Coeducation and Leadership
President Shirley M. Tilghman
October 17, 2006
Presented at Leadership Summit Celebrating Coeducation, The Episcopal Academy
I am delighted to be joining you this morning to help reflect on the importance of coeducation and the opportunity it affords to build a tradition of leadership among young men and women. Founded in 1785, Episcopal Academy is just 39 years younger than Princeton University, and like you, we came to coeducation relatively late in life. But, as the saying goes, better late than never!
For its first 223 years Princeton was an all-male institution -- and when I say all-male, I mean all male. I mean no female students, or faculty, or even staff for most of its existence. I mean no women’s bathrooms! A search of Princeton’s archives suggests that the first woman to be employed at Princeton was a Miss Shaw, who in 1877 was hired to help with cataloguing in the library. One of the most influential of the early cohort of women on our campus was Beatrix Farrand, who was hired in 1912 to design the landscape for the new Graduate College at Princeton -- gardening was presumably considered suitable employment for women of that time. Farrand would go on to put a lasting mark on the landscape of the entire campus, establishing its well-earned reputation for being one of the most beautiful in the nation. Other women followed -- largely in the library and in clerical positions, but it wasn’t until the Second World War, which created a dramatic labor shortage at Princeton, as well as everywhere else, that women arrived as staff in significant numbers. By 1957, Princeton’s alumni magazine was moved to comment, somewhat bemusedly, on the growing presence of women on campus. "Instead of the old monastic days, when we used to shout 'Fire' at the very sight of a skirt, now they are everywhere all week long -- companions of students, wives of undergraduates and graduate students, wives of professors (who are infrequently bachelors these days), and University employees.... So far has this creeping feminism gone that women have even invaded Reunions," which, as anyone who is familiar with Princeton knows, is hallowed ground to alumni.
It was not until 1968 that a woman, sociologist Suzanne Keller, was appointed to the faculty as a tenured full professor. The decision to finally admit women as undergraduates one year later was not taken lightly, nor was it accepted by the alumni without a fight. The argument in favor of coeducation was articulated by President Robert Goheen, who said that it was becoming increasingly difficult to attract the young men Princeton wanted if they weren't finding bright young women when they arrived. Although this hardly has the ring of high principle, it does have the ring of pragmatic truth to it. Yet here we are just a little over a generation after coeducation was introduced at Princeton and many other selective colleges and universities, with what I would argue are more vibrant, interesting, and effective institutions of learning, in part because we embraced coeducation when the time was right. I have no doubt that the same is true of Episcopal Academy, and I wish you every success as you continue to explore the challenges and even greater rewards of a coeducational environment.
I have been asked to speak to you about leadership and the qualities that leaders will need in the 21st century to bring about positive change in the world about them. I would like to approach my topic through the prism of eight remarkable individuals, each of whom has demonstrated qualities that both men and women need in order to be successful and to motivate others to excel as well. None of these qualities can be developed overnight, nor do all of us possess them in equal measure, but they exist in everyone, and if you doubt the truth of this in your case, just dig a little deeper.
What then are these qualities? First and foremost, a leader needs to have a strong sense of purpose -- a passion if you will -- and a vision of where she wants to go. I am reminded here of the founder of the modern dance movement in America, Martha Graham. Graham changed the history of 20th-century American dance and choreography and influenced the work of countless artists in other fields, from actors to composers to set designers. In the course of her long and tempestuous life, Graham came to embody modern dance because of the extraordinary passion she brought to her craft. Her father frowned on professional dancers, and it was not until the age of 17 that she witnessed a dance performance, and it was not until the age of 22 that she enrolled in her first class. Between 1916 and her first great success, American Document, in 1938, Graham endured poverty, scorn, and disappointment, and even at the height of her popularity, she struggled with depression and alcoholism. Undeterred by a lack of patronage, she became her own choreographer, pushing the boundaries of dance and developing a distinctive style of movement. Critics called her work "macabre" and "sexless," but still she persevered until, according to dance historian Maureen Needham, "she moved from being considered 'a dangerous revolutionary' to a model for 'orthodox ballerinas and choreographers in search of new ideas.'" As Needham points out, "For almost all of her life she had repeated as her personal mantra, 'I am a dancer.'" Her journey from oddity to icon was often challenging, demanding a level of commitment and conviction that many fail to muster. True leadership requires an abundance of both.
