She rules the school

Minnesota’s women college presidents

We’re average. Well, actually a tiny bit below average. Minnesota students may generally outperform the national average on test scores, but if you do the math, we’re less than average when it comes to the number of women who lead our colleges and universities. Approximately 21 percent of the leaders of our four-year colleges and universities are led by women; the national average is about 24 percent.

At a time when there are more women undergraduates than ever, what’s the path to college leadership like? The Minnesota Women’s Press talked to four of the nine women who lead our public and private universities and schools.

Interestingly enough, the women we spoke with- Sue Hammersmith, Linda Hanson, Jacqueline Johnson and Andrea Lee-are all moms, within four years of each other in age, and Minnesota transplants. But there are important differences in their ascension to leadership and how they view their roles.

Dr. Sue Hammersmith: Almost by accident
Growing up, Sue Hammersmith, Metropolitan State University president, didn’t have career goals. She knew she wanted to go to college, but never even thought of what she’d do with the degree.

“I grew up in the country, on a farm in southern Indiana, near Louisville,” with a mom who was a homemaker and a dad who raised hogs and grew tobacco. Her mom was a personal role model for her; Hammersmith married at 20, while an undergraduate. And later, she had education administration role models, too. “They were just all guys.” Still other role models were working African-American women. “I observed that many of the African Americans I was working with were from large families with working moms. They did it by having clear expectations of the children; the chores had better get done. And they communicated to their children the priorities, what’s really important in life. I was probably 35 before I worked through all that,” she said, wryly.

Hammersmith never envisioned herself as a college president. “I wanted to be a professor,” she said. “I had no administrative aspirations. I thought when I became a professor, I’d arrived.” After teaching sociology for six years at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, she agreed to help out as interim dean when the college’s dean died. “I didn’t particularly think I’d like it, but it was a chance to learn new things. I got hooked and applied for the job.” She got it and served in that capacity for three years.

By the time Hammersmith moved to Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich., as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, she was a divorced mother of two daughters, 5 and 8. Although she created her own support system, she hired college students to help “do all the things you need to do to keep a house running-cooking, cleaning, laundry, chauffeuring. [Still,] I went decades without sleeping very much. I was trying to do it all.” Hammersmith said it was liberating when she finally realized that if her girls said they needed to take cookies to school, it was OK to buy a package at the grocery store instead of dragging out the flour and sugar. Her advice to upwardly mobile young mothers: “Don’t try to do it all.”

When she remarried in 1988, her new husband, Al Uniacke, a professor of optometry at Ferris State, understood the demands of her job and was supportive. “Al cooked so when I got home so I had time with the girls.” She also parented her husband’s two sons. And the couple had a daughter, Paula, together. “She’s the surprise package,” Hammersmith laughed.

Throughout her career, Hammersmith’s leadership style has been based on advice her mother gave her when she was in fourth grade: “Put myself in others’ shoes and be respectful. I try to be conscientious about enabling others to develop their talents. It’s not hierarchical. It’s based very much on my passionate commitment to the value of what I’m doing. I believe so much in the value of public education.” And as to the difficulty of piloting an innovative institution like Metro State, she says, tongue-in-cheek, “If you can raise five children, you can easily be a college president.”

Dr. Linda Hanson: Hospitality and competition
Linda Hanson is big on hospitality. It’s a southern thing, explains the Hamline University president of four years. And while it comes naturally to the Savannah native, it’s “also a wonderful way for us to stay close to our constituents.”

She and husband Laird Hanson have melded into their neighborhood; last Halloween more than 1,000 little ghosts and goblins visited their home. And why not? It’s the house with Hamline theater students dressed in costume on the front lawn.

