By James L. Fisher and James V. Koch and Alice R. McAdory
Inside Higher Ed
In light of Harvard University’s highly publicized discussion over whether women labor under disadvantages in science, it is appropriate to note a different and very important academic arena where new empirical evidence indicates that women clearly excel men. A recent, highly detailed sample of more than 700 college presidents revealed that female college presidents are more innovative and entrepreneurial than male presidents. Further, females are more inclined to take measured risks in their jobs than are males.
Let’s examine this evidence and its implications.
While not everyone agrees, strong empirical evidence has accumulated that the most successful college presidents tend to be transformational leaders who find the ways and means to inspire and move their institutions and colleagues to higher levels of achievement. The most successful college presidents tend to be “doers” who transform and improve their institutions rather than simply recording votes and exercising ceremonial duties.
We can compare male and female presidents by using research reported in The Entrepreneurial President (written by two of us — Fisher and Koch) and a doctoral dissertation completed in 2004 at the College of William and Mary by McAdory. This evidence takes us several important steps further down the road to defining the essence of great leadership.
The three of us divided our sample of more than 700 presidents into one group of more than 300 presidents designated as successful and effective by a team of more than 1,000 experts and another group of more than 300 control group presidents who were not designated as having achieved similar success and effectiveness. We found that the successful presidents were disproportionately entrepreneurial.
These individuals were widely viewed (and they viewed themselves) as intelligent risk-takers who were notable for their innovative, outside the box approach to leadership challenges. Experts reported these entrepreneurial presidents were willing to put their reputations and even their jobs on line in order to improve their institutions. Further, measures of institutional effectiveness revealed that their efforts succeeded. The successful presidents raised more money than the other presidents and raised the quality of their student bodies as measured by SAT scores. Their institutions also grew more rapidly than similarly situated colleges and universities.
It’s precisely here that female college presidents visibly come to the fore. On a variety of measures, the 136 female presidents in our sample were found to be more entrepreneurial than male presidents. Female presidents not only are more likely to believe that successful presidents must take risks, but also to have taken decisions that might have cost them their positions had the decision turned out badly. Approximately 10 percent more female college presidents put themselves and their jobs at risk in this fashion. We also found that female presidents were about 10 percent more likely to violate the status quo, approximately 5 percent less inclined to believe in rigid adherence to organizational structures and about 10 percent more likely to be internationalist in outlook.
One source of the entrepreneurial acumen of women presidents appears to depend upon how they relate to innovative colleagues. Female presidents were substantially more likely than male presidents to develop friendships with people who were perceived to be different, as well as to encourage creative individuals with whom they might have disagreed. As one female president put it, “We don’t get stuck in the mud as often as men.” Our empirical evidence and interviews revealed that female presidents tended to be more tolerant of unusual individuals who did not fit the conventional academic mold.
Of course, not all female presidents are successful and some successful female presidents are not viewed as entrepreneurial, innovative leaders. Still, the weight of the evidence is clear. Women have a comparative advantage relative to men where entrepreneurial leadership is concerned. Two of the most successful women college presidents whose work we highlighted — Rita Bornstein of Rollins College (who stepped down from a very successful presidency in 2004) and Sally Clausen of the University of Louisiana System — epitomize entrepreneurial leadership and prudent risk taking.
Both presidents inherited challenging situations, evaluated their circumstances and took calculated risks. They found new ways to combine existing personnel and resources and opened the doors to new talent and differing points of view. Early on, Bornstein mounted a $100 million capital campaign that seemed well beyond Rollins’ capability when it was inaugurated, but she plunged ahead and raised $160 million. Clausen skillfully reduced the internal interference of legislators and the governor in her institutions, a perilous though absolutely necessary undertaking that those steeped in Louisiana politics thought might cost her job.
It is notable that female college presidents often evince a wider definition of entrepreneurial leadership than their male counterparts. Male presidents are more inclined to concentrate upon financial or enrollment entrepreneurship. By contrast, female presidents extend their gaze to include new ventures and risk taking in curriculum, student social programs and living arrangements, community involvement, and faculty appointment, promotion and tenure. Their attitudes, values and actions portray broader notions of how one can inspire institutional change and improvement.
Interestingly, our results do not necessarily encourage the frequently espoused view that female college presidents are more democratic in their styles than males, or that they are more inclined to group decision-making than their male counterparts. What is critically different about female presidents is that they are more entrepreneurial than male presidents and more attuned to taking risks. Since a rising tide of empirical evidence now connects these characteristics to leadership success in college presidencies, this is good news for women. Accordingly, it should be instructive to men and governing boards who are contemplating the appointment of a new president.
This, however, leads to a set of provocative questions. What use should governing boards make of our evidence? Should they prize female candidates if they desire a transformational, entrepreneurial president? Such a preference would be illegal in 22 of 50 states, except for instances involving religious orders. Yet, just as some boards appear to prefer married presidential candidates over those unmarried, it is possible some boards might secretly tip toward women candidates if they want to increase their chances of appointing a transformational, entrepreneurial individual.
Given that women now constitute 57 percent of American college students, plus the rapidly growing proportions of female faculty members and administrators on campuses, and the desire to act affirmatively on behalf of underrepresented women, such an unspoken preference would be very easy to disguise. In fact, where this evidence is concerned, members of governing boards may be like members of a jury who have just heard what appears to be a very important piece of evidence, but are then instructed by the judge to disregard that evidence. Once the jury actually has heard the thought, it’s nearly impossible to expunge that notion from their minds.
We do not yet know everything we need to know about the nature and sources of presidential success. Further, the collegiate presidential environment has been changing so rapidly that some of the determinants of success today may not hold true 10 years from today. Even so, it is interesting to note one critical area of performance where extensive evidence indicates women outshine men.
James L. Fisher is president emeritus of Towson University and the Council for the Advancement and Support for Higher Education. James V. Koch is president emeritus and Board of Visitors Professor of Economics at Old Dominion University. Alice R. McAdory is assistant vice president for institutional advancement at Old Dominion University.