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For Claremont’s Female Presidents, ‘It’s Not Lonely at the Top’

Lori Bettison-VargaDeborah FreundPamela GannMaria KlaweLaura Trombley Lori Bettison-Varga, Deborah Freund, Pamela Gann, Maria Klawe, and Laura Trombley (Photos courtesy of Scripps College, Claremont Graduate School, Claremont McKenna College, Harvey Mudd College, Pitzer College)

Claremont, Calif. — It’s not every dinner with college presidents that starts off with one offering to teach the others how to skateboard. But when I got together the other night with the women who head five of the seven institutions in the Claremont University Consortium, Harvey Mudd College’s Maria Klawe volunteered even before the appetizers arrived to give skateboard lessons to any of us—and she was perfectly serious.

I knew then that it was going to be an interesting meal. By the time the entrees appeared, Pitzer College’s Laura Trombley had told a great story about chicken-butt photos and Ms. Klawe had given me the background on the Harvey Mudd rule prohibiting open flames that reach higher than the buildings (“Does your insurance cover damage to the other campuses?” one of the other presidents wanted to know.)

But the point of the dinner was to ask whether it makes a difference to have so many women leading institutions in one place—and if so, why. Also around the table were Lori Bettison-Varga, of Scripps College; Pamela Gann, of Claremont McKenna College; and Deborah Freund, of the Claremont Graduate School. “I’m the newbie,” said Ms. Freund, who was named president last summer and said she heard from all of the other female presidents as soon as she was appointed. “The first thing I got was hugs,” she said.

Ms. Bettison-Varga, who has been the Scripps president since 2009, agreed. “I have felt tremendously supported by Laura, Pam, and Maria.” Having five women running colleges that adjoin each other, the presidents told me, allows them to enjoy an amazing support network of women who all confront similar issues. Ms. Freund even has a name for it—”the velvet ear.”

“They’ll listen to anything,” she said. “It’s not lonely at the top in Claremont.”

At a time when about 25 percent of college presidents are women—a number that has been holding steady for some time, even though women make up about half of administrators in the next levels down—I wondered to what extent female presidents face different challenges than their male counterparts.

The big difference is that men on their boards of trustees may be “not that accustomed to working with women leaders,” said Ms. Gann, of Claremont McKenna. “It was about my fourth year before they entrusted the college to me,” she said. Added Ms. Klawe: “Whatever you do that is different stands out more because you’re female.”

Except for Pitzer’s Ms. Trombley, who is an expert on Mark Twain, the presidents all studied math or science (although Ms. Gann ended up becoming a lawyer—”I was a math major, and my professors were very dismissive,” she recalled). Ms. Bettison-Varga, a geologist, and Ms. Klawe, a computer scientist, were the first women on the tenure track in their departments. Said Ms. Klawe: “If you’re going to be a president today, you came up through a system that saw you as talented and ambitious, and didn’t understand why you would want to be that way.”

“So just imagine,” she added, “what it’s like to be in a situation where you’re surrounded by similar women.”

To be a president, they agreed, you need a fair amount of confidence and you have to be comfortable taking flak. Then Ms. Freund, a health economist who has worked on a number of global-health questions, said, “I wonder to what extent being women in men’s fields made us ready?”

“I think it’s the evidentiary basis,” Ms. Bettison-Varga said. “The propensity to have data to support your arguments. I’m a data-based president.” There were nods all around the table. The seven Claremont institutions have been cooperating long enough that, Ms. Klawe said, “there are formulas for everything—the presidents don’t dicker.”

Along with Pomona College and the Keck Graduate Institute of Applied Life Sciences, the five colleges share a library system, a campus-safety network, a computer network, and other necessities. In addition, Claremont McKenna, Pitzer, and Scripps run a joint science program, and Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd, and Scripps share sports teams (balanced by Pitzer and Pomona’s joint teams). Sometimes hard choices have to be made, as was the case when the consortium shut down science libraries at Harvey Mudd and Pomona and a humanities library at Scripps to save money (Scripps decided to keep the library on its campus open, even though it meant shouldering the cost by itself), but there are no hard feelings evident.

'President's Skateboard Parking Only' signThe presidents’ cooperation, it turned out, extends to promoting their institutions for a visiting reporter. “The experience here is unparalleled,” Ms. Freund said. “We can offer virtually anything, but we can personalize it.” Ms. Gann was quick to chime in: “If you put us all together we’re like a liberal-arts university. I don’t think there’s any better place to get an undergraduate education anywhere.”

Which may be true, though it’s a little late for me. But I’ve never been on a skateboard.

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