“I’m not just an administrator, someone in charge of the place,” she said. “I’m a people person, and I push leadership throughout the institution. I’ll tell someone, ‘I’m going to send you something, and I trust you to handle it.'” Hanson doesn’t believe her presidency is any different because she’s a woman. She’s not easily intimidated by those who might hold preconceived notions about women in leadership positions-feelings she can trace to her childhood. “I grew up in a male-dominated family with three brothers. I was the only girl, and I always felt very comfortable in my own skin. You learn to find your place. Competition is not a scary thing. I have just never felt like there was a barrier.” One thing that’s helped keep everything in perspective is “I don’t take myself too seriously. Life is tough enough without making it more so.”

Hanson’s career took a rather circuitous route to the president’s office, but even as a kid she knew what she wanted to be when she grew up. “I wanted to be a teacher. I always played teacher. I got my little brother and his friends and lined them up and gave them assignments.” She started her career in education as a secondary English teacher. After leaving public school, she accepted a position as an English teacher and director of public relations and development at a Christian school in Savannah. Along the way, Hanson has raised funds for a children’s hospital, served as director of development and executive director of two centers for performing arts as well as leadership roles at two colleges before landing her first presidency, at the College of Santa Fe, from which she came to Hamline.

The mother of one son, Hanson says the timing for her positions as president was good. “He was already a teenager by the time I became president in Santa Fe.” But “I don’t believe it would have made a difference [if he had been younger] as I’ve always been a mom who has also pursued a career full time.” Throughout her career climb, her husband has been supportive and willing to move with her. “His field [banking and finance] was very broad while mine was very narrow,” Hanson said. “We’ve been fortunate. We’ve always been able to move together.” Laird Hanson has retired, but teaches a class in mergers and acquisitions as an adjunct professor at Hamline. All in all, life is good for the lady with the faint southern drawl. “I’m sitting here in a great place. I love working at Hamline and I know what I do makes a difference.”

Dr. Jacqueline Johnson: Change is coming
Jacqueline Johnson is an excited grandmother-to-be who can hardly wait until the big event at the end of February. She has three sons and two daughters and “finally one of them is coming through for me,” she said with a chuckle.

But until she officially owns the title, Grandma, she’s content with her other title-Chancellor of the University of Minnesota Morris, which she’s held since 2006.

Johnson is the first woman to serve as chancellor at UMM, “and no one has made a big deal of that. I haven’t felt burdened by any preconceived notions,” she said. “That’s not to say they don’t exist, but I haven’t encountered them.” Johnson acknowledges that women have a ways to go in leadership roles before coming even close to the percentages of women enrolled in colleges and universities. “Change is coming, not as quickly as we’d like. But it is coming,” Johnson said. “A lot of it has to do with different campus cultures. Some are more conducive to accepting women in the role.” Johnson’s march toward a chancellorship began when she became chair of the department of anthropology and sociology at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich., after having served on the faculty for a number of years. “I liked it because I had the opportunity to see the institution in a different way,” she said.

Being in a family with hers-and-his careers-prior to his retirement, Johnson’s husband, Serge Lisk, was an electrical contractor-has meant some family separations. When Johnson took a post as vice president for academic affairs at St. Martin’s University in Lacey, Wash., Lisk stayed in Michigan to run his business. By this time, the three oldest kids were in college, so the two youngest in middle school and high school, moved to Washington with her.

“It really helps to have a partner who understands what you do and supports you,” Johnson said. “I don’t know that there are any particular rules, but we were able to maintain a good quality family life. I wouldn’t recommend it for a newly married couple. The timing has worked out nicely for me in terms of family.” Lisk has since retired and the couple lives together in Morris.

“I feel like I’m making a difference in people’s lives in a positive way,” Johnson said. “It’s been so rewarding to do the work I love so much. I wish everyone could have the opportunities that I’ve had, to be compensated for the things I most like to do.”

Dr. Andrea Lee: Nun, mom, college president
Andrea Lee is following the career path that she’s wanted since she was a child. She’s a nun, affiliated with the Immaculate Heart of Mary order. “From the time I was 11 I wanted to be a nun,” she said. “I felt a calling.” Along the way she’s become an adoptive mom and oh, by the way, she’s president of the College of St. Catherine, the largest school for women in the nation, with about 5,200 students.

