After decades of Affirmative Action, women occupy fewer than one-fourth of U.S. university presidents' offices-this despite females making up 58 percent of undergraduates, according to the U.S. Education Department.
Women made decent strides between 1986, when 10 percent of college presidents' offices were occupied by women, and 2001, when 21 percent had women.
However, between 2001 and 2006, the number barely changed.
In the most recent survey by the Washington, D.C.-based American Council on Education, a public-policy advocacy group, preliminary data show about 23 percent of presidents' offices had women in their chairs.
One sector adding women presi dents is the community college, where females hold 29 percent of the top spots. Yet, after making strides at Ivy League, Big 10 and other large research universities, women may be losing ground in smaller, liberal arts colleges, including all-women schools.
"The rate is really slowing," said Claire Van Ummersen, vice president of the Center for Effective Leadership at the American Council on Education.
The number of women leading universities is not likely to climb soon, if statistics from the U.S. Department of Education's are any indication, even though there is parity or near parity among the sexes in entry-level appointments in several academic disciplines, such as chemistry, law, veterinary sciences and business.
The pool of potential college presidents is made up of universities' chief academic officers, deans of faculties, deans in certain disciplines and other top administrators. The demand on this pool is even greater now, because many college presidents are at or near retirement age.
It's a pool where women are in the minority because their numbers tend to thin out as they move up the academic ranks, said Van Ummersen, former president of Cleveland State University.
Women may opt out of the academic career track to take jobs in the private sector, or, like many of their counterparts in the business world, to meet family responsibilities.
"There's an understanding in our society, in any society, that when it comes to keeping the home and society together, the anchors are the women," said Sue H. Talbot, a trustee at Indiana University and chairwoman of the committee formed last September to find a successor for Adam Herbert, who has announced plans to resign the presidency.
In Indiana, only one of the state's seven public universities has a female president. Jo Ann Gora was appointed president of Ball State University in 2004, the first to head a public Indiana institution of higher education. Previously, she was chancellor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and provost and vice president of academic affairs at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.
The top spot is open at three Hoosier public schools-Purdue and Ivy Tech State College, in addition to IU, are searching for presidents.
Three of Indiana's 31 independent colleges are searching for presidents; and five others have females at the helm. St. Mary of the Woods College recently appointed its first male president. David G. Behrs, an associate provost at Dominican University of California in San Rafael, will be the first lay Catholic president of the college founded in 1840 by St. Mother Theodore Guerin just five miles northwest of Terre Haute, Ind.
The board wanted a national search, with no stipulations, gender-free and with no perceived bias for women or men, said Sister Joan M. Lescinski, the college's president, who is leaving to be the first female president of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa.
In a way, St. Mary's mold was broken nine years ago, when Sister Joan was named president. A member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, St. Louis Province, she was the first president outside the founding order, Sisters of Providence.
Universities no longer require their presidents to come from the ranks of their alumni or faculty, as was the practice for decades. Boards of trustees have also begun to hire for the presidency from among the ranks of those leading businesses, research institutes and government institutions.
Most academics don't even consider ascending the ranks of administration until they are asked, said R. William Funk, a Dallas-based headhunter who specializes in academic hires.
In the academic setting, colleagues may ask someone to serve as chairwoman or head the department, then perhaps a deanship. The next step might be chief academic officer, such as provost, or dean of the faculties, said Funk, a graduate of Purdue University who is helping to find a successor to President Martin C. Jischke, who is retiring.
Among the women contacted for this story, none ever thought about applying for an administrative position until the idea was suggested to her.
Alyssa Hildebrand, who is getting a master's degree in effective teaching from Butler University so that she can teach at the college level, said her goal is to complete her doctorate, earn tenure and reach the highest professorial rank. Would she like to be dean?
"I didn't even think of that until you said 'dean,'" she said.
Colleges and universities pull most of their presidential candidates from the top academic ranks and from the deanships of certain schools, Funk said.
For example, Linda P.B. Katehi went a step closer when she was named provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in December 2005 after three years as the first female dean of engineering at Purdue University. In the Big 10, women are presidents at Ohio State University and the University of Michigan.
Marie Truesdell, dean of the business school at Indianapolis' Marian College, is struck by the fact that there were no tenured female faculty members in her major at North Carolina State University, where she completed her master's of economics, and only one tenured female economics faculty member at Trinity University in San Antonio, where she completed her bachelor's degree in economics.
"There's still a little bit of old-boy mentality in some administrations. I've seen some of that, especially in group dynamics," Truesdell said.
"I used to say that, at the end of the next decade, there would be parity in college presidents," said Funk, who has 24 years' experience in the executive search business. "But I've backed away from that a little bit because [the appointment of females] has slowed."
Sally Mason, the first female provost at Purdue University, worked up through the ranks at the University of Kansas to be dean of arts and sciences. "When I started, my goal was to do a great job as a teacher and researcher," said Mason, an expert in cellular biology. "It never occurred to me to be in administration."
But once she got there, at the urging of her peers, she found great satisfaction in helping colleagues realize their career goals and dreams. A Purdue alum, she was recruited in 2001 by Jischke to join his administration. She declined to say if she's a candidate for the Purdue presidency.
At Purdue and IU, the search committees began their work last fall by talking to state officials, educators, faculty, students and businesses about the needs of their respective institutions. Each search committee is made up of represen tatives of faculty, administration, students, alumni and businesses.
"We are casting our net everywhere to see where the best candidate is," said John Hardin, a Hendricks County farmer and the Purdue trustee who heads up the committee searching for Jischke's successor.
"Women are definitely in the mix because a lot of the very good leadership happens to be women," Hardin said.
Talbot said the IU search committee also looks at women "seriously because there are stellar women in the roles of academic leadership. It may take them a little longer to come to this level."
Beverly J. Pitts, named president of the University of Indianapolis in 2005, started as an English instructor at Anderson University, where she did her undergraduate work. In three years, she was an assistant professor and chair woman of the communications department. Five years later, she became an associate professor of journalism at Ball State, where she had completed her master's and doctoral degrees. Within 17 years, she moved from director of graduate studies in journalism to provost and vice president for academic affairs at Ball State. For several months in 2004, she was BSU's acting president.
"Part of it was timing," Pitts said. "Women have to prove themselves more and demonstrate they are 'up to it.' If you've already demonstrated you're up to it, then you are usually accepted."