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Strong Women Leading the Higher Education Industry

To celebrate empowering people, we're sharing the stories of four women in higher education leadership who are making an impact in the field today.

Women continue to blaze new trails and break glass ceilings in a range of fields. However, higher education is still largely led by men. A 2017 study by the American Council on Education showed that 78% of women college presidents are currently serving their first presidency. The study also concluded that women were more likely than men to have altered their career progression to care for others. In honor of Women’s History Month, we talked to four amazing women who are leading esteemed institutions and making an impact in the world of higher education. We hope you read their stories and find inspiration in these dynamic female leaders.

Dr. Elizabeth Meade, President of Cedar Crest College

Education has always been important to Dr. Elizabeth Meade. A self-described “learning junkie,” Meade loved playing “school” as a youngster with her three younger brothers. She earned her MA and PhD in Philosophy from Boston College and her BA with distinction in German Language and Literature from Bryn Mawr College. Now she’s shaping the educational experience for thousands of students. In 2018, Meade became the 14th president of Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, after serving as Interim President for one year. Meade has been part of Cedar Crest for 28 years, serving as a faculty member, the College’s Associate Provost, and the Chair of Cedar Crest’s Department of Humanities prior to assuming the presidency. As Provost and then as President, Meade led the development and implementation of Cedar Crest’s strategic plan, The Aspiration of Others. The plan led to new majors, including two doctoral programs in Nursing Practice and Occupational Therapy; the establishment of the School of Nursing; and groundbreaking initiatives focused on diversity, inclusion, and global engagement.

Self-confidence and trusting your instincts are two of the biggest life lessons Meade has learned in her time in higher education. “Do what you know to be right no matter what people say or how they may react,” she advises. “If you’ve reached the place where you’re confident in your skills, knowledge, and experience, you have to trust that. You’ll always be surrounded by people who will try to undermine you. And don’t be afraid to fail. We’ve put such a premium on success, and you’re expected to do everything right immediately.” But learning from mistakes is one of the best ways to learn.

Meade says seeing the impact of a Cedar Crest education is one of the most rewarding parts of her job. “I’ve traveled around the world, and I encounter alumnae—meeting them, I see what their education has done for them. I get to see the current students on campus, and I see the impact of our work,” she says. “It’s also rewarding to lead a team of people who are passionate about what they do. I love getting in there, solving problems, and being excited about what we’re going to do together.” Meade truly believes higher education is at a crossroads right now. “It costs an enormous amount of money to deliver it. We’re trying to contain costs, [but] trying to make it work is a huge challenge.”

Dr. Shirley Collado, President of Ithaca College

The daughter of immigrants from the Dominican Republic and a first-generation college student, Dr. Shirley Collado says college was transformative for her. As the ninth president of Ithaca College, a position she assumed in 2017, Collado is now transforming the lives of countless students. Her résumé includes receiving an undergraduate degree in 1994 in Human & Organizational Development and Psychology from Vanderbilt University—where she also received the Posse Foundation Alumni Star Award—and MA and PhD degrees in Clinical Psychology from Duke University. She’s a clinical psychologist with a specialty in trauma among multicultural populations at the intersection of race, ethnicity, and gender. Her innovative and ambitious approaches to educational leadership have garnered national attention and earned her several prestigious awards.

One of the most important duties of a college president is “to set the tone and vision for what it means to deliver a student-centered experience,” Collado explains. “It’s certainly about setting the strategy and really making sure you’re ensuring the future of an institution. Right now, that work absolutely means we have the right financial model to make sure education is accessible and affordable. It’s not just that we’re recruiting students into a school that’s right for them, but that [the institution] has the right resources for students as they work on their degrees.” Collado is proud of her College’s “very inclusive, equitable, highly engaging” strategic planning process, Ithaca Forever. “It’s a bold and realistic plan that includes things we don’t do easily at our institution. It’s imperative that we center the work of diversity, inclusion, and equity into all we do. Rather than have a separate strategic plan, Ithaca Forever places at its core the issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion. They’re not on the periphery—this is the work we’re doing.”

