Number of Women in Top College Jobs Grows : Education: Incoming Cypress, Fullerton presidents increase female leadership of the county’s accredited institutions to 38%.


Christine Johnson and Vera Martinez will add their names this month to a small but growing group of trailblazers widening a career path for women in higher education.

Johnson will become president of Cypress College and Martinez will take the helm at Fullerton College in the coming weeks. They are among five women who are presidents or chancellors at Orange County colleges and universities.

Their number may be small, but the five women represent 38% of the leaders at the county’s 13 fully accredited two-year and four-year colleges and universities. That’s more than double the percentage of female college presidents nationwide.

Women long have been involved in education as teachers and, more recently, as deans--most often at all-female colleges. But few have been top administrators. Johnson cannot recall any during her own college days.


“There was a female counselor who was helpful to me. But administrators? I don’t remember seeing even one,” said Johnson, 49, who will lead Cypress’ 13,000 community college students. Martinez will oversee 19,000 students at Fullerton College, Cypress’s sister school in the North Orange County Community College District.

“It’s a good breakthrough for Orange County,” said Pamela Fisher, president of the American Assn. for Women in Community Colleges.

A report to be released later this month by the American Council on Education shows that 441 women are leaders of higher education institutions, amounting to about 15% of the 3,000 accredited institutions across the nation.

“I think women are making progress, but it’s not a really impressive number,” said Laurel L. Wilkening, chancellor of UC Irvine and the only woman among the nine chancellors in the University of California system.


“People aren’t yet comfortable with women in these roles,” Wilkening said. “They’re not sure: ‘Are you going to do something radical?’ ”

Higher education experts say heightened affirmative-action recruiting has added to the ranks of female presidents. Colleges also have a larger and more diverse pool of applicants from which to choose than in the past, they say.

Community colleges are the most likely campuses to be led by women. In Orange County, four of five women who lead campuses are presidents or chancellors of community colleges.

“The community colleges are still more receptive than any other rung in the academic ladder,” said Maria Perez, owner of Perez-Arton Consultants Inc., which conducts academic and nonprofit executive searches. Often, female presidential candidates attended a community college or began careers there.


More women also are landing jobs in other executive-level positions at colleges and universities. In the University of California system, 27% of those in the executive program--from university librarian and police chief to medical center director and provost--are women.

Women’s advocates, though, say the hiring of women still lags too far behind that of men. “Some people still worry (that selecting a female administrator) will affect fund-raising,” said Donna Shavlik, director of American Council’s Office of Women in Higher Education. “It’s unconscionable in this day and age.”

Some advocates and professionals organize networks for administrators, offer workshops on job-seeking and send out discrimination-watchdog newsletters.

“Before we started these programs, women were left out of networks,” Shavlik said. “Sometimes it was not on purpose, but sometimes it was.”


Her network, as well as one run by Fisher and her Women in Community Colleges organization, helps women meet and exchange ideas with both female and male administrators. They also find open executive positions and identify women who are qualified candidates.

For example, Fisher, who also is chancellor of the Yosemite Community College District, said she sent letters in December to Johnson and Martinez asking them to apply for an open president’s slot in her district. Little did she know, though, that both had just been selected presidents in the North Orange County district.

Martinez, 55, said she has liked to “run things” since she was a little girl, so administration was natural. She remembers learning about business during her childhood when she helped her parents run a home enterprise preparing and selling Mexican-style edible cactus, called nopalitos , hand-packed in jars.

Her second love was education, so she decided to combine it with administration. She earned her doctorate in sociology at UC Riverside and attended Harvard University’s management development program in 1987.


As current administrative dean of educational programs at Santa Monica College, she said she has an open-door management style and seeks input from a broad range of students, faculty and staff members.

“There’s this miracle that goes on in a classroom between a student and the instructor, and somehow I wanted to make that happen more often,” said Martinez, from her Laguna Beach home. “I wanted to get administration out of the way.”

She experienced her share of uncomfortable moments caused by gender bias as she rose to become a top administrator. She remembers offering suggestions that were ignored in meetings until a man offered the same thoughts.

But when she talks about being identified as a female administrator and a Latina, Martinez heaves a sigh and said she has tried to move beyond it.


“Sometimes you wonder--are people really seeing me or just a woman candidate?” she said. “After some soul-searching, I finally just dropped it. I had to believe in myself and look at myself as an individual, and not look at the label people put on me as being a woman or a Chicana.”

Martinez and Johnson had to balance their early careers with the responsibilities of being divorced single parents. Martinez said it created some guilt because she wished she could spend more time with her daughter. Johnson said it drew her closer to fellow single parents who took turns watching each other’s children.

Such mutual aid also is growing among men and women in higher education, Johnson said. “There are more networks, and there’s more nurturing,” she said.

In college, Johnson pursued psychology and counseling and earned a doctorate in higher education at USC. Until she takes over at Cypress, she remains dean of students at Kings River College in the central California town of Reedley.


That job entails taking an almost parental interest in hundreds of young adults, she said. She has had both stern and tender conversations with some, telling them to leave abusive relationships or friends who were a bad influence.

Johnson said she looks forward to having a close relationship with students, as well as with faculty and staff members, at Cypress as its new president

“We don’t make the salaries of pro football players,” Johnson said. “But we help get all these young people where they are supposed to go.”



Changing Leadership

The number of women leading accredited public and private colleges and universities in the U.S. has increased by nearly 200% since the mid-1970s.

Campuses Headed by Women 1975: 148 1994: 441 *

Statewide Picture


In California, women are more likely to run a community college than one of the state universities or UC campuses: University of California: 11% (1 of 9) California State University: 14% (3 of 21) California Community Colleges: 29% (31 of 106) Sources: American Council on Education, Office of Women in Higher Education; University of California; California State University; California Community Colleges

Researched by ALICIA DI RADO / Los Angeles Times