Number of women deans reaches campus milestone

The number of women who are academic deans at UC Berkeley is the highest in campus history – an achievement celebrated Thursday at the Women’s Faculty Club, in a room filled with faculty and administrators.

There currently are seven women deans on campus, but two of them soon will leave their posts. The event was held, in part, because “for a rare moment in history, the representation of women among academic deans roughly represents the number of women on the faculty,” said Sheila O’Rourke, assistant provost for academic affairs and an organizer of the event. She noted that Berkeley’s faculty is composed of 29.6 percent women.

The gathering featured a lively panel discussion, with the deans sharing some of the successes and laments associated with their pioneering leadership at UC Berkeley.

“We wanted to do something to celebrate the unbelievable strides of women on campus,” said Ingrid Seyer-Ochi, an assistant professor of education and vice president of the Association of Academic Women, an informal group of faculty women that mentors new women faculty members.

UC Berkeley’s women deans are Janet Broughton, dean of arts and humanities at the College of Letters & Science; Carla Hesse, dean of social sciences at the College of Letters & Science; Lorraine Midanik, dean of the School of Social Welfare; AnnaLee Saxenian, dean of the School of Information; Judith Warren Little, dean of the Graduate School of Education; Jennifer Wolch, dean of the College of Environmental Design; and Diana Wu, dean of UC Extension.

These women are among the 20 academic deans leading the campus’s schools and colleges. In comparison, two of Stanford University’s seven deans are women, and eight of UCLA’s 19 deans are women.

UC Berkeley’s milestone was highlighted just as two of the deans — Midanik and Broughton — are about to move on. Broughton has been named vice provost for academic affairs and will assume the office in July. Midanik, who became dean in 2007, will retire and remain active in research at the School of Social Welfare.

The American Council on Education has reported that women have made gains in higher education leadership nationwide, but still lag significantly behind their male counterparts. A 2008 study of 850 institutions found that just 36 percent of deans were women and 23 percent were college presidents – numbers expected to shift as an aging population of university leaders retires.

Gibor Basri, vice chancellor for the campus’s Division of Equity & Inclusion, who attended the event, credited Chancellor Robert Birgeneau for “helping lead us to this point.”

“The campus must continue to eliminate the barriers that have historically prevented women from reaching the highest levels of academic leadership,” said Basri, citing the goal of his division’s faculty mentoring initiative. “We need to ensure that seven women deans is not just a high point in Berkeley’s history.”

The Berkeley women deans noted the stresses of the job – “a lot of putting out fires and a lot of triage,” said Hesse – as well as the goals they set for themselves.

“One hopes you can leave the place better,” said Hesse. “There’s enough evidence from others that makes you want to try.”

Several of the Berkeley deans said they did not seek the post, but rather were pressed into leadership to serve the faculty and students in their schools and colleges.  “I had my arm twisted practically until it came off to become dean,” said Saxenian.

Little, who has only been dean of the education school for a year, said it’s an achievement just to be standing upright. “The learning curve all around has been challenging,” she said, “but in a healthy way.”

Several deans noted the changing nature of leadership at a top public university with shrinking state funding. They said the expectation to raise private funds was a stressful part of their jobs, and that it likely would only increase in the coming years.

“The development part is more and more important,” said Midanik, estimating that 35 percent of her job is spent on fundraising — a task she happens to enjoy.

Broughton said the rewards of the deanship include the “guilty pleasure” of learning a little bit about a lot of things.

“It’s a unique perspective to see the range of wonderful things going on here,” said Broughton. “I don’t know how human beings have managed to make something as precious as this university. How has it come about? How has it sustained itself — and will it?”

The panel of deans was moderated by law school professor Eleanor Swift, who is revered on campus as a pioneer for women faculty. An acclaimed legal scholar and beloved teacher, Swift originally was denied tenure at the School of Law in 1987. But an outside independent review committee, which resulted from a lawsuit, reviewed her case and unanimously awarded tenure.

Several audience members – including Mary Ann Mason, the first woman dean of the Graduate Division; Angelica Stacy, chemistry professor and acting vice provost for academic affairs and faculty welfare; and former vice provost Christina Maslach – also were acknowledged as trailblazers of female leadership at Berkeley.

The event was sponsored by the Women’s Faculty Club as part of its “Academic Live” speaker series, with support from the Association for Academic Women and the Division of Equity & Inclusion Faculty Mentoring Initiative.

Saxenian encouraged other women faculty to take leadership posts. “We do need good leaders,” she said. “We are going to need all the women power we can get.”