An alumna who graduated from Muhlenberg College more than 50 years ago just had to be there. Making the drive from New England to Pennsylvania, she noted the history of the moment occurring in Allentown. After all the presidents who had been installed in the 173 years at this small private institution—with names like William and John and Robert, Arthur and William and Conrad—Nov. 12 marked the first time Muhlenberg officially named a woman to that post.
Meet Kathleen Harring, former provost, former department dean, former chair and current instructor of psychology and researcher at the institution she calls a “very special college.” After all of those roles and an interim tag of president given to her in 2019, she has taken the lead as one of the many women to become breakthrough pioneers in higher ed in the past 20 years.
“I’m realizing how very unique and special that is, not just for me but for our students, our alums, even for some community leaders who sent lovely expressions of congratulations,” Harring says. “It puts me in this unique position to be a model for others, to show the level of leadership, the type of position that is possible for them. I’ve heard from students, from alumni and from other stakeholders that it is so important for them to see their identity represented at top leadership positions.”
Such changes of the guards are becoming more common but still have not become the norm. Though women comprise 50% or more of student bodies, more than two-thirds of those in command are men. Nonetheless, women are making significant inroads, challenging higher ed’s status quo and outdated traditions. Like so many others across the country, Harring brings more than just an educator’s mindset to the position. She brings experience as a leader and an understanding of an institution’s might. Her work over the challenging past two years includes a capital campaign calling for $111 million from donors. Muhlenberg has already raised $71 million.
“We did this in a pandemic,” she says. “At a time when other institutions maybe put a pause on their campaign or their fundraising, we made the decision we were going to go ahead. My aspiration is that not only are we going to meet the $111 million by 2025, but that we’re going to exceed it.”
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Harring has many other goals and lofty plans for her liberal arts institution. University Business sat down for a conversation to discuss her work at Muhlenberg, her thoughts on women leaders in higher ed and her goals for the future.
You’ve taken over as president and yet you are still committed to being entrenched in research and working in the class. Why?
I’m an educator at heart. The way that I lead, I think as an educator. I am continuing research collaborations and hope to return to teaching at least one class a year. It’s those learning moments with students where I’m energized. I’m very passionate about the liberal arts and higher education. Being in the classroom, being in the research lab with students reminds me of why I do what I do. It’s a sacred space. It’s a tonic in some ways for me. I’m looking forward to it, realizing that right now it’s a little challenging with all of the other decisions that need to be made still in the midst of a pandemic.
Who were the strongest influencers in helping you rise to the role of president?
I had so many mentors along the way. I started at Muhlenberg as an Assistant Professor of Psychology right out of graduate school and had leadership experiences very early on. That was because of senior colleagues who mentored me and advised me about particular positions. I’ve also been fortunate to have a network of mentors in higher education across the country, some current presidents, some former presidents. I said in my inauguration remarks, I am in this position because of those friends and colleagues who believed in me and sometimes gave me a little nudge.
I think of my relationship with Bobby Fong, former president of Butler University and Ursinus. When I was in the ACE Fellows Program, I visited with him a great deal. My conversations with Bobby and his writings deepened my understanding of my strategic leadership framework to lead from both heart and mind. Jay Lemons (former president of Susquehanna current President of Academic Search), who introduced me at the inauguration, has been a marvelous mentor and friend. During the pandemic, at least in my network of presidents of small liberal arts colleges, we have become even closer, sharing strategies and providing emotional support for one another.
In your role as president, how important is paying it forward to colleagues?
I am very committed to providing the same sort of mentorship and support to colleagues at Muhlenberg and colleagues across higher education. I am always willing to take a phone call, to give advice and guidance. I value being in a position to do that because I know how that support has helped me.
According to one study done a few years ago, a little more than 30% of college presidents or chancellors are women. That’s triple what it was 35 years ago. How significant is that?
About 60% of college students are women. So if we compare the 33% to the 60% of women across all sectors in higher education, we still have a long way to go. That same survey showed that about 5% of college presidents and chancellors are women of color. We clearly have a lot more to do to diversify leadership in higher education. Muhlenberg has moved the needle, particularly this year, among our faculty. We’ve been very intentional about that. Having that diversity of experiences and perspectives at the table, making strategic decisions, allows us to make more effective decisions. We saw it clearly with the pandemic, prioritizing equity and access and not making decisions that would create barriers for some students.
What would you say to other women aspiring to reach senior-level positions in higher ed?
It’s important that current and future leaders think about what motivates you to take on these leadership roles. What do you value? What’s your passion? Think about the strengths you would bring. There are many women and others, particularly faculty or staff of color, who would say, ‘What would I have to offer?’ Or maybe, ‘I don’t have the skills.’ Take time to strategically reflect on what you want to do, what you’ve already done, what skills you’ve developed. Second, get advice from mentors and colleagues who really know you, who understand your accomplishments. There’s research showing that women tend to have less confidence and underestimate their skills. So it’s good to have others, both men and women, giving you advice and making visible your accomplishments. Third, have confidence in yourself and take that leap. Go for it.