Head of the Class : The Valley leads the way as more women take top spots nationwide in higher education.


Until some years ago, few women held positions of power at Cal State Northridge. Today the campus is headed by President Blenda J. Wilson, and its executive roster lists a chief academic officer among other influential positions held by women.

Silenced are the voices that used to call CSUN's leadership ranks an "old boy network." Including Wilson, the 24,000-student university is led by women in two of its top four executive posts and three of its 10 dean jobs. A woman has guided the campus's $350-million recovery from the Northridge earthquake.

And CSUN is not alone. Although women have long outnumbered men as college students, they now are increasingly beginning to crack the once male-dominated ranks of top executives at the nation's institutions of higher education, two new national reports have found.

The share of women heading U.S. campuses has more than tripled during the past two decades, growing from 5% to 16%, according to a report by the American Council on Education. California has more female college presidents or chancellors this year than any other state, and has registered a higher rate of growth among women top executives than the national average, officials said.

In the San Fernando Valley area, women now run four of the seven public institutions of higher education, the largest share ever. Besides CSUN, women are in charge at Pierce College in Woodland Hills, Valley College in Van Nuys and College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita.

The number of female administrators at the level just below president has also grown significantly nationwide, but women still hold only 13% to 31% of those jobs and earn lower average salaries than their male counterparts, according to a research brief released by the council.

"It is good news and bad news," said Judy Touchton, deputy director of the ACE's Office of Women in Higher Education. "The reality is the progress for women chief executives nationally is steady and notable. But to only have 16% of the CEOs seems very low."

Women fared better in California, the group's records show. As of September, women accounted for 23%, or 62 out of 269, of the chief executives at regionally accredited, degree-granting institutions in the state.

And, the number of female chief executives at California campuses increased 54% between April, 1992, and April, 1995, when the most recent nationwide figures for the ACE report were tallied. That's in contrast to a 30% increase among all surveyed U.S. institutions during the same period.

Nationwide, women now head 453 of the 2,903 colleges and universities counted in the report. The 16% share overall for women is similar among different types of institutions, except for two-year independent campuses, where women hold the top jobs at 27% of the surveyed independents, the report said.

Neither the report nor the brief, however, addressed what differences, if any, women bring to higher education as opposed to men. In interviews, some women presidents at local colleges and universities said women may act and be treated differently than men, while others insisted any differences are just individual.

"Both for better and for worse, yes, I think there's a difference," said Wilson.

When Wilson arrived on campus from the University of Michigan, Dearborn, in 1992, she recalled, "There were some people who were used to a certain image of a president who found it off-putting to have a younger, different person."

Other female presidents of Valley-area colleges said women tend to run their campuses in a more collaborative style. But at Pierce College in Woodland Hills, acting President Mary E. Lee firmly disagreed, saying, "My whole point is you act in the position first, and then you just happen to be a woman."

Today four of the nine campuses in the Los Angeles Community College District--Pierce, Southwest, Valley and West Los Angeles--are headed by women, the most ever, district officials said. So are about one-third of the 106 community colleges in California.

In the Cal State system, four of its 22 campuses--Hayward, Northridge, Stanislaus and the California Maritime Academy--are headed by women, also the most ever, Cal State officials said.

And in just the past several months, women have assumed the presidency of about half a dozen California institutions, including large campuses such as Valley College in Van Nuys, Santa Monica College, the University of San Diego and City College of San Francisco.

Although enrollments and presidents constantly change, Touchton said City College of San Francisco, with about 28,000 students in credit-earning programs, now appears to be the largest campus in the nation with a woman at the helm, following the hiring in August of Chancellor Del M. Anderson.

In the University of California system, only one of the nine campuses--UC Irvine--has a woman chancellor, Laurel Wilkening. And, no women's names were publicly circulated among the finalists during the recent selection of a new president to head the UC system.

Touchton said that mirrors the situation nationally, with few women able to advance to the top jobs at large research institutions. "Things there are more entrenched, and somehow less susceptible to public pressures and shifting trends," she said.

For example, women now hold the top jobs at only two of the 60 influential schools--including UCLA and UC Berkeley--that make up the Assn. of American Universities, a spokesman said.

Others, however, said women administrators gradually will be promoted into top posts as they gain experience.

At local colleges, women presidents have increased the share of women working in executive-level jobs.

Although none said they practice gender-based hiring, some insist on wide job searches and have found that they tend to attract more female job applicants.

At Northridge, Wilson has hired Louanne Kennedy as the campus's first female chief academic officer and has promoted library dean Susan Curzon to vice provost. Wilson named Jane Chatham to oversee the campus's earthquake recovery.

When Dianne G. Van Hook became superintendent of Santa Clarita Community College District and president of College of the Canyons in 1988, she presided over an almost entirely male cabinet of the one-college district. But within a year, nearly half of her cabinet members were women. "I hired the best person for the job in every case," Van Hook said.

Lee, who was president at Valley College before moving to Pierce, said there was a time when all three of her top Valley College aides were women. "It's certainly not like I went out and said, 'I'm going to hire an all-women crew,' " she said, adding that the appointments were made over several years.

Touchton called Lee's former Valley College team a rare, but refreshing, exception.

"What has prevailed for a long time, and still exists somewhat now, is people's perception of leadership as a male prerogative," she said. "And this has been very, very slow to change."


On Women Presidents

Blenda J. Wilson

President, Cal State Northridge:

"Both for better and for worse, yes, I think there's a difference... Now, it's about time I was not the first woman at a place but the second or third or fourth, so it's not such an unusual occasion."


Mary E. Lee

Acting President, Pierce College:

"Throughout my career I have been the first woman in various positions... [But] my whole point is you act in the position first and then you just happen to be a woman."


Dianne G. Van Hook

Superintendent, Santa Clarita Community College District and President, College of the Canyons:

"I think they've come a long way... When they started in the system, they never thought it was possible they would become a chief executive officer, because there weren't many."


Tyree Wieder

President, Valley College:

"Obviously in terms of our student bodies, we're not yet representative of our students. There's a long way to go... Oftentimes, I sit in meetings and I'm the only woman and I'm the only woman of color."


Rising to the Top

The number of women assuming top executive positions in institutions of higher education is on the rise.

* Percentage of women chief executive officers at institutions, branch and affiliated campuses. (see newspaper for chart)

* Total number of institutions, branch and affiliated campuses.

1975: 2,500

1984: 2,800

1992: 3,000

1995: 2,903

Source: American Council on Education

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