Shakeup of college presidents continues, and women are rising to the top

Many prominent institutions are looking for their next leaders. Will they fall back on tradition or affect change?
By: | February 16, 2022
Adobe Stock

Earlier this week, Anthony Monaco announced he would step down from his position as Tufts University’s president after a dozen years, saying the “time will be right” to exit in the summer of 2023.

It is a premier job in one of the most college-friendly areas of the nation, where its applications and endowment have both doubled since his arrival and where research and academic excellence remains high. Its mission is grounded in the liberal arts, another potential alluring factor for candidates. But the question at Tufts and so many other colleges and universities experiencing openings at the top is, who will be the replacement?

There is likely to be some indication over the coming weeks as the search gets underway, according to a statement from Peter Dolan, Chairman of the Tufts Board of Trustees, who noted that “the board will immediately begin the process of forming a presidential search committee.”

If its process follows others across the nation, the Tufts pool of potential hires will be a diverse one. And that would be significant because Tufts has never installed a woman or a person of color into the position. Prior to Monaco, Harvard President Lawrence Bacow served for a decade as president, and before that it was 11 men, dating back to 1853.

But transformative change is occurring more frequently in higher education. Fordham University last week named Tania Tetlow as president, the first time it has hired a woman into the position in 181 years. Kathleen Harring became Muhlenberg College’s first woman president in 173 years in November. And Robin Holmes-Sullivan in July will be the first woman and Black president at Lewis & Clark College in 155 years.

Still, only about a third of college and universities have women as president, according to the American Council on Education, and only 8% lead doctorate-granting institutions. Nearly 8 in 10 who are presidents are serving in that capacity for the first time.


More President Series stories from UB


Recently, it was announced that three positions held by women will have new women installed as presidents, including Jennifer Coyle at Pacific University, SUNY-Geneseo Provost Stacey Robertson at Widener University, and University of Virginia Provost M. Elizabeth Magill at the University of Pennsylvania, pending approval in March. Magill would replace Amy Gutmann, who will be the next U.S. ambassador to Germany. “The Penn presidency is one of the most complicated and demanding in higher education, and there are very few people anywhere in the world with the skills that this job demands,” said Scott Bok, Chair of Penn’s Board of Trustees. “But through a thorough search process informed by input from all university constituencies, we found exactly the right person. Liz Magill is an extraordinarily accomplished academic leader.”

After 187 years of men leading its institution, Wake Forest University last July turned to an accomplished woman, Dr. Susan Wente, to serve as president. Wente was a well-respected leader and the first woman to serve as provost at Vanderbilt University, and her knowledge as a biomedical scientist has been an added bonus in decision-making around the COVID-19 pandemic. “Dr. Wente’s experience allows her to see a university through multiple lenses,” Wake Forest professor of law Wilson Parker said in a statement. “She carries a deep appreciation for the liberal arts, dedication to professional studies, and above all, experience creating opportunities for faculty and students.”

Tufts is not the only prominent university with a presidential seat up for grabs:

Women are among the finalists for at least two other president positions. Augusta University Executive Vice President Karla Leeper is among the final four at Bemidji State University, and Mary Holz-Clause, acting executive chancellor at the University of Minnesota in Morris and Crookston, is a finalist for North Dakota State University president.