The last thing on Elnora Daniel's mind while studying to be a nurse in the 1960s was the notion that she might one day reach the pinnacle of the academy - a university presidency.
"It is not anything I ever contemplated in my wildest dreams," laughs Dr. Daniel, who today presides over Chicago State University, an urban campus of 8,400 students.
Now, after two years in office, the fact that she's running things is sinking in for her, and for many other women. That's because Daniel's elevation was part of a 1990s record wave of women grasping higher education's brass ring - the presidency.
Since 1986 the proportion of women college and university presidents has doubled from 9.5 percent of all presidents to 19.3 percent in 1998, according to a report last week by the American Council on Education (ACE). Even so, women remain underrepresented.
"Is it a level playing field yet? I don't know," says Marlene Ross, co-author of the report. "I certainly wouldn't say the glass ceiling is broken. There may be a crack."
Still, she says, more women over the past 12 years have become president at every level - from community colleges to four-year colleges, to research universities. And that, observers say, reflects a big shift in the mind-set of those doing the hiring: boards of trustees and executive search committees still mostly dominated by white males.
"In the 1980s it was not ... uncommon, for the chairman of a search committee to say to me privately when talking about a finalists pool: 'I don't know whether we're ready for a woman,' " says Judith McLaughlin, who heads the Harvard seminar for new presidents. "I don't hear that anymore at all, not in the last five to 10 years."
Ms. McLaughlin and others say the success of the women's movement has provided fertile ground in three key areas:
* Women have proven they can handle the job. With more women earning PhDs in recent decades, more women are at the rung one step below the presidency.
* Men are more accepting. The hiring committees and trustees are much more accustomed to thinking about women in senior positions.
* Precedents. It's not dangerous or groundbreaking to hire a woman as president. It's been done at every level, from large public research universities to elite colleges, even Ivy League institutions.
Given that precedent, many believe the trend could accelerate.
"There was a time when there was a glass ceiling that women put upon themselves," says Glenda Price, who two years ago was made president of Marygrove College, a liberal-arts school in Detroit. "Now they see themselves in these higher roles, aspiring to them, and being successful."
But not everyone is sanguine. While optimistic, McLaughlin warns that the number of new women presidents attending her seminar dipped in 1999 to about one-fifth of her group - down from about one-third to half of the group in recent years.
The composition of her seminar tends to reflect the pace and composition of new hiring. It's too soon to know yet whether this decline is a blip or a trend, she says.
Still, in some parts of the country the glass-ceiling barrier to women isn't just cracked, it's been blown to smithereens.
Take, for instance, North Carolina's Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill "research triangle."
Within that zone, top slots at two large public universities - Duke and North Carolina State - and four private colleges are held by women. There are just three male presidents at the triangle's other key institutions.
"The triangle community has really celebrated this advance," says Laura Bingham, president of Peace College, a liberal-arts school for women. "It's been interesting and joyous. People stop you on the street and tell you how proud and pleased they are to see this in North Carolina. They also tell me: 'It's about time.' "
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society