A strong sense of purpose is not sufficient, however, for a leader needs to be able to inspire others to adopt her vision. She also needs the power of persuasion. In my lifetime, Barbara Jordan epitomized someone who had the extraordinary combination of inspiration to change her world and the eloquence to inspire others to do the same. Raised in the segregated South, she became the first African-American woman to sit in the Texas Senate and the first from a Southern state to sit in the U.S. House of Representatives. Not only did she embody the American dream as she overcame centuries of racial and sexual inequality, she articulated that dream in a way that resonated across America. No one who was alive in 1974 during President Nixon's impeachment proceedings will forget her exhortation to the nation to respect the Constitution of the United States, a constitution that did not include her ancestors when it was written. Yet it was her eloquent and temperate voice that allowed the House Judiciary Committee to arrive at a bipartisan decision in one of the most difficult and potentially divisive moments in the country's history. And whether she was championing the rule of law or exhorting Americans to pursue the common good instead of selfish interests, she held our nation's feet to the fire of its ideals. As President Clinton put it at her funeral in 1996, "Through the sheer force of the truth she spoke, the poetry of her words, and the power of her voice, Barbara always stirred our national conscience.... When Barbara Jordan talked, we listened."
I cannot think of a single leader worthy of the label who does not begin with an idea that is larger than themselves and their personal ambition. The leaders that I admire most, like Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, are motivated by the opportunity to make the world a better place -- not for themselves, but for the benefit of others. Wendy Kopp graduated from Princeton University in 1989 with an intense desire to help overcome the social and economic disparities in the quality of K-12 education in our nation. She also had a clear -- and truly great -- idea of how to do so, namely, to harness the energy and activism of newly minted college graduates. In her Princeton senior thesis, she presented both an argument and a plan for a national corps of teachers that would devote two years after college to teaching in low-income urban and rural schools. In her enthusiasm, Kopp sent a letter to the first President Bush, proposing that, in the spirit of President Kennedy's Peace Corps, he create a corps of young and highly motivated teachers to bridge the achievement gap between America's wealthiest and poorest public schools. Her passionate appeal entered the labyrinth of presidential correspondence, and in due course she received a form letter in reply, rejecting her application for a job. And so, at the age of 21, Kopp decided to undertake this monumental task herself, raising $2.5 million to create Teach for America, a nonprofit organization that is now our nation's largest source of teachers for low-income schools. Since 1990, some 17,000 young men and women have entered American classrooms under Teach for America's aegis. Indeed, a phenomenal 10% of Princeton's graduating class applied to Teach for America last year, making it the coolest thing to do upon graduation. Kopp is a source of inspiration for all who dream of changing the world through the power of ideas and then apply themselves to making their dreams come true.
Of course, the path to leadership is not always a straight and narrow one, and it often requires perseverance and a stubborn refusal to let others define your aspirations. Those qualities certainly characterize Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. A graduate of Stanford Law School, she stood high in her class and served on the Stanford Law Review. Yet, none of the law firms in California to which she applied was willing to take her on, other than as a legal secretary. Refusing to abandon her calling, O'Connor became a deputy county attorney and later established her own law firm. She took time out to raise three children, proving once again that motherhood and professional success are not incompatible; then re-entered the legal world as an assistant state attorney general. After a political interlude in the Arizona Senate, where she made history as the first female senate majority leader in the United States, O'Connor served on the Arizona Court of Appeals before President Reagan elevated her to the highest court in the land in 1981. During almost 25 years in this position, she exercised a moderating influence on Supreme Court jurisprudence through her pragmatic and meticulous opinions on a broad array of contentious issues that polarized her colleagues. Just as she refused to be personally pigeon-holed, her wise opinions defied political classification in an era of red state-blue state polarization. O'Connor is widely regarded as one of the most influential women in our nation's history, but her path to prominence was neither direct nor effortless. Leadership requires both persistence in the face of obstacles and a willingness to break the mold of social and ideological expectations. Her success should be celebrated by men and women alike, for it reflects a deep-seated belief -- and here I use her words -- that "society as a whole benefits immeasurably from a climate in which all persons, regardless of race or gender, may have the opportunity to earn respect, responsibility, advancement and remuneration based on ability."