Collado has always been motivated by her passion rather than a position or title. “I’ve followed the work regardless of the role or organization,” she says. “I believe a good leader is someone who is humble, grounded, and mission driven. Solid leadership is collaborative and authentic, with the ability to surround [yourself] with people who are smarter than you are. [As a leader], I am also relentless and unapologetic about equity and diversity. Don’t settle for less. For women in particular, we have to make space for each other.”

Connect me with Ithaca College! Connect me with Vanderbilt! Connect me with Duke!

Dr. Joan Ferrini-Mundy, President of the University of Maine

Dr. Joan Ferrini-Mundy always loved math but found it difficult. “I wanted to find ways to make a hard subject appealing and easy,” she explains. This was perfect early training for her position as president of the University of Maine in Orono. Ferrini-Mundy received her PhD in Mathematics Education from the University of New Hampshire. She currently serves as both the University of Maine System’s Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation and President of both the University of Maine (UMaine) and its regional campus, the University of Maine at Machias (UMM). “My responsibilities are pretty wide ranging,” she explains. “The most rewarding parts of my job are the interactions with students and knowing it’s possible to make a difference in someone’s life. My job is one that requires the balancing of many factors. What we believe is best for students may be challenging for budgets, for staff, or vice versa. It’s all about what we’re trying to do—move forward.” A great leader, she says, is humble and able to listen. “You won’t be the person with the best ideas in the room very often. Being able to listen to others is important, but have ideas. My job is to come in with ideas and get others to opt in.”

When looking at colleges, Ferrini-Mundy advises students that there won’t be just one school that checks every single box for what they’re looking for. “There are probably a few schools that are right for you,” she says. “No place is perfect, but there are probably a lot which are really good. Look at whether you can picture yourself there. And don’t hold yourself to some standard of finding the perfect solution. Watch for a place that has enough choices so if you want something as a senior in high school, you can change your mind in college. That flexibility can be a great help.”

Jessica W. Berg, Dean of the School of Law at Case Western Reserve University

Jessica Berg didn’t have a clear-cut professional path when she started college. “I was one of those students who had a lot of different interests,” she says. She considered law school after her advisor suggested it. “It’s not that I never considered it—I just never saw myself there. My advisor says it was a three-year program and might be a useful degree. I realized law school was the perfect match for my interests. Legal education seemed like a natural next step.”

Berg earned her BA and JD, with honors, from Cornell University, where she was the notes editor of the Cornell Law Review, before receiving her MPH from Case Western Reserve University. Her career has been diverse and distinguished; she has taught several courses in law schools, medical schools, and graduate programs. In November 2013, Berg was named Dean of the School of Law at Case Western Reserve University, along with Professor Michael Scharf. Berg is the first woman to hold this position. Being dean, Berg says, is a bit like being the CEO of a company: “I do a lot with budgets and HR. I build programs. I work with donors to raise funds. I’m constantly looking at new things we’d like to develop. And I work with students.” Berg is also a Tom J.E. and Bette Lou Walker Professor of Law, a professor of Bioethics, and professor of Public Health, with a joint appointment in Case Western Reserve University’s School of Medicine.

Treating others with dignity and respect is one of Berg’s biggest life lessons. “People are your most valuable resource,” she says. “Understand that they have feelings, and everyone is human.” Her best advice to students is to “take advantage of opportunities as they come up. Most of my best opportunities were things I hadn’t planned initially.” Many students develop a plan for college and beyond and feel they need to follow it exactly. Berg encourages students to be open to unexpected opportunities and experiences.

Connect me with Case Western!

What a bunch of incredible women! We hope you enjoyed learning about this amazing group who’s actively shaping higher education in the world today. While we may still have a long way to go for true equality for women (and everyone), it’s great to see strong women in the leadership positions they deserve and in which they thrive. Happy Women’s History Month!

If you want to learn more about great educators, check out 5 Colleges With Inspiring Faculty Members or our Spotlight on Black Faculty at Colleges and Universities.

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