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Fall 2014

Barrier Breakers at the Ed School

What does it mean to be a first? That was the question tossed out to four women sitting in a classroom in Larsen Hall on a muggy July afternoon. They were on a lunch break from the annual Harvard Seminar for New Presidents program, a six-day boot camp at the Ed School for 50 new college presidents — including a record-breaking 23 women — who often don’t have the luxury of time to learn on the job.

For these women, that question — what does it mean to be a first? — went beyond just what it means to be a first-time college president: These women are also the first females to head up their institutions. They said they were feeling excited, a little nervous, and also hopeful — hopeful that they won’t be the last women.

“The notion of being the first is so interesting,” said Elizabeth Davis, the incoming president of Furman University in South Carolina. “It implies there will be more. Eventually, whenever they are on the 35th woman president, there won’t be a modifier. It’s just, the president.”

Laurie Leshin, the new president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, said she was surprised at the reaction to her sex after the appointment was made.

“It’s a technological university, and Susan Hockfield at MIT had come and gone and Shirley Ann Jackson at Rensselaer had been there for 15 years,” she said, “so I thought it wasn’t that big a deal, but now that I see that people really think it’s a fabulous thing, I’m very excited to embrace that possibility.”

Read a longer story and hear an interview.