To Boldly Go Where Men Have Gone Before: Women Scientists and Academic Leadership
President Shirley M. Tilghman
October 29, 2008
Presented at Bryn Mawr College
Good evening, and thank you, Jane, for your warm welcome. It is a pleasure to return to this beautiful campus, with its Collegiate Gothic echoes of my own, and it is an honor to participate in this lecture series that explores women’s leadership in science and higher education. I am delighted to be able to take part in the celebrations surrounding your inauguration as Bryn Mawr’s eighth president – and to be here in person to congratulate you and Bryn Mawr on her very wise choice of leader. Congratulations!
What a fitting time and place to discuss the roles that women are playing in our nation’s future, as we have witnessed two very different women vie for two of the most powerful positions in the land. Bryn Mawr is a college where women have prepared for and exercised leadership for generations, long before my university and other flagships of American higher education so much as toyed with the idea. In the context of this lecture series, the most important date in Bryn Mawr’s history is 1894, when the remarkable Carey Thomas became your second president. Her personal determination to acquire an advanced degree, then a male prerogative, took her to Switzerland, and she returned to this country with a Ph.D. and the firm intention of bringing graduate education within the reach of American women. First as dean and then as president, she laid the intellectual foundations on which Bryn Mawr stands today, convinced – and here I use her words – that “women can learn, can reason, can compete with men in the grand fields of literature and science.” She also demonstrated that a woman could build an educational institution from the ground up, imbue it with the highest academic standards, and maintain its vitality for almost four decades.
But in other parts of American higher education, it was only in the closing years of the twentieth century that our nation’s great research universities began to open their highest offices to women. Indeed, at historically all-male institutions such as Princeton, female faculty of any kind were scarcer than hen’s teeth until the 1970s. As our first tenured female professor – sociologist Suzanne Keller – put it in describing her initial encounter with Princeton in 1966, “I really thought I was from Mars. It was as if the men had never seen a woman.” Of course, the percentage of women earning Ph.D.s in 1966 was also much smaller than it is today – just 11.6 percent compared to 45.3 percent in 2004. As in many sectors of society, the pool of qualified women on which colleges and universities could draw was painfully small, but I also think it is fair to say that when most male faculty and trustees on search committees of that era closed their eyes and thought of suitable candidates, they imagined jackets and ties, not skirts or dresses.
Times have certainly changed – and for the better – but in many respects, we are still in the age of pioneers, when most women who reach the apex of academic leadership are the first women to do so. Take the Association of American Universities, which I chair. Established in 1900, this organization is composed of 62 outstanding public and private research-intensive universities in the United States and Canada – from Stanford and Harvard to the Universities of Michigan and Toronto. Ten years ago, just four of these institutions were headed by women. Today 16 – or 26 percent – have female leaders, which is consistent with the leadership profile of American higher education as a whole. Not surprisingly, of the 16, all but three are the first women to head their universities. I do not mean to imply that they – and I – are faced with the kind of social prejudices and obstacles that confronted Carey Thomas. There are pioneers, and then there are pioneers, but all of us are conscious that we are breaking new ground that will never have to be broken in quite the same way again. And while it is exhilarating to make history, it is also sobering.
Let me share with you a case in point. Last year, I participated in a discussion with four other past, present, and future Ivy League presidents, Judith Rodin and Amy Gutmann of the University of Pennsylvania, Drew Gilpin Faust of Harvard, and Ruth Simmons of Brown, called “Women at the Top: The Changing Face of the Ivies.” We all agreed that the position of university president is an enormously demanding one, both for men and women, but President Simmons captured the added pressure felt by those who are the first of their sex or race to embrace this challenge. On being offered the presidency of Smith College in 1994, she described her initial reaction as one of fear. “I didn’t have an answer on the spot,” she told us, “but I remember being terrified and thinking, I’m not sure this is something I should do. . . . I was terrified because I was going to be on stage, and everybody would see my failure, and I was terrified because I thought, my God, if I were to fail, when would the next African American be appointed in a position like that?”
