The Ivy League has reached a milestone in gender equality: Half of the eight schools are now run by women.
Drew Gilpin Faust emerged from the weekend as Harvard University's first female president. A current Harvard dean, she will not only sit at the pinnacle of higher education, but will oversee a budget on a par with top corporations. Of the 20 female CEOs in the Fortune 1000, only one runs a firm with assets greater than Harvard's.
Despite the 50-50 leadership split at the Ivies, only 20 percent of US colleges and universities are run by women. Dr. Faust's appointment could have a lasting impact on the gender imbalance among faculty at Harvard, and in the leadership ranks across academia, experts say.
"This is a crack in the glass ceiling, in the sense that to have as prestigious an institution as Harvard expand their notion of suitability for the presidency, sets an example for the rest of academia that's hard to ignore," says Margaret Miller, professor of higher education at the University of Virginia.
A scholar of Southern history, Faust has served since 2001 as dean of Radcliffe, a former women's college attached to Harvard. Colleagues credit her with implementing a smooth reorganization of the former school into a research think tank.
She also served on a Harvard task force examining women's advancement on the faculty, following the firestorm surrounding a comment made by Lawrence Summers, then Harvard's president. His remark – that gender differences in aptitude may account for fewer women at the top of science and engineering – contributed to Dr. Summers' ouster just under a year ago.
An inside candidate, Faust came to Harvard after serving as a history professor and director of the women's studies program at the University of Pennsylvania. She earned degrees at Bryn Mawr College and UPenn, and has authored five books. Her rise along the traditional academic ladder marks an upward mobility that excludes women more than it does men, say experts.
"[Female academics] are promoted less frequently than men are," says Professor Miller. "But because the numbers at the bottom end of that ladder are becoming so overwhelmingly female, that situation is changing."
That change is working its way up from the community colleges and smaller universities, which are more likely to be run by women. "This is a case where the larger, more well-established universities are behind the curve," says Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges.
A crucial choke point is the tenure process for professorships, which places enormous demands on candidates to prove themselves at a time when many women are bearing children. Women's advocates stress the need for policies that stop the clock on the tenure process for pregnancies and that provide a better work-life balance. Faust's work on the issue at Harvard paved the way for a new office of faculty development and a tenure extension policy.
As president, she will have the ability to approve – or reject – permanent faculty appointments. "By consistently insisting on the 'extra look' for women, she could conceivably over time play a role" in advancing women at Harvard, says the Rev. Peter Gomes, a historian of Harvard and its presidents. "[But] she cannot decree anything."
At the top of the career ladder, the barriers may be as basic as attitudes – something that also might be influenced by Harvard's choice.
The boards who hire presidents are predominantly male, and they often feel more comfortable picking someone like themselves, says Claire Van Ummersen, vice president at the Center for Effective Leadership at the American Council on Education.
A former university president, Dr. Van Ummersen now helps train women who are in line to lead schools. That includes imparting soft skills to help candidates establish a rapport with a hiring board, as well as exploring business topics such as fundraising and budgets.
"You talk to women who made it into presidencies and they'll say things like, 'I went back and got my MBA because I was so tired of hearing that women don't know anything about how to manage money,' " she says.
Faust oversaw a budget at Radcliffe of $16 million – several orders of magnitudes less than Harvard's overall $3 billion budget and $29 billion endowment.
But she may also have to wrestle something arguably larger than the university's wealth: the wills of its faculty. While Summers's comments on women hurt his standing, his relationship with faculty was strained far more by his efforts to dictate change.
"Drew Faust's style is more collaborative, consultative, less aggressive, and that will surely create a different atmosphere on campus," says Judith Ryan, a professor of comparative literature who was among those leading the charge against Summers.
Faust was able to make big restructuring layoffs at Radcliffe without making serious enemies. "To be able to do that without any visible blood in the streets – that's pretty good," says Mr. Gomes.
Students on campus say they support the idea of a female president, but add that credentials should trump gender.
"So many Ivy League schools already have women presidents," says Grace Kim, an economics major. "It's less of a statement than a way to ease tensions in the school."
However, the decision is an 'interesting change' at an institution known for being traditional, she says.
"Harvard is a pretty structured institution," says Celina Guerra, a student majoring in government and philosophy. "Anybody that leads Harvard is going to be very capable, but it is nonetheless a personal victory for me."
• Cristian Lupsa and Stacy Teicher contributed to this report.