Radcliffe Institute Dean Drew Gilpin Faust began working two years ago on arrangements for a public conversation among the first women to serve as Ivy League presidents. "At the time," she told an enthusiastic audience that filled the Loeb Drama Center for the early May event, she didn't realize she had "arranged a tutorial for myself."
As moderator for the historic gathering, Faust engaged the distinguished group—which included Amy Gutmann '71, PhD '76 (University of Pennsylvania), Ruth J. Simmons AM '71, PhD '73 (Brown University), Shirley M. Tilghman (Princeton University), and Judith Rodin (current president of the Rockefeller Foundation, former president of the University of Pennsylvania)—in a wide-ranging discussion of American higher education and women's changing roles. The presidents spoke eloquently of the importance of mentors and role models in their own careers, the transition from research and teaching to academic administration, and the value of candidly sharing stories of both the rewards and the hardships of their careers with younger women.
Yet their most compelling exchanges focused on the responsibility of America's elite educational institutions to provide leadership in addressing society's most intractable problems. "The biggest challenge that our universities and our society face is the increasing gap between the haves and have-nots," said Gutmann—a sentiment echoed by Tilghman, who called universities the "engines of change" in promoting social and economic mobility through education. Noting the "open access" university presidents have to global leaders, Simmons highlighted the opportunity to use that access "to regain some measure of credibility" for the United States around the world. "We have extraordinary resources," Rodin concurred. "We need to continue to struggle to be the beacons and the activists for honesty and intellectual discourse."