Influential women: university presidents
EMU president Martin assumed office this month, adding to a growing list of females who head universities
Now more than ever before, women have educational and professional opportunities that generations of women before them could only have dreamed of. Earlier this month, Susan Martin took office as the president of Eastern Michigan University, and the start of fall classes will mark the beginning of Martin’s first full school year as president of EMU. With Martin’s appointment, three of Michigan’s largest public universities — MSU, EMU and the University of Michigan — are headed by women presidents who know the challenges and joys that come with being successful, influential women in predominantly male fields.
U-M President Mary Sue Coleman said she thinks opportunities for women are ever increasing with the changing times.
“Today’s female college students have grown up in a world with powerful women role models — women who are elected officials, CEOs of multinational corporations and university presidents,” Coleman said.
Eastern Michigan University’s Susan Martin was appointed as the first woman president of EMU in May.
The fall semester will begin Martin’s first academic year as president of EMU.
Martin said as an undergraduate student at Central Michigan University she had plans to become a teacher. She earned a master’s of business administration degree and a doctorate in accounting from MSU.
Her experience as auditor for the state of Michigan led her to administration opportunities with state universities. Most recently she held the position of provost for the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Martin said the key to balancing multiple responsibilities is weigh the benefits and disadvantages of everything.
To college-aged women, Martin said to be willing to take some risks and be prepared to work extremely hard in order to accomplish career goals.
Lou Anna K. Simon
MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon began her term as the first female president of MSU in January 2005.
Simon said she first came to MSU as a doctoral student in 1970, and she earned her undergraduate degree in mathematics from Indiana State University, which was uncommon for a woman at that time.
Simon said she tries to interact with students and is interested in seeing how the university impacts the lives of the people in it. She said her goal is to continue to work as hard as she can to make MSU the best it can be.
Rather than facing her responsibilities as jobs that must be completed, Simon said she thinks of every task as an opportunity to learn something new.
Her advice to college students is to pursue their own dreams with passion. In the future, Simon said she hopes to see society evolved to the point that leadership is so diverse that there will no longer be newspaper articles written on female university presidents.
Mary Sue Coleman
University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman said in an e-mail she thinks college-aged women of today have grown up with influential women role models and have been encouraged to succeed.
Coleman said she earned her undergraduate degree in chemistry from Grinnell College and a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of North Carolina.
Coleman said she feels proud to have been the first woman president of both the University of Iowa and of the University of Michigan and has always been treated with “the utmost respect as president” at both institutions. For more than 20 years, Coleman said she worked as both a professor and a cancer researcher, primarily at the University of Kentucky. As an administrator and faculty member, Coleman said she has faced the challenge of building the “pipeline” for women academics and has worked toward the effort to introduce more women and men to the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.
Other universities with women presidents
Ruth Simmons, Brown University since 2001
Shirley Tilghman, Princeton University since 2001
Susan Hockfield, MIT since 2005
Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard since 2007
Nancy Cantor, Syracuse University since 2004
Amy Gutmann, University of Pennsylvania since 2004
Source: University Web sites
“When I was in college, there was not a woman secretary of state or Supreme Court justice, or a Women’s National Basketball Association, and certainly no women running for president. Today’s young women see someone who looks like them in an influential role, and know they can achieve the same — if not more.”
Martin at EMU
Martin, the former University of Michigan-Dearborn provost, was appointed president of EMU in May. She is EMU’s first woman president.
“I didn’t really have a plan that I would be a (university) president, nor did I ever expect to be a (university) president,” Martin said.
“I actually planned to be a teacher and got my degree from CMU as a teacher, then I became interested in accounting (and my) administration experience with the state of Michigan led to administration opportunities with universities.”
Martin said she earned a master’s of business administration degree and a doctorate in accounting from MSU. She said she brings a unique combination of skills that will fit well at EMU.
According to State News archives, Martin succeeded EMU’s former president, John Fallon, who was removed from office after it was discovered that EMU officials attempted to cover up the rape and murder of a 22-year-old student, which occurred on campus. EMU was fined $350,000 in June for violating a federal campus crime reporting law.
“It’s refreshing after these traumatic couple of years to have someone new,” said Lauren Vechinski, an EMU music education senior. “I am excited and I’m very interested in seeing how it all plays out — I have a good feeling.”
