To the Editor:
The percentage of women college presidents in the United States had been stalled at 26 percent for a decade and then finally increased to 30 percent in 2017. Although the progress nationally related to gender seems to move at a glacial rate, there are pockets of more substantial gains.
Utah has always been behind the national average in terms of the percentage of women presidents, but over the past two years things have changed dramatically. Utah has eight colleges and universities that make up the Utah System of Higher Education, and these range in size and mission from about 5,000 to 38,000 students, and from community colleges to Research I institutions. Before 2017, only one (12.5 percent) of these presidents was a woman: Deneece G. Huftalin (Salt Lake Community College). However, in January 2017, Noelle E. Cockett took over the helm of Utah State University, then Ruth V. Watkins became the president of the University of Utah in April of 2018, and finally Astrid S. Tuminez, who became the president of Utah Valley University in September of 2018. Now, 50 percent of our university and college presidents are women, which puts Utah well above the current national average. And, in fact, our female presidents lead the largest institutions by far in the state.
I am often asked if this really matters for students and residents of Utah, and I answer, “yes.” Most organizations with women in top leadership tend to hire and retain more well-qualified women for all levels of the pipeline, and most female presidents pay more attention to gender issues on their campuses. Studies report that the scope of research and knowledge changes, including the types of the questions asked. These leaders provide all students, faculty, and staff an opportunity to work with talented women, and these women serve as influential role models and mentors to emerging female leaders. A recent article in The Chronicle, “What Happens When Women Run Colleges?” (June 30), highlights a variety of other benefits as well.
Before 2018, only slight gains had been made in Utah in terms of women in all levels of higher-education leadership (e.g., deans, vice presidents, trustees, cabinets). Yet, I now expect to see more changes in upcoming years. Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe all leaders should be women. We need strong, ethical women and men leading in higher education today. Yet, the diversity case becomes clearer each year that when women and men lead and serve at the top ranks together that organizations and those they serve will benefit.
Having 50 percent women presidents seemed like a pipe dream just a few years ago, but things can change quickly, and it has in Utah. This cannot help but positively change things on our campuses and in communities within Utah. Many thanks to those men and women in decision making roles who pushed beyond their biases to ensure the best people were hired for these important roles within Utah. I for one am glad that more of those amazing leaders are women.
Susan R. Madsen
Orin R. Woodbury Professor of Leadership and Ethics, Woodbury School of Business
Founding Director, Utah Women and Leadership Project
Utah Valley University