I suspect that all of us have experienced moments like this, knowing that we will be regarded not only as potential role models for other women but also as archetypes. Like it or not, I am both the nineteenth president of Princeton and its first woman president, and this explicit coupling of gender and office will be inescapable until the presidential portraits of men that hang in Nassau Hall are interspersed with those of women. Sally Mason, a molecular biologist and the president of the University of Iowa, captured this duality in a speech last year, when she recalled her previous appointment as the first female provost of Purdue. “At the same time that I was a successful provost,” she said, “I often remained a ‘woman provost.’ Sometimes I was as much ‘pioneer,’ even ‘novelty,’ as leader.”
Now, there are advantages to being what psychologist and Syracuse University Chancellor Nancy Cantor calls “insider voices with outsider values” – and I will talk about this later – but I look forward to the day, as does every female leader I know, when our originality is solely ascribed to how we act and think and not to our two X chromosomes. I look forward to the day when our constituents believe that we were appointed because we were the best possible people for the job and not because, in addition to our talents and credentials, we are women.
This unfortunate mindset was brought home to me most forcibly when, early in my tenure, I appointed a number of women to senior positions at Princeton, including the University’s first female provost, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, dean of admission, and dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science. I had also appointed an even larger number of male administrators, including the dean of the faculty, dean of the Graduate School, and the general counsel, and, in every instance, I chose the person I believed would be best for Princeton. However, this was not the view of some observers, including students, who saw in my female appointments the twenty-first-century equivalent of John Knox’s “monstrous regiment of women.” To quote one letter to the Princeton Alumni Weekly, “We now have a lady president and a lady second in command . . . . To save time, I recommend that the trustees promptly convert Princeton to a single-sex, female university and be done with it.” Another writer helpfully suggested that we change the name of his alma mater to “Princesstonia University.”
But frankly, it was the views of students that I found most dismaying. At the time of the appointment of Janet Rapelye as dean of admission in 2003, according to The Daily Princetonian, the student newspaper, 44 percent of students thought gender was a factor in her selection, 32 percent did not think so, and 22 percent were undecided. Here was a significant percentage of a student body composed in part of remarkably intelligent and ambitious young women concluding that the only conceivable way in which a woman could be appointed dean of admission (an increasingly female-dominated field, by the way) was through the exercise of affirmative action. The reason? Fewer women were being appointed to comparable positions at Yale and Harvard! It is a measure of the weight of history at Princeton that long after the advent of co-education, the appointment of women by a woman was news, while decades of appointments of men by men to senior posts passed without comment.
This evening I would like to focus not on the obstacles to female leadership in higher education but rather on how a scientific career prepares you to be a successful leader. Specifically, I would like to reflect on my own experience as a molecular geneticist turned university president, as well as that of other female scientists who have found themselves in my position, for the traits that helped us to thrive in the lab have also helped us to thrive in the president’s suite.
Now, I am not suggesting that humanists or social scientists are any less equipped to exchange the life of a scholar for that of a chief executive officer. While it is true that more than half the female presidents and chancellors in the Association of American Universities are scientists, this is, I think, a reflection of the fact that science is absolutely central to the mission of research universities, where the generation of new scientific knowledge is both an intellectual activity and a public trust. This said, I do believe that a life in science is excellent preparation for women who find themselves at the helm of colleges and universities, especially female scientists of my generation, who chose to enter what even today is a predominantly male domain. In 2003, for example, full-time female instructional faculty and staff in degree-granting institutions constituted just over 25 percent of the professoriate in the natural sciences, compared to almost 55 percent in the humanities. In other words, women scientists have had to achieve success in a culture that is largely defined by men, which means that the “old boys club” we enter on becoming academic leaders is a lot like home. We may apply our talents in different ways, but the attributes on which we draw are much the same. So, what, then, does this portable toolbox hold?
Perhaps the most effective tool at our disposal is an absolute inability to recognize reality. Let me explain what I mean by this somewhat curious statement. In my experience, many successful women scientists simply fail to perceive that there are obstacles in their path. They are able to go through life with metaphorical blinders on, deflecting not just the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” that affect us all, but also the social stereotypes that tell young women that a life in science is not for them. It is not that we deny that there are forces working against the progress of women in our field; indeed, we are quick to point them out. Rather, we refuse to acknowledge that these forces apply to us. Put bluntly, we refuse to allow others to define our potential. This is a tremendous survival tool, but I hope it is one that the rising generation of female scientists will be able to do without, for it is rooted in a patriarchal world – the kind of world in which my high school guidance counselor, ignoring my grades in math and physics, advised me that I would make an excellent executive secretary, provoking the wrath of my father, who thankfully believed that I could do anything, and I mean anything, I wanted. It is the kind of world in which President Mason’s graduate adviser told her that she and her fellow women in biology – and I quote – “were only admitted because we were women, not because we were necessarily good.” And it is the kind of world in which astrophysicist and Purdue President France Córdova was left in no doubt by her teachers that “girls didn’t go to grad school.”
