The President's Take

The first female cohort at Princeton University in 1969 included S. Georgia Nugent, who thrived on a campus dominated by men.

Nugent joined a group of 101 first-year, female students on a campus with about 3,000 men. She graduated cum laude in 1973, the same year Kenyon graduated its first class of women. Nugent later became the first female graduate of Princeton to hold a full-time faculty appointment there. And she was selected as the first female president of Kenyon in 2003.

Nugent's star rose with the feminist movement, and she has watched women make gains in higher education, topping male enrollment and taking more undergraduate and doctoral degrees. She reflected on gender in higher education in a recent interview in her Eaton Center office.

Some may consider you a pioneer among women in higher education. Do you feel that way? When I went to Princeton, I don't think I thought of myself as a pioneer, but, in retrospect, after that experience and a lot of other experiences when I was the only woman in the room, I do think there is the pioneering aspect to it. And I do think it makes a difference for all women. It's subtle, but when there's a woman in a position of leadership ... it changes the perception. I think that's important.

What's it like being the only woman in the room? There are still things that I notice. It's not infrequent, say, in a committee or on a board, that a woman will offer something, will make a statement, and nothing will be said. And a man will make the same statement and everybody will go, 'That's a really good idea.' That still happens. It's uncanny.

Has being a woman made your job more difficult? I've been told that some people have an unconscious bias, expectations of the way a woman would be or the way I would be, and that's not necessarily what you get. No. I don't think it has made my job any harder. Has it made it any easier? You know the old saying, 'A woman has to be twice as good as a man to be regarded as half that clever.' So, there's probably some of that, where you have to be even stronger or better at your role to succeed. But I think that in some ways I have benefitted. I think many people were interested in having a woman president here, and so it probably balances out. People were very open and willing and eager to work with me and see me succeed and help me succeed.