The women I have just discussed are all, one way or another, household names, and it might lead you to conclude that leaders must always be in the limelight to be successful and effective. That is not so, and there is no better example than Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers union. Raised among farm workers, Huerta witnessed the discrimination, poverty, and violence endured by California's largely Hispanic agricultural workforce. She was the first member of her family to receive a college education, and her initial plan was to be a teacher. However, as she later recalled, "I couldn't stand seeing farm worker children come to class hungry and in need of shoes. I thought I could do more by organizing their parents than by trying to teach their hungry children." Thus began a lifelong commitment to non-violent activism that played a pivotal role in persuading government and industry to extend protections to and bargain with farm workers. In 1962, Huerta joined the legendary César Chávez in founding the United Farm Workers, and the years that followed were filled not only with strikes and boycotts, but also with intensive lobbying and arduous negotiations. Huerta, who has been arrested on 22 occasions, was active on every front, from negotiating her organization's first collective bargaining agreement to directing a national boycott of California table grapes. Her influence can be detected everywhere -- in the establishment of medical and pension plans for farm workers, in the elimination of toxic pesticides, in the creation of bilingual ballots and driver's exams -- but her name is overshadowed by that of Chávez, with whom she worked for more than 30 years. Huerta is only mentioned once in the United Farm Workers' historical chronology, whereas Chávez's name appears 27 times. And while this imbalance seems unfair, the fact that Huerta has done so much and received so little public recognition can also be seen as the mark of an exceptional leader -- one who does not demand the spotlight, even when she has successfully moved mountains.
Whether you are commanding the limelight or working quietly behind the scenes, a quality you must cultivate to be a truly effective leader is the habit of listening and building a sense of community among those around you. One leader who has excelled at this is Meg Whitman, who presides over one of the most successful enterprises in the history of American commerce. Since she assumed the post of president and chief executive officer of eBay, the online auction house, in 1998, corporate revenues have soared from less than $6 million to more than $4.5 billion in 2005. Whitman built eBay around the radical idea that the company would listen to and respond to its customers and what they wanted to buy and sell on the World Wide Web. To use her words, this is "different from traditional leadership. It's usually: What does the center want to do? It's command and control. At eBay, it's a collaborative network. You are truly in partnership with the community of users. The key is connecting employees and customers in two-way communication. We call it 'The Power of All of Us.'" Whitman's mold of leadership, which has taken the art of listening to new heights, is particularly suited to a company like eBay, but an openness to other points of view and an underlying trust in the community one serves are critical ingredients in any venture. By seeking input from eBay's users in a host of ways, by allowing them to set the pace of change in many cases, and by defining leadership as influence rather than dictation, Whitman has helped to transform our global marketplace. In a world where many corporate titans aspire to be both omniscient and infallible, she is truly a breath of fresh air.
