Rosenblum: More women in Minnesota colleges’ top job shows progress

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 14, 2014 - 10:01 PM

The best news about six recently named Minnesota college presidents is the part that wasn’t news.

The impressive credentials of all six leaders were spelled out in March and April news stories. But not a single headline (in this newspaper at least) noted the fact that every one of them is female.

This being Minnesota, we’re not inclined to brag about such things. We should. The growing number of women leading two- and four-year institutions, public and private, is a sign of progress, and an example for other states.

In recent months, Dorothy Duran was tapped to lead Minnesota State College-Southeast Technical, Laura Urban takes the helm at Alexandria Technical and Community College, and Barbara McDonald was named interim president of Minnesota West Community and Technical College.

Anne Blackhurst was named president of Minnesota State University, Moorhead, and Leslie McClellon was named president of Rochester Community and Technical College.

And Mary Hinton replaces MaryAnn Baenninger at the College of St. Benedict. Hinton is the first person of color appointed to lead a Minnesota private college.

These women join Rebecca Bergman, the first female to lead Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter since it opened 152 years ago, and the Rev. Dr. Robin Steinke, who will head up Luther Seminary in St. Paul.

And the University of St. Thomas named Julie Sullivan not only its first female president, but also the first lay president in 128 years.

“What you’re seeing in Minnesota is noteworthy,” said Molly Corbett Broad, president of the Washington-based American Council on Education (ACE). “It does not mesh with what we are seeing around the country.”

Broad laughs remembering when she took the helm of the University of North Carolina many years ago — the first female president in the university’s 200-year history. A female civic leader sent out a playful “It’s a Girl!” announcement to hundreds of community members.

“It was just a joyful celebration,” Broad said.

In Minnesota, such announcements are becoming business as usual, which is heartening. With a surge in the number of young women entering college (56 percent of college undergraduates nationally are female), it’s nice to see leaders who look like them and can inspire them to leadership positions.

And, say education experts of both genders, women tend to lead collaboratively, which can be a welcome strategy when running a massive, multifaceted institution in the 21st century.

“People would never describe me as a shrinking violet and the buck does stop with me,” said Baenninger, who is leaving St. Benedict to become president of Drew University in New Jersey.

But when she calls together her cabinet, she puts a different person in charge every week. “And I never sit at the head of the table.” She also uses the word “family” when speaking about her hierarchical structure. She noted, however, that she benefited from mentors of both genders.

“The more diverse an organization is, the stronger it is,” Baenninger said.

Baenninger is thrilled with Hinton’s appointment. “Mary doesn’t need my advice about how to lead,” she said. “She’s a very, very wise and natural leader, and naturally authentic. She will find her way.”

Larry Pogemiller, director of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, is also happy to see the surge in female presidents, “who can collaborate, get tough and use wit.”

He noted that the most dramatic growth has been within two-year institutions. This, he said, reflects the growing number of female students pursuing two-year degrees in fields such as health care that demand leaders who share their experiences.

Four-year institutions see more of a gender gap. The number of women leaders at doctoral-granting institutions, for example, grew from 14 percent to 22 percent in 2011, according to ACE research, but has remained flat since. The University of Minnesota never has had a female president.

To move that needle, we need to focus on what educators call “the pipeline.” Most university presidents follow the traditional path, working their way up the ranks.

“Being provost tends to be the most common route,” said Rebecca Hawthorne, director of the organizational leadership program at St. Catherine University, whose president, Sister Andrea Lee, follows a strong legacy of female leaders.

More than a third of university presidents nationally follow the provost path, Hawthorne said, “and, yet, women only hold 40 percent of those positions.”

With “a huge surge of retirements” expected in the next decade, (60 percent of presidents are 61 or older) she predicts abundant opportunities opening up for women.

It will be interesting to see who fills the considerable shoes of Linda Hanson, the first woman to lead Hamline University, after she steps down in 2015.

Stay tuned for that news.

Natalie Ghaffari, a senior at Eastview High School in Apple Valley, contributed to this column. Natalie is participating in School District 196’s Mentor Program.

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com

612-673-7350

Follow Gail on Twitter: @grosenblum

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