If you look at the life stories of female scientists who have risen to lead a college or university, you will see a streak of stubborn determination that has allowed them to defy conventional wisdom in ways that often transcend their professional lives. For example, agricultural scientist and Texas A & M President Elsa Murano is a refugee from Fidel Castro’s Cuba, fleeing with her parents at the age of two, living in four different countries, and speaking no English until, at 14, she landed in Miami. Her mother, now divorced, scraped together a living from a number of humble jobs, and President Murano began her undergraduate studies in a local community college because this was all she could afford. However, like me, she was blessed with a supportive parent – one who told her that “no dream is too big, no mountain too high” – and today she is the first woman, the first Hispanic, and the first person under the age of 50 to lead her university.
Another example is provided by epidemiologist Heather Munroe-Blum, the first female principal of McGill, who contracted polio as a child and spent a long time in an iron lung. Ignoring a medical prognosis that she would never walk again, she recovered the use of her legs through intensive physiotherapy – an experience that both demanded and fostered a refusal “to accept defeat.” Principal Munroe-Blum’s mother, who had won a scholarship to McGill but was prevented from enrolling by a father who believed that women should not go to university, was determined that her children “grow up with a sense of equal opportunity,” yet another case of affirmative parenting. I cannot overstate the importance of such unconditional support, especially from one’s immediate family, but at the end of the day, it is we who have to make our way in the world, and that requires us, again and again, to adopt a “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” mentality.
Let me be clear. This is not the same as acting autocratically and disregarding everyone’s views but one’s own. That would never fly in the lab, where so much of what we do involves the energetic exchange of views, and it would doom a would-be academic leader within days of taking office. Quite apart from the fact that the chief executive officer of a college or university generally has much less power than her corporate counterpart, higher education is at heart a collegial enterprise where ideas are floated rather than imposed. No, damning the torpedoes is all about inner strength, not outward bullying.
Now, an inability to recognize reality is not sufficient to succeed as a woman in science. It must be coupled with an insatiable curiosity and a single-minded love of science that drives you to the lab on weekends; that makes the search for answers something you think about last thing before you go to bed at night and first thing when you wake up in the morning. I could usually predict with great accuracy which of my students would excel by what they did when they arrived in the lab in the morning. If they hung up their coats, poured a cup of coffee, chatted about politics or sports, or read the paper, I knew they should be in the market for another professional calling. The ones who were going to succeed threw their coats in a heap on their desks, raced to the freezer to collect their films, and headed to the dark room to develop the previous days’ results. They simply could not wait to know the answer. It is impossible to be a lukewarm scientist and be successful – there has to be fire in one’s belly – just as it is impossible to be a lukewarm president and be effective. In the final analysis, scientists and academic leaders must care enough about their work to make it an extension of themselves, not, I hope, to the serious detriment of other fundamental goods, like their families or their health, but in harmony with them. They must believe in the essential worthiness of their institution’s mission and eagerly speak about it to anyone who will listen.
Two other qualities that are essential for a successful scientist or academic leader are optimism and patience. For every trip to the dark room that results in that “Eureka!” moment, when the hair on the back of your neck stands on end and your heart begins to pound as you realize that you are the first to know something new about the natural world, there are dozens and dozens of trips that lead to the “Back to the Drawing Board” moment. Scientists must be cockeyed optimists, who after a disappointing outcome to an experiment are ready to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and charge right back into the fray. One of the most brilliant students I have taught at Princeton spent the summer between his junior and senior year in the lab, beginning the research on his senior thesis. At the end of the summer he came into my office and announced that he simply could not take the recurring failure that his beginner’s luck had encountered. His experience in that regard was not so different from most novice lab workers, but he had the self-awareness to recognize that his senior year would be a miserable one if he continued in the lab. This story has a happy ending, for he wrote a wonderful thesis on bioethical issues surrounding the genetics of psychiatric disorders.
