On May 2, Harvard’s president-elect, Drew Gilpin Faust, gathered four current and former women presidents of Ivy League schools to participate in a coffee-table panel on the position of women in academia. Gilpin Faust’s historic appointment means that half of the Ivy League’s eight universities will be led by women beginning in July. However, the panel cautioned that despite this landmark, women continue to face obstacles to equity in higher education. Their statements squared with findings reported in the Spring 2007 issue of Ms. magazine: that women represent a considerable minority of tenured faculty at major universities, that they advance more slowly and earn lower salaries than men, and that those with young children are 29 percent less likely to earn tenure.
University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutman was present for the discussion, as were Brown University President Ruth J. Simmons, Princeton University President Shirley M. Tilghman, and former Penn president Judith Rodin, who is now president of the Rockefeller Institute. The women all agreed that their success required a great deal of ambition, determination and a certain blindness to the obstacles women face, especially in academia. Ruth Simmons described having to overcome discrimination as a graduate student at Harvard before rising through the ranks of the Ivy League. Said Tilghman, “There may be signals out there that tell me I can’t do this, but I’m not going to recognize them.” Rodin added, “I… am proud to be fiercely ambitious.”
The panel members had convened at Harvard two years ago in response to comments made by Harvard”s former president, Lawrence Summers, who came under criticism for saying at an academic conference that women have less innate ability to perform in science and mathematics than men.
The women also expressed concern over the status of the economically disadvantaged in higher education. Gutman highlighted in particular “increasing gaps” in the socioeconomic divide at universities as a problem.