With a sense that they have been called, and with an appreciation for the groundbreaking role they are assuming, women have been taking over the leadership of Christian colleges and universities in slowly increasing numbers. Religious schools still lag far behind secular institutions in the appointing of female presidents, but the ceiling has been broken in schools across the country that were established in the holiness tradition.
“The idea has been that only one population, gender or ethnicity makes all the decisions,” said Deana L. Porterfield, who in 2014 became the first female president of Roberts Wesleyan College and Northeastern Seminary in Rochester, N.Y. “We’re better when we’re diverse. I do believe it’s what God’s calling us to do. Full representation is important if you really believe all are made in the image of God.”
While being the first woman president is an honor, it carries with it a major responsibility beyond all that being a college president entails.
“Once you’re in, you become aware of all kinds of other ways you have to navigate in these roles that men wouldn’t,” said Shirley Mullen, who in 2006 became the first female president of her alma mater, Houghton College in western New York State. “Anytime when you are in a role where people have not imagined you in that role, whether it’s that you’re single, a person of color or a woman, you have to use emotional intelligence and sense what’s going on. You are there for all people in your category. If you’re not able to navigate the role you’re letting down not just your institution, but you’re making it difficult for anyone in your category in the future.”
The schools that have been open to female presidents are those that come from religious traditions such as The Salvation Army that, from the beginning, valued women as leaders. But even with this receptiveness, it can take time for the early beliefs of a tradition to result in appointing a woman to lead.
The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, a higher education association of more than 180 Christian institutions around the world, didn’t have a college with a woman in the president’s role until Kim S. Phipps took over at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa., as its first female leader in 2004. Of the 183 presidents associated with CCCU, only 16 are women, a small number but one that is on the rise. In the United States, women account for 7.6 percent of CCCU presidents, up from 6.7 percent in 2015 and 5 percent in 2010.
Not all Christian colleges descend from traditions that support women’s leadership, which is why the number of female presidents is significantly lower than in secular institutions where 30 percent are women, according to a 2016 American Council on Education report.
“Part of it is historic,” said Shirley V. Hoogstra, who became CCCU’s first female president in 2014. “We’re still remedying a historic set of patterns.”
In previous generations, she explained, women made choices that limited their careers; choices made out of necessity or a lack of opportunities. However, one factor from the past that hindered women’s advancement was out of their hands.
“The job of the board of trustees is to manage risk,” Hoogstra said. “If you pick a first, there’s not a track record. There may have been a perceived risk.” Even in the most accepting of traditions, women’s ascent into leadership isn’t automatic.
“I recognize theory and practice don’t always line up with the contemporary Salvation Army,” said Janet Munn, who, in 2015, became the first female principal of The Salvation Army College for Officer Training in Suffern, N.Y. “I share great respect for the Army’s history. It was a front–runner in Victorian England with women in leadership. It’s one of the things that attracted me to the Army in the first place.”
But attention needs to be paid with “deliberateness and intentionality,” she says, or leadership will remain with the dominant gender and race and continue to look the same as it has for decades.
“Since The Salvation Army’s progressive, counter–cultural start in Victorian England, we have in the area of gender equality at the highest levels of leadership lost ground in recent years, defaulting to white, male leaders,” she says. “In terms of my current experience as being the first married woman training principal in New York, I am enjoying the appointment greatly, but would have rejoiced also if another woman had been appointed in this regard as women in all levels of leadership align with the Army’s history and values.”
Those values run deep and wide, as Munn learned in talking to Salvation Army leaders around the world while pursuing her doctoral research in transformational leadership. She found that it was their strongly held belief that gender equality was a biblical mandate and was a key value in Salvation Army history.
“I was surprised by these results,” she said. “They were overwhelming in their response. ‘Yes, it’s biblical. Yes, it matters,’ they said.”
But progress can be slow. Messiah’s Phipps said she feels sadness that women’s leadership can still be considered historical in the Church and in the broader culture.
“There are so many stereotypes and misunderstandings about women as leaders,” she said. “We need to constantly educate people.”
Because it is so often the board of trustees, traditionally made up largely of older men, that chooses the president, “we need to be raising up boards capable of seeing women as leaders,” she says.
At the time Phipps was chosen to be president of Messiah, the college had its first female board president, Eunice Steinbercher.
“Her leadership enabled the board to see a woman in this role. Her involvement was significant toward making this happen.”
Seeing a woman in that role is also important for students—all students rather than just the 60 percent who are women, says Sandra C. Gray, who in 2007 became the first female president of Asbury University in Wilmore, KY.
“Men and women are different,” she said. “They lead differently. We need to observe both. It’s just as important for men to value the contributions of God’s female creation. They need to see it. It’s important for both genders to see it.”
