Virginia's higher ed leadership gets a bit more diverse

I was very excited by the news that William & Mary, my alma mater, has selected as its 28th president Katherine Rowe. As part of its announcement, the College released an introductory video earlier this week that provides what I think is an exciting roadmap forward for W&M. 

I'm very encouraged by much of what Dr. Rowe says here, and her dual emphasis on not just the College's "long history" but also "innovation," and how key diversity and inclusion are to "accelerating innovation." In one of her most significant expressions of how she intends to direct the College's course, she states, "We need diversity, and we need full participation—which is what we mean by inclusion—in order to innovate. It's an essential aspect of transformation to preserve our core values." That idea fits in too to her conception of the liberal arts' role in the 21st century as a way of teaching individuals how to manage complexity, an increasingly critical task in a world struggling to sift through the vast amount of information to which we now have access and to make meaningful change in the face of that deluge. A focus on "management of complexity" also opens the door to more practical applications of a liberal arts education, a struggle that many universities have faced in the wake of the Great Recession and changing views of how institutions ought to prepare young people to become members of society.

Of course, in the spirit of diversity, one of the reasons I'm so happy to see Dr. Rowe taking the reins of W&M is because she will be the first woman to serve as the College's president. W&M has been very late in bringing a woman into this kind of leadership role within Virginia—which is somewhat ironic, since it was one of the commonwealth's first universities to admit women. 

So who has been leading the charge in bringing women to the leadership table in higher ed in Virginia? Of the state's 13 public four-year universities, Longwood University seems to have been the first to elevate a woman, Janet Greenwood, to its presidency, in 1981, following that up with Patricia Cormier in 1996. (Longwood, founded as a female seminary in 1839, actually did not admit men until 1973, when the school—then a college—was ordered to do so by the Virginia Department of Education.) And in 1997, the historically black Norfolk State University elevated Marie McDemmond to the role of president and then followed her tenure with that of another woman, Carolyn Meyers, in 2006. It is still the only Virginia university to have had more than one female president.

Unfortunately, William & Mary is not the last of Virginia's public higher ed flock to appoint a woman to its presidency. Five—Christopher Newport UniversityGeorge Mason UniversityJames Madison UniversityVirginia Commonwealth University, and Virginia Tech—have had exclusively male presidents. Virginia State University has only appointed a woman, Pamela Hammond, as an interim president. And even though the University of Virginia appointed its first female president, Teresa Sullivan, in 2012, it was also the last of the commonwealth's universities to go fully coeducational, which it did in 1970. The public four-year Virginia Military Institute (a college, not a university, and so not included in the 13), of course, held out until the Supreme Court ordered it to accept women in 1997.

Of course, diversity is about far more than gender, and when it comes to race, the records are equally rocky . . . but that's another story for another day. 

  • UPDATE! Some additional fact checking reveals that Christopher Newport has in fact NOT ever had a female president. Despite Wikipedia listing "Amy Anderson" as the institution's president starting in 1979, the president appointed then was in fact John Anderson. (Yes, Wikipedia isn't always the best source, but I did cross-check a sampling of its listings with university sites while I was writing this original post, and all of its results appeared accurate. But that's a good lesson—check, check, check.) I've revised the post to reflect this fact.