Lee, 60, grew up in New Jersey, the oldest of six kids and the only girl. She went to the IHM convent in Monroe, Mich., when she was 18 and from there to undergraduate school at Northeastern Illinois University, where she majored in music and elementary education. Lee began her educational career as an elementary school teacher. “I loved classroom teaching, and my first entry into higher education was as a supervisor of student teachers at Penn State” where she earned master’s and doctoral degrees in educational administration.

It was during her 19 years at Marygrove College in Detroit that she was encouraged by Sister Amata Miller, a trustee, to pursue college administration at the highest levels. Sister Andrea served as executive vice president and CFO, as well as interim president, at Marygrove. Today, Miller is a professor of economics at St. Kate’s. “We’ve gone back and forth being each other’s bosses for years,” Lee said with a smile.

Lee, who calls herself a feminist, believes that “where women enter the pipeline” determines who becomes a college president. “Actually, many more presidents are coming up through development or external relations, as well as other nonacademic areas … and in those cases, the time from entry to presidency might be shorter.” Either way, Lee, who’s in her 10th year as president of St. Kate’s, advises women who are interested in the top job to find a mentor, attend meetings where college presidents will be present and talk to women in the role.

Lee became mom in 1995 to a then-11-year-old Haitian orphan named Lahens (pronounced Lyons). The adoption was final in 2000. Given her calling, she had never expected to be a mother. “You have to prepare yourself because life has a way of presenting you with challenges and opportunities,” she said. “You have to be ready.” Despite being a single mom, Lee said she had a great support system-two other nuns who lived with her and Lahens “helped establish a stable home life. I made sure that my son had as normal an upbringing as possible. I made sure to make time for his activities.” Lahens, a soccer and track athlete and now coach, always had mom cheering on the sidelines.

Those who know Lee would probably be surprised to know that she is an introvert. “I have a deep need for reflection and solitude,” she said, “but I’m a performance extrovert.” She demonstrated that at the start of this year in a non-verbal way: At her traditional speech to staff and faculty, “I tap danced for them,” she said, adding that she is part of a tap dance group composed of faculty and staff. “I got a pair of tap shoes for my 60th birthday. That was my best present.”

Five more
In addition to the women featured in this story, here’s a little about Minnesota’s other five women college presidents and chancellors.

College of Saint Benedict:
Dr. MaryAnn Baenninger

MaryAnn Baenninger was named president of the College of Saint Benedict in 2004. Trained in psychology, she worked at higher education institutions in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland. Before becoming president, she worked with the Middle States Commission on High Education, an association that seeks to improve education through peer-evaluation and accreditation.

Concordia College-Moorhead:
Dr. Pamela M. Jolicoer

Jolicoer came to Concordia College from 32 years in a variety of roles at California Lutheran University. She became president of Concordia in 2004. Currently, she is the chair of the Board of Directors of the Minnesota Private College Council.

Minnesota State University Moorhead:
Dr. Edna Mora Szymanski

Szymanski has served as president of the Minnesota State University-Moorhead since July 2008. She has a Ph.D. in special education and rehabilitation education and taught and served as dean and chair in that field until 2006, when she became the senior vice president for academic affairs and provost at the University of Maine, before coming to Moorhead.

University of Minnesota-Duluth:
Chancellor, Dr. Kathryn A. Martin

Kathryn Martin , Minnesota’s longest-serving woman president or chancellor, has been in her role for 13 years. She’s UMD’s first woman chancellor. She served as the co-director of the National Arts Education Research Center and dean of the College of Fine and Applied Arts at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Winona State University:
Dr. Judith A. Ramaley

Ramaley has been the president of Winona State University since 2005. With a background in biology, she has previously worked at the National Science Foundation and served in the administration in various capacities of several universities. She also serves on the Board of Directors for the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A.