In the first weeks of the war between Israel and Hamas, Nancy Andrews read about American college presidents under fire and something nagged at her.
Why, she wondered, did it seem like so many of those presidents were women?
Dr. Andrews, who was the first female dean of Duke Medical School and until last year the board chair of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, looked up the list of federal discrimination complaints filed against colleges and universities since the start of 2022. The vast majority — 80 percent — were against universities led by women, even though just 30 percent of colleges and universities nationwide have female presidents. Of the seven complaints filed in the weeks after the war began, all were seeking investigations of schools led by women.
Then four presidents were summoned by Congress, under threat of subpoena, to answer for what Republicans called the rampant antisemitism engulfing their campuses. All were women: Elizabeth Magill of the University of Pennsylvania, Claudine Gay of Harvard, Sally Kornbluth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Minouche Shafik of Columbia, who escaped to a prior commitment outside the country.
“Four women presidents, all new in their roles, far too new to have shaped the culture on their campuses, called before Congress? Of course there’s a pattern,” Dr. Andrews said. “The question is, What’s the agenda? Is it to take down women leaders? To attack elite universities through a perceived vulnerability? To further a political purpose?”
Privately if not always publicly, other women in the academy described a similar reaction to the spectacle around the hearing on Dec. 5 and the fallout since: Ms. Magill and Dr. Gay resigned, their critics made it clear they were coming for Dr. Kornbluth, and last week, prominent male donors demanded the ouster of Cornell president Martha Pollack, too.
Almost invariably, the women will run through a list of qualifiers and questions. Yes, there might have been plagiarism, in the case of Dr. Gay, and the issue of race to consider. Yes, the presidents sounded so lawyerly, so coached, at the hearing: Why couldn’t they have more passionately declared their opposition to slogans encouraging genocide?
But then there are the suspicions in the other direction: If the question was safety, why didn’t Congress summon the (male) presidents of Yale and the University of Chicago, where pro-Palestinian groups occupied quads and administrative offices?
Underlying all the conversations was the most maddening, familiar and ultimately unanswerable question of all: Would a man have been treated the same way?
Nancy Gertner, a law professor at Harvard and a retired federal judge who filed some of the earliest lawsuits on behalf of women denied tenure in the 1980s and 90s, said the measure of discrimination in those cases was whether women were subject to stricter scrutiny, or held to a different standard. To her mind, both were true for the female presidents.
“Had there been three men at that table,” Ms. Gertner said, “it would not have gone from ‘bad performance’ to ‘you’re not qualified.’”
To some women in the academy, merely having to ask the question was especially frustrating, as the school year had started with more female leaders than ever in higher education — a third of all presidents, six out of eight in the Ivy League.
“This is a momentous change in and of itself,” said Daphna Shohamy, a neuroscientist and director of the Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute at Columbia. “Of course, we would expect that women, like all leaders, be held to the highest standards.” Still, she said, “It’s striking that the only leaders that were condemned to this degree were women. How do we know how much of this is simple accountability and how much is the effect of the same biases that held women back from leadership positions for so long? At the moment, I think it is difficult to disentangle these issues.”
The Problem of Perceived ‘Fit’
The increase in female presidents coincides with a crisis in the academy. Polls show a sharp drop in Americans’ trust in higher education, and a rise in the share of those, predominantly Republicans, who agree that the institutions have a negative impact on the country. College presidents worry about drops in enrollment and in alumni donations. The women leading have become the face of diversity, equity and inclusion policies, which are criticized by left and right.
If there is concern about gender discrimination on campus, it’s lately been about the question of what’s happened to young men, whose enrollment has been dropping since the 1980s. Women now outnumber them, roughly 60-40, among undergraduates. As for female presidents, the proportion looks positively egalitarian when compared with the Fortune 500.
But those numbers can obscure the stubborn disparities for women in academia. They make up only about 45 percent of professors on the tenure track, and around 33 percent of full professors, below what would be expected given that women have long earned more than half of all doctorates.
The big jump in the number of female presidents came between 2021 and 2023, rising to 33 percent from 20 percent at what the American Council on Education distinguishes as the nation’s top research institutions. It was a shift that seemed overdue, given the representation of women among students. But trustees also looked for a different kind of leader for the post-Covid, post-George Floyd moment.
Presenting Ms. Magill as the new president of Penn in 2022, trustees cited her warmth and compassion, her “unusual humility” and “genuine care,” as well as her experience promoting D.E.I. The announcements went on to list some of her extensive accomplishments as well, including how as dean of Stanford Law School, her role before she became provost of the University of Virginia, she had pulled in the biggest-ever alumni donation and hired roughly 30 percent of the faculty. Yet even there, they noted that she had made time to teach and host students at her home.
Pitching her as “campus mom” had its appeal, but it didn’t fit the traditional expectations of what it takes to run a university.