These qualities of optimism and patience are also essential qualities in an academic leader. The apt and oft-used metaphor for colleges and universities is a large ocean liner (we try hard not to think of ourselves as battle ships!), which takes some time and effort to turn in a new direction. As old and venerable institutions, we are rightly attached to our traditions and our essential role as repositories of the world’s knowledge and wisdom, past and future. As Drew Gilpin Faust said in her inaugural address as Harvard’s 28th president, “A university looks both backwards and forwards in ways that must – that even ought to – conflict with a public’s immediate concerns or demands. Universities make commitments to the timeless, and these investments have yields we cannot predict and often cannot measure. Universities are stewards of living tradition.” To resist the pressure to only preserve, college and university presidents must be optimistic and future-oriented, and harbor the patience of Job. For our constituents are many – faculty, students, staff, trustees, alumnae, parents, and neighbors. Each of these groups has a stake in the future of our institutions, and none is shy about expressing their views to us.
Another important characteristic of women scientists is a collaborative leadership style that can be traced in part to social conditioning and in part to the imperatives of the lab, and which works well for college and university presidents. Academic institutions are unique organizations in that they are built around a multiplicity of gifted and persuasive voices rather than a single vertical chain of command. Ultimately, decisions have to be made, but not before as many views as possible are canvassed, weighed, and, if possible, harmonized with one another. From an early age, women are encouraged to be consensus builders, to listen as well as speak, and this is only reinforced by a life in science, which is inherently collaborative – just think of the lengthy list of authors that more often than not adorns our papers. Science has an ill-deserved reputation for being a reclusive, solitary profession, but nothing is further from the truth. Indeed, I wish I had a dollar for every undergraduate who has gravely told me that he or she is pursuing medicine instead of biology because of a desire to work with people! They should have a conversation with Susan Hockfield, the first woman – and first life scientist – to lead MIT, whose approach to academic leadership, like her approach to scientific research, is suffused with a collegial spirit. “I believe profoundly in the inventive power of collaboration . . . .,” she told MIT Spectrum. “When you work together on a problem, you see things emerging that you couldn’t imagine alone. Collaboration brings an outpouring of great ideas and insights and allows you to go far beyond where you can get alone.” Whether the problem resides in a Petri dish or in an institution’s operating budget, the key to its resolution usually lies in heeding different voices and bringing different minds together, something that women scientist-presidents tend to do extremely well. Consultative decision-making is often a long and painstaking process, but I would argue that because of it, colleges and universities make far fewer mistakes in the long run.
Scientists bring to their presidencies one other critical trait – a love of solving puzzles. Like me, scientist-presidents frequently associate their pursuit of science with the pleasure they derive from determining how things fit together. President Hockfield loved jigsaw puzzles as a child, but she did not stop there. “I always took apart my toys,” she recalls. “Sometimes I could put them back together. Often not.” President Córdova of Purdue could have been speaking for all of us when she said of science, “It’s like being a cosmic detective figuring out explanations for things not well understood; it gives you pleasure.”
On the other hand, it has been my experience that the ways in which a scientist goes about solving a puzzle are quite different from a president’s. I have often been asked what was the greatest challenge in making the transition from bench scientist to university president. I always answer that I had to radically change my puzzle-solving strategy. To be successful, a scientist must become complete master of a relatively small fraction of the universe of her discipline, in my case molecular genetics. Within the sub-sub-sub-field of mammalian developmental epigenetics, I had read every paper, I had full command of everything that was known and understood at the time, and could reel off all pertinent facts and figures at the drop of a hat. It would never have occurred to me to “out-source” that information gathering to anyone else, because being in command of the field was essential to whatever creativity and idea-generation I was able to do over the years. In other words, scientists sacrifice breadth for depth as they go about solving puzzles.
Presidents must embrace precisely the opposite strategy. It is virtually impossible for a college or university leader to have mastered every issue that crosses her desk, and therefore it is critical that she learn how to delegate the information gathering and synthesis to others. In the beginning, I found this extremely difficult to do and would constantly catch myself saying to someone who just wanted a “yes” or “no” answer, “Just send me the Excel spreadsheets, or the survey results (in other words, the fascinating data that I love playing with so much), and I’ll let you know once I’ve fully mastered what they say.” Had this been allowed to go on, Princeton would have encountered gridlock of historic proportions – even for a university. Luckily, I recognized what I was doing and gradually weaned myself from behaving like a scientist instead of a president.
