Nine more women secure college and university president positions

Five were inaugurated in the past week and four are approved by boards, with all promising to put students first.
By: | March 1, 2022
Dr. Montserrat Fuentes gives her presidential address during the 24th presidential inauguration at St. Edward’s University. (St. Edward’s University/Photography by Chelsea Purgahn)

The lineup of higher education presidents continues to change like a baseball dugout scorecard, with names being crossed off and others inserted almost daily, at institutions ranging from the smallest colleges to land-grant universities. But a pattern that persists heading into the third month of the year is the number of women and leaders of color being officially sworn into their jobs or being installed in those top positions.

Over the past week, five women took center stage in inauguration ceremonies at their respective institutions: Barbara Wilson at the University of Iowa, Lori Varlotta at California Lutheran University, Montserrat Fuentes at St. Edward’s University, Laurie Carter at Lawrence University in Wisconsin and Krista Newkirk at the University of Redlands. They are already promising formative change.

“Today, on the university’s 175th birthday, I embrace my role as president with great pride and tremendous humility,” Wilson said on Friday. “We are setting priorities that will be crucial for the next 175 years of this astounding university. I promise I won’t be president during all of those years, but I’m going to set the stage for the future. Student success must always be among our highest priorities.”

For Fuentes, Saturday was a historic moment for her and St. Edward’s. She officially became the first-ever Hispanic president and second woman installed at the university, with big plans ahead. “I want to celebrate our long history of inclusion by cultivating a vibrant campus and distinctive academic experience for all of our students, regardless of their background or identity,” Fuentes, a statistician and former provost at Iowa, said during her inauguration. “We want to engage with our community and make sure our students have access to a transformative and excellent education rooted in mentorship, hands-on learning and academic opportunities. We will become a destination university for a more just and humane world for all.”

Four other women were recently named as presidents of universities:  LaTonia Collins Smith at Harris-Stowe State University in Missouri, who like Carter becomes the first African-American woman to be named president at her institution; Pat Pitney, who rose from an interim position at the University of Alaska; Jill Baren, who takes over at Lake Forest College; and Shari McMahan, who will move over from her provost position at California State University at San Bernardino to Eastern Washington University. “This is a time for forward momentum and to celebrate our successes,” Board of Regents Chair Sheri Buretta said in a statement. “President Pitney is the first woman to hold the position in the university’s 100-year history.”

McMahan beat out 59 other candidates in an exhaustive process that took a little more than a year. Collins-Smith earned the permanent role after her interim work included several huge boosts – including $3.5 million in new scholarship money raised and the largest graduating class this past year which helped increase its six-year completion rate by more than 6%.


More from UB: Shakeup of college presidents continues, and women are rising to the top


Despite the recent gains made, women comprise only 22% of all top leadership positions in higher education. One who announced she will exit her post next June is Smith College President Kathleen McCarthy. She joins three other presidents from Massachusetts institutions in saying they will step down, including Biddy Martin at Amherst College, Anthony Monaco at Tufts University and L. Rafael Reif at MIT.

Two other leaders recently made headlines in taking reins as new presidents: Former University of Wisconsin-Plattville Chancellor Dennis Shields at the Southern University system and Steve Stout, who takes over for the retiring John Hurley at Canisius University. “Presidential transitions are important moments in the life of a university,” Hurley said. “I’m confident that Steve will bring fresh perspectives to the challenges and opportunities in front of us and form a new strategic vision that will build on the fundamental strengths of Canisius and secure an even brighter future for us.”

Another new president named and installed in the state of New York is Dr. David Bergh at Cazenovia College outside of Syracuse. Bergh has spent the past two decades plus as an administrator helping outgoing president Ron Chesbrough.

Two institutions still looking for new presidents are Hennepin College in Minnesota and Columbus State University in Georgia. At Hennepin, Merrill Irving Jr. was facing two separate allegations of harassment and discrimination, including comments about disabled employees, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “This past week I realized the longer I stay in my role as president of HTC the more of a distraction it is to our college community,” Irving told the Hennepin community in a letter. “The driving force for the attention HTC receives should be the success of our diverse student body, our strong industry partnerships that sustain the local economy and the good people who work diligently for the institution’s continued achievement.”

At Columbus State, Dr. Chris Markwood is retiring after seven years. Dr. John Fuchko III has been installed as interim president.