One factor that remains a big area of difference between a man assuming the president’s role and a woman, is the age of their children.
“Trying to balance the timing was an important thing for me,” said Amy Bragg Carey, who in 2015 became the first female president of Friends University in Wichita, KS. “I didn’t pursue my doctorate until my daughter was finished with high school. I wouldn’t have had the time.”
It was the same with her presidency. The opportunity came when her children were independent enough to be left in Minnesota, where the family was rooted.
“Those considerations come into play for women in leadership. You factor that in. Women take this role later in life. Most are not married or have children who are grown.”
All of the female presidents say that, in general, women govern more collaboratively, and this is crucial now more than ever for working with staff, boards, and the community.
“Colleges and universities need to be involved in business partnerships,” Carey said. “The top–down leadership is not working well in higher education these days. Many of us do well what we’ve needed to do throughout our careers; make connections and help one another on the way.
“Often times women are more intuitive and relationship–focused. To bring in resources, you need relationship skills. It’s important in a leadership role to use not only facts and information, but when sometimes something doesn’t feel right, to go with that concern.”
For Carol Taylor, who became the first female president of her alma mater, Evangel University in Springfield, MO., it’s all about service. Before taking over in 2014, she was the first female president at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, CA.
On her desk facing her is a small, beautifully crafted picture frame in which the number 24 is shown. Nothing else, just that number.
“It’s my reminder on any given day that the night Christ was betrayed he washed 24 feet, knowing full well what they were going to do that night, even Judas.”
It helps to look at that picture frame and what that number represents so that on tough days she can focus on serving all members of the community, whether that is challenging or not.
“The ultimate role model of leadership is Christ. We never achieve that, but we need to remember that any member of our community needs to be served well.”
The presidents turn to other biblical figures; Esther being a favorite of several. Mullen sees her as a role model for women in leadership because even though Esther’s circumstances were different—being in a harem—she followed what she felt was a call to do God’s will in difficult circumstances, trusting God’s timing and preparation. “I take that very seriously,” said Mullen.
Esther reminds Phipps that “we have to be faithful in any given moment.”
Porterfield is inspired by Joshua, who had to take over the work of another. The message for her is “be strong and courageous. God’s calling you. Let go.”
Carey’s choice is a person she refers to as “the Proverbs 31 woman” because she was a wife and mother, but also bought a field. She was a business leader.
“I wanted to be involved in leadership but the messages I received growing up didn’t lead to that. I’ve looked to that scripture throughout my life. It does seem a little unattainable. She’s sort of a superwoman. She gives a view of all the roles women can play.”
Another nameless woman registers with Taylor for having the longest recorded conversation with Jesus—the woman at the well, which reveals to Taylor the dignity and worth Jesus had for all creation.
“Why does that get so much space? What does it say about people who others would discard?”
She also points to another against–the–grain choice, Mary Magdalene. Although still broken with grief, she was the first to see Jesus after His resurrection.
“She is the first witness in a culture where she wouldn’t be allowed to testify in court. What does that say about the value Christ placed on women?”
Gray also is heartened by the way Jesus showed love to the Mary who washed His feet, despite living in a society that would have rejected her for doing such an act.
“He knew how needy she was. I’m needy,” Gray said. “I would break open my best alabaster box because I love Him that much.”
Gray also is comforted by Mary, the mother of Jesus, who bowed to God’s will and who pondered things in her heart.
“Sometimes I feel lonely and need to ponder in my heart when there’s no one other than the dear Lord to talk to about it.”
Munn also chose a nameless woman. She looks to the parable of the persistent widow in Luke’s Gospel. When the disciples asked Jesus how they should pray, He told them to consider the poor widow who repeatedly went before the judge who feared neither God nor people, but who gave into her because she was unrelenting.
“She’s the role model Jesus gives the disciples on how to pray. Here you have this poor widow, who would have had no rights and no value in that society. It would have been hard for [the disciples] to accept.”
To her, the message is clear.
“Never give up. Even if the odds are against you, will not God give justice to His children who cry out to Him? Jesus is really affirming a female for being outspoken and refusing to be silenced or discouraged—driven by her need for justice. She’s one of my faves.
“So often in the work place and elsewhere, women are interrupted and told not to speak up or persist or raise their voices. Jesus says the opposite, ‘This is what you should be like.’
“Women do have tenacity. We don’t give up. It’s the opposite of that voice from the fallen world that’s telling women to be silent. Jesus is telling women to speak up.”
Retta Blaney is an eight–time journalism award winner and the author of Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors, which features interviews with Kristin Chenoweth, Edward Herrmann, Liam Neeson, Phylicia Rashad, Vanessa Williams, and many others.