being president of a world-class university is “a bully pulpit,” agreed Gutmann, and can be used to press for universal health care, more investments in science research, and public education.

“We’re all products of the Sputnik era,” she said of the assembled presidents, who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, when government investments in science and education seemed more substantial than today. “We are doing a lot, but the larger society is not helping us.”

Fading government investments in the sciences and public education is already having an effect, said Tilghman, who called the data on U.S. men and women drawn to studying science and engineering “quite chilling.” The answer, she added, “doesn’t begin in our institutions, it begins in kindergarten.”

Brown has established a trust fund in Providence to prop up the education of poor children, and offers scholarships to students who agree to teach in at-risk schools in the city. “The state of our [public] schools is so important to our health,” said Simmons, who said good teachers helped build her confidence – all the way to graduate work at Harvard. “We cannot be safe or feel good in an environment in which the children in our neighborhoods are not given a full chance. Sooner or later, it will come to our doorstep.”

Ivy League universities can play a global educational role too, said Gutmann, who called “a broad liberal arts education” a great lesson for a world enamored of science and technology. “That’s our ace in the hole, if you will,” she said of the role of the arts, literature, and music in a rounded education. “It’s what we’ve done so well for so long.”

The bully pulpit of the Ivies can also be used to change the national discourse about women in politics, academe, and the workplace. “We have to really insist on the totality of the experience,” said Simmons, and push aside even joking references to hairstyles, weight, or unfaithful husbands.

“We can change the caliber of the conversation going on around women’s leadership.”

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