“You have to be kind of an asshole to be president of Harvard,” Larry Summers told me in the summer of 2017, as Harvard began its search to replace Drew Gilpin Faust, its first female president, who had succeeded Dr. Summers.
Campus politics are famously vicious, even more so as universities have simultaneously become a political target and a big business. All the shareholders — students, parents, faculty, lawmakers, donors, alumni — think their demands are the most important. Managing budgets and egos requires projecting decisiveness, a quality expected from men and often bristled at in women. “People do expect you to be more nurturing,” said Ana Mari Cauce, the president of the University of Washington.
It can be hard for women to win: During racial justice protests in 2020, student-made posters on campus portrayed Dr. Cauce as moody and angry, and insincere for meeting with students but not agreeing to all of their demands. “The stereotype of being a woman is different from the stereotype of being a leader,” she said. “You’re either good at one and bad at the other, or vice versa.”
It’s conventionally recalled that Dr. Summers himself was forced to resign after he mused that the lack of female STEM professors could be attributed to women’s lesser “intrinsic aptitude” in math — a lawsuit accusing Harvard of antisemitism cites this as evidence of the university’s hypocrisy. But the actual chronology suggests that it is more an example of the leeway granted men. Dr. Summers had clashed with prominent Black scholars four years earlier, and he did not resign until more than a year after his comments on women in science. The immediate prompt was a faculty revolt over revelations that suggested he had protected a friend implicated in a federal fraud investigation that Harvard had paid $26.5 million to settle.
A long line of research talks about the problem of perceived “fit”: Prestigious fields are dominated by men, so men in those fields are considered the norm, especially as leaders. Women are perceived — by men and women alike — to be “at least slightly unsuited to that profession,” as Virginia Valian, a psychology professor at CUNY, wrote in her book “Why So Slow: The Advancement of Women.” The same goes for anyone else who does not look like the norm; Black women get caught in what has been called the “double bind.”
Ruth Simmons, the former president of Smith, Brown and Prairie View A&M, recalled the resistance she faced when she proposed that Brown adopt need-blind admissions, as every other Ivy had already done. Board members worried it would break the bank. Dr. Simmons, the first Black president in the Ivy League, told them it was the right thing to do, and that she could raise the money to pay for it. But she remains convinced that the reason they let her do it was that she was also on the board of Goldman Sachs. (Students, by contrast, complained that her Goldman affiliation brought shame on the university.)
Board members and big donors can pose particular challenges for women, coming as they often do from the male-dominated world of finance. The first rumblings of trouble for Ms. Magill, over a Palestinian literature festival featuring speakers with a record of antisemitic statements, came in the financial press. Male donors, several who are prominent hedge fund managers, went into activist shareholder mode, taking to CNBC and social media to declare the presidents who testified incompetent.
Following Ms. Magill’s resignation, Marc Rowan, the chair of the board of advisers at Penn’s Wharton School of Business and her loudest critic, sent trustees a letter urging them to consider exercising more power over decisions traditionally reserved for presidents, such as tenure and free speech policies. After the congressional hearing, Mr. Rowan and Ronald Lauder, another prominent Penn donor and Magill critic, held a fund-raiser for the Republican congresswoman who ordered the college presidents to testify.
‘A Lethal Error for a Woman’
Are women more likely to end up in vulnerable positions? Social psychologists have proposed the idea of the “glass cliff” to describe the phenomenon of women who become leaders in times of crisis. In institutions not used to female leaders, they are seen as weaker. Subject to greater scrutiny, they tend to fail sooner.
“It’s not clear whether they’re selected because it’s a difficult time and people think women can make it better when things are bad, or if women are really set up, inadvertently or advertently,” said Madeline Heilman, an emerita professor at New York University who has conducted decades of experiments on sex bias in the workplace. Whatever the case, she said, “if they both start well and a man does poorly, people offer excuses and other reasons before they see it as indicative of what he’s like. For a woman, it fits into the stereotype of not being qualified. What is seen as a mistake for men is a lethal error for a woman.”
Decades of experiments show other ways that stereotypes disadvantage women. Men and women alike are too stingy when evaluating women and too generous when evaluating men, whether what’s being judged is their height or the strength of their C.V. Studies of millions of scientific papers find that those with women as lead author are far less likely to be cited than those led by men. Reports on the status of women on individual campuses and from national organizations document marginalization and persistent disrespect. Taken in isolation, such episodes can seem small, but they add up, leaving female professors earning less and taking longer to be promoted, irrespective of productivity. Fed up, many “senior” women leave.
Some women who went on to become presidents say they persisted by putting on blinders to discrimination. That may be harder to do now. Presidential search firms report that candidates are withdrawing their names from consideration for the many open presidencies — including women and people of color.
“It kind of amazes me that people want to become a president,” said Dr. Simmons, who left Prairie View early after the chancellor of the Texas A&M system attempted to curb her authority over hiring. “What madness, really.”