Leaders are fallible, just like everyone else, and make mistakes. But it is critical that a leader be able to learn from her mistakes and make mid-course corrections. This is a quality I admire in Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former First Lady of the United States and currently New York's junior senator. A successful lawyer and persuasive advocate for children's and women's rights, Clinton was eager to assume a policymaking role when her husband was elected president. In 1993, he asked her to head a task force on healthcare reform with the ambitious goal of creating a universal healthcare system. Unfortunately, political inexperience, including a failure to work effectively with Congressional leaders, coupled with a variety of other factors, doomed this initiative. "Hillarycare," as her plan was dubbed, did not even come to a vote. This very public failure could have completely ended her political career. But I believe that time has shown that Clinton was able to recognize and then learn from that mistake, and she has since become a highly regarded member of the U.S. Senate, earning respect from both sides of the aisle by treating her colleagues with deference and reaching out to her opponents at a time when bipartisanship is an endangered species. And in New York, she has cultivated upstate voters, rather than gravitating to politically congenial New York City, by listening to their concerns and taking them seriously. Slowly but surely, she has persuaded critics -- and she has many -- to look at her in a different light and, in many cases, to work with her. As The Atlantic noted in a recent article, "One of Clinton's most enthusiastic and least likely fans is Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who, when he was still a congressman, served as one of the most energetic managers of her husband's impeachment." Leadership is more than presenting a vision and serving as its champion. Leadership is about building bridges, and Clinton's success in the Senate, which has surprised so many, bears witness to the importance of this art.
The final quality of leadership that I would like to highlight is one of the most important -- you need courage -- the courage of your convictions, the courage to withstand public criticism, the courage to stand for what is right even in the face of physical threat. Aung San Suu Kyi [Awn San Soo Chee] gives new meaning to the word courage. Born in Burma in 1945, she never knew her father -- an architect of Burmese independence who was assassinated when she was two. Suu Kyi spent much of her life abroad before returning to her homeland in 1988 to care for her ailing mother. Her visit coincided with popular protests against Burma's repressive military government, which responded by declaring martial law. Resolving to speak out, Suu Kyi sent an open letter to the government calling for multi-party elections and a cessation of violence on all sides. Shortly afterwards, she helped to form the National League for Democracy and, defying Burma's rulers, campaigned for peaceful change throughout the country. In 1989, she was placed under house arrest, but the League still succeeded in winning more than 80 percent of the seats in Burma's national assembly. The military refused to accept this outcome and despite international condemnation, has failed to relinquish its grip on power. Knowing that she would never be allowed to return to Burma if she were to leave the country, Suu Kyi has chosen incarceration and persecution over freedom. Separated from her family, she has spent much of the past 17 years under house arrest and remains imprisoned to this day. "To live the full life," she once declared, "one must have the courage to bear the responsibility of the needs of others," and she has personified this belief by sharing the hardships of the Burmese people. In a famous essay, entitled "Freedom from Fear," she reflected on the nature of courage, writing: "Fearlessness may be a gift but perhaps more precious is the courage acquired through endeavour, courage that comes from cultivating the habit of refusing to let fear dictate one's actions, courage that could be described as 'grace under pressure' -- grace which is renewed repeatedly in the face of harsh, unremitting pressure." In 1991, this gentle but courageous woman was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, which her sons accepted on her behalf.
In conclusion, the leaders I most admire have the qualities I have enumerated today -- a vision that transcends parochialism, self-centeredness, or the need for public recognition; the eloquence and passion to inspire others to follow that vision; the fortitude and stubbornness to rise above barriers and stereotypes that are put in your way; a commitment to listening and building a community around a brilliant idea; the willingness to learn from your mistakes; and, finally, the courage to realize your goal in the face of fierce opposition.
Now it will probably not have escaped your notice that I chose only women to illustrate those qualities of leadership. Of course, I could just as easily have substituted George Balanchine for Martha Graham, or Mario Cuomo for Barbara Jordan, or César Chávez for Dolores Huerta, or Larry Page and Sergey Brin for Meg Whitman, or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for Aung San Suu Kyi, and so on. I chose this group of remarkable women because of the persistent inclination in our society -- and many others for that matter -- to imagine a man when the word "leader" is spoken. In this month when the Episcopal Academy is celebrating coeducation and reflecting on the meaning of leadership, I thought it might be helpful to have firmly implanted in everyone's minds the images of women leaders, and to recall the enormous impact they have had on our world.
Thank you for the invitation to participate in this event, and for your kind attention.