The aspect of scientists’ penchant for puzzle-solving that does complement the work of academic leaders is embracing and tackling complexity. As Jane can attest, there seem to be an infinite number of schools, departments, programs, centers, and institutes to piece together in a way that ensures that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We must oversee a host of administrative units, creating a self-contained community while, at the same time, engaging with the world outside our gates. Above all, in the words of Mary Sue Coleman, a biochemist and the first woman to lead the Universities of Michigan and Iowa, we must preside over “a limitless marketplace of ideas – a marketplace in which ideas are tested, refined, and sharpened by competition.” Without controlling this remarkable crucible, we must ensure that it can bubble without overflowing or running dry; we must defend academic freedom while upholding civility; we must foster innovation while preserving tradition; and we must somehow divide our attention among a ceaseless parade of issues and then, at the end of the day, knit our minds back together again. We may not be sequencing the human genome or deciphering dark matter, but we are confronted with an extraordinary number of moving parts that must be harnessed in a way that maximizes both their individual autonomy and their collective coherence – in short, we are still in puzzle-solving mode and, speaking for myself, still having fun.
And this is a good thing, because to the best of my knowledge, none of the women who began their careers as scientists and are now heading academic institutions ever set out to lead a college or university. As President Mason put it, “My dream was never really to become a university administrator, let alone a president. My dream was to be a scientist.” This perspective is important, for in a real sense, women scientists have already fulfilled their highest aspirations. Moving from the lab to the president’s suite is perceived by some to be a big step, but in some ways it is a lateral move, certainly in the eyes of the faculty, who often use the word “administrator” as a pejorative, not a compliment.
I have discussed a number of qualities on which women scientists can draw as academic leaders – a failure to recognize reality, a passion for their work, optimism and patience, a collaborative leadership style, an appetite for puzzle-solving and complexity, and a pre-existent sense of fulfillment. There is one other strength that we bring to our new positions that may be the most controversial point I will make this evening.
I would like to suggest that female scientists who accept a leadership role in our nation’s colleges and universities may well be less risk-averse than the average president. At first blush, this generalization may seem counterintuitive, but bear with me. Scientists must learn to think outside the box, for we explore what is possible and not just probable, and we must imagine that there are always better ways of doing and understanding things. It has been my observation that women scientists are inclined to seek out less well-trod ground, sometimes in sheer self defense, and as a consequence they bring completely fresh eyes to old problems that have been studied by their male colleagues for many decades. Women scientists enjoy the freedom and responsibility that comes from being outsiders on the inside, to return to Chancellor Cantor’s characterization of female academic leaders. It may well be that women bring fresh eyes to the president’s suite and have a well-honed inclination to challenge long-held assumptions and to seize on new opportunities. This is especially so in the area of ensuring the rights of women. In Chancellor Cantor’s words, “we have the opportunity to bring to bear our sensibilities and our voices as women. We also have the opportunity – and an obligation that is both moral and practical – to help forge the structural and practical supports that can assure our own survival and success, as well as that of other women” and, I would add, other under-represented minorities in higher education. We can see this quality in Marye Anne Fox, a distinguished chemist who currently serves as the first female chancellor of the University of California, San Diego. Prior to this appointment, she was the first woman to head North Carolina State University, and in her acceptance speech at this once segregated institution, she left no doubt as to her first priority. “I’m going to bring three visions to North Carolina State University,” she declared. “The first being inclusion of diversity as an important component of everything we do. . . . We’re going to be the leaders in this country on diversity.”
Female scientists and academic leaders are well positioned to break with convention and tradition, not by turning the world upside down but by expending their capital in ways that broaden the definition of what it means to be a community of scholars in the twenty-first century. They can take some institutional risks because they themselves have been required to take risks, and they can show those less inclined to take them that there is much to be gained by departing from the tried and true. American higher education is led by a brilliant array of talented men and women from a wide variety of fields. There are many paths to academic leadership, but speaking for myself and my fellow female scientist-presidents, I cannot think of better training than our personal and professional experience, from damning the torpedoes to building consensus. Our past experience has helped us to boldly go where men have gone before and, in the process, to open doors for the many, many women who will follow us.
Thank you for inviting me to share my thoughts with you tonight.