April 28, 2014

GUEST ROOM: Woman for President: Fulfilling Our Founding

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Cornell University has a long history of which we should be very proud. And now, as we work to shape the next era at this institution, let us ensure that our future preserves and expands that strong legacy of the past. This university was founded on the principle, “any person, any study” and after nearly 150 years, it is time to apply that motto the University’s top leadership position. I therefore urge the Presidential Search Committee to consider a candidate that would become Cornell University’s first female president.

Despite skepticism and criticism from his colleagues, in 1868 Ezra Cornell opened up the University’s gates to women who desired to pursue an education. He called this coeducation a “great experiment,” according to the Women’s Resource Center. When Cornell empowered women with this rather unprecedented opportunity, it was proven that limiting the minds and talents of women in turn limits the growth of society. The women who have since matriculated among the Ivy towers have become writers, scientists, CEOs, stock analysts and even a Supreme Court Justice. It is because of our founder that the education of young girls and women is no longer considered an experiment, but a right.

Yet, the work toward gender equality in the field of academia is far from over. According to Forbes, the American Council on Education reported, “23 percent of college presidents are women, a marked improvement over 1986’s 10 percent. But in a profession that is often associated with women (75 percent of U.S. school teachers, not including professors, are female), the number is shockingly low.”

For Cornell to return to its role as a leader of gender equality, the Presidential Search Committee should actively consider a female candidate to fill the role of President Skorton’s successor. According to the above article, during the search for a university’s president, men are often more privy to the information necessary to be considered. “It wasn’t called the ‘old boys’ network’ for nothing,” said ACE President Molly Broad in the article.

Since 2006, Skorton has overseen important growth on this campus, and the students, faculty and staff deserve the most qualified leader to serve as his successor. I am therefore not demanding that the committee confine its search to only female candidates; rather, I ask that the committee extend its process and information to women outside “‘the old boys’ network.’” The lack of information limits capable women from aspiring to the position. Yet, if the committee makes clear that it will extend its search to qualified women, they will realize that “President of Cornell University” is not an impossible goal.

“You cannot be what you cannot see,” said Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, according to ABC News. Therefore, actively engaging women in the search process will not only present the candidates with a vision of women in leadership, but will extend that vision to young girls and women across the country.

For example, Dr. Robin E. Bowen was recently named president of Arkansas Tech University, the first woman to serve this position. During her prior career at Fitchburg State University, Bowen helped develop and grow game design and chemistry programs. In addition, President Donna E. Shalala helped University of Miami raise the funds necessary to secure “its position among top U.S. research universities,” according to her biography. These women not only challenged the glass ceiling in order to earn their positions, they also bring to life opportunities for women in the STEM field and in research labs.

EMILY’s List is an organization that is dedicated to providing leadership opportunities for women in public office. According to its stated vision, “the influence of women office holders leads to the adoption of a host of progressive public policies to ensure that women have equal opportunities at home, in the workplace, and in the public sphere.” If we adopt this vision and apply it to the landscape where futures are created, the gender gap will become substantially smaller.

It is on college campuses that students concentrate their education into a particular field and begin to draft their career plans. On college campuses, women are designing their futures as they best fit under the glass ceiling. However, if our university president helps shatter that ceiling, women will understand that their futures are theirs alone to shape.

The committee asked us what attributes we are looking for in the next president of Cornell University. To that, I respond that I want a president who will not only ensure that this campus is equipped with resources that will expand our learning and maintain a safe environment; I want a president who will continue to inspire us. Sheryl Sandberg said, “Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.” A female president will prove that limitations placed on you by others are not permanent. She will prove that despite the obstacles that inevitably stand between us and our goals, an engaged and educated mind will enable us to overcome them. And because of the opportunities she created for the next generation of thinkers and dreamers, even in her absence we will know her impact.

Ezra Cornell imagined this school to be a place that empowered people of all genders, backgrounds and races. He opened its classrooms to all of those who wished to better themselves and as a result, better the community. And while his “great experiment” is over, our work is not. If we use the presidential search committee as an opportunity to expand the university’s legacy, we will become an institution that promises “any person, any possibility.”

Jennifer Mandelblatt is a freshman in the College of Industrial and Labor Relations. She can be reached at [email protected]. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.