PHILADELPHIA — JUDITH RODIN is not the typical university president. And that's exactly how she wants it.
As the first woman to be president of an Ivy League university, Ms. Rodin (pronounced ROAD-in) is one of only a handful of women to lead a top educational institution. She is also the first president of the University of Pennsylvania to have graduated from the school.
"I loved Penn as an undergraduate," she says. "Penn broke open new ways of thinking, and it allowed me to dare to be bold."
But few who know Rodin need "dare" her to be bold.
She's "very, very decisive," says Alvin Shoemaker, a trustee and former chairman of the trustees and of the search committee that selected Rodin. "In a university full of a lot of bureaucracy, you really need someone who is demanding and who can size up a situation and really get on it and move it," he adds. "And she is really able to move things."
Rodin is articulate, focused, and driven - qualities she attributes to her 20-year career as a research psychologist.
As CEO of Philadelphia's largest private employer, which has a $1.4 billion endowment (the 12th largest in the country), Rodin says she sees the role of president as that of being a visionary, administrator, and spokesperson for the university.
Having just finished her inaugural year at a school she calls "complicated, diverse, and feisty," Rodin has moved quickly, determined, she says, "to keep pushing Penn upward as an institution."
"Universities are facing a loss of public confidence," Rodin contends. The public, she says, is scrutinizing more than ever the cost of higher education, how schools allocate spending, and whether students are getting a quality education.
Inheriting a university known more for its professional schools than its undergraduate programs, she has set an ambitious twofold agenda: to "completely reengineer" the university, which includes reducing the budget by about $25 million in the next three years; and to reform the university's undergraduate program, focusing not only on curriculum, but on student life, new types of campus housing, mentoring programs, and technology.
Rodin formed a group led by the provost and eight academic deans to study ideas for achieving that agenda, such as "virtual colleges," where some of the campus's 27-room mansions could be converted to facilities where faculty and students come together to eat, live, study, and teach. Rodin says she also wants students to take advantage of the fact that the undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools are located on the same campus. She envisions, for example, business students at the Wharton School minoring in French.
It wasn't "dissatisfaction" with the academic programs that spurred her actions, she says, sitting at a huge oval table in her office, so much as "trying to think about what kind of person in the 21st century we wanted to produce."
The goal is to have a new plan - to be unveiled next month - implemented by the fall of 1997. "Higher education tends to set very long-term goals for itself, and we try to say, 'We mean business here.' This is a real short-term goal, and we're going to drive ourselves to it," she says emphatically.
Rodin's "we mean business" attitude, sprinkled with a touch of fun, is second nature. Having graduated from the Philadelphia Girls' High School, she attended Penn on full scholarship, earning a bachelor's degree in psychology and Phi Beta Kappa honors.
After earning her doctorate from Columbia University in 1970 and a short teaching stint at New York University, she came to Yale in 1972 as an assistant professor of psychology. Rodin moved up to department chair in 1989, later became dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and took over as provost in 1992. She accepted the Penn presidency last July after being passed over for the post at Yale. Last year Rodin also married Paul Verkuil (her third marriage), a former president of the College of William and Mary; she has a son, Alex, 13.
Demonstrating that a woman can lead a major institution, whether it is a major university or a Fortune 500 company, is an obligation Rodin says she takes very seriously.
The fact that Penn selected Rodin "demonstrates that the Ivy League is literally about what they purport, and that's to find the best and the brightest," says Anne Bryant, executive director of the American Association of University Women in Washington. But she argues that "cultural bias" still exists in the search committees across the US.
When Rodin considers why more women haven't rallied through the ranks to the top tier of academia, a short silence fills the room for the first time. "Women have often been relegated to and satisfied with second-tier administrative roles in universities," she contends. "Typically, university presidents and provosts come through the academic leadership track, and since there have been so few women making it in their academic and scholarly careers, it's not surprising that the numbers who might have made it to higher positions in administration were so few."
Rodin says today she still sees few women choosing the career track. "A lot of my women graduate students, when I was really in the heat of my academic career - working hundreds of hours a week - did not go into high-level assistant professorships at major research universities because they looked at me and felt that they didn't want the same life that I had - which was really astonishing to me because I felt that I was a great role model."
So she says she "forgot about it." "I decided that I should stop thinking about role modeling and get on with what I'm doing."
Now that she's cast in a position where being a role model is overt, she says it's a top priority.
What does she hope she's conveying?
"That it's possible to try to have it all," but not without tradeoffs, she says. "If you're willing to say that having it all means that you balance, and that you can't have everything everyday, then I think it's possible to have it all. But I think you need to recognize, with that aspiration, comes a lot of really hard work and a real sense that there are tradeoffs and juggling. But to reach for less is to short change yourself."