Vechinski, who said she hopes to one day become a band director, said EMU recently hired a new director of bands, who also is a woman.
“We have two very important figures at the university who are both women and being a future educator and a woman I think it’s really important for me and I think I could learn a lot from them,” she said.
Simon at MSU
MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon said she has had the advantage of being at MSU in one capacity or another since 1970. Simon first came to MSU as a doctoral student and was appointed the first woman president of MSU in 2005.
“She’s very well informed, she knows an awful lot about MSU, probably the best informed person on the issues,” said Jim Potchen, chairman of the Executive Committee of the Academic Council (ECAC) and university distinguished professor.
“I’ve worked with a lot of presidents, a lot of presidents here, many, and I would rate (Simon) one of the top two presidents I’ve ever worked with.”
Simon earned her undergraduate degree in mathematics from Indiana State University, which was uncommon for a woman at that time, she said.
“It was very unusual for women to pursue math. There were very few women in my classes and faculty was almost all men,” she said.
“I was an undergrad in the late 1960s (and) in that era it was very unusual to see women in leadership positions.”
Coleman at U-M
Coleman said she feels proud to have been the first woman president of both The University of Iowa and U-M. She said she was president of Iowa for seven years. This year also is her seventh year as president of U-M.
“At both the University of Iowa and here at Michigan, I have always been treated with the utmost respect as president,” she said.
“I rose through the ranks in the hard sciences — a field where you will find more men than women — and have always been able to hold my ground among researchers.”
Coleman said she worked for more than 20 years as a professor and cancer researcher, predominantly at the University of Kentucky.
She earned her undergraduate degree in chemistry from Grinnell College, a small liberal arts college in Iowa, and a doctorate in biochemistry at the University of North Carolina.
Balancing roles and responsibilities
Coleman said every other role she plays in life influences her role as a university president.
“I believe I bring many perspectives to the office — as a woman, as a scientist, as a parent and as someone who has spent her career at public universities. All of these characteristics play an important role in how I approach my job and the many different issues facing our faculty, students and staff.”
Simon said having more women in leadership positions can demonstrate diversity in leadership styles.
“By having more women in leadership positions, you can see the different ways women can exercise leadership,” Simon said.
“I think people are surprised that women in leadership positions can have different approaches and they can all work in different ways.”
Simon said she tries to approach tasks not just as jobs that must be completed, but as individual opportunities to learn a particular skill.
“I know that (President Simon) is a strong advocate and proponent of inclusiveness, fairness and justice for all people,” said Lisa Fine, co-director of MSU’s Center for Gender in Global Context.
University presidents must deal with demanding schedules and many different responsibilities. Simon said an important part of a university president’s job is to stay in touch with the people who make up the university.
“It is a balancing act and you simply try to keep all the balls in the air,” Simon said.
“My spouse, Dr. Simon, and I try to interact with students — it’s valuable to see how the institution is impacting people’s lives.”
“You have to weigh the benefits and disadvantages of everything when balancing a career and a family,” said Martin, who before working for Michigan’s public universities, was an auditor for the state.
“I am fortunate to have had some open-minded bosses when my children were young, who would let me go home for a few minutes during the day if they needed me for something.”
Said Simon: “My plans are to continue every day to work as hard as I can to make MSU a better place,” Simon said.
Advice for students
Simon said though progress has been made, traditional gender roles and stereotypes still exist in the minds of some people.
“You do encounter some folks who are surprised (that a woman has an influential position), I think people are more used to women in a particular role,” Simon said. “I think what’s changing is the number of women in those roles.”
Fine said there have been major changes and a lot of progression over the past few generations, and though she’s not sure the movement will continue on at that same pace, she said she thinks it will continue on in the right direction — there isn’t anyway that society could go back anymore, she said.
“I think that women will be represented in leadership positions enough when the question doesn’t have to be asked anymore,” she said.
To college-aged women seeking influential futures, Simon gave two pieces of advice — control your own dreams, and pursue them — whatever they may be — with passion.
“You need to be open to taking some risks,” Martin said.
“Be willing to push yourself and really expect that if you want top positions you have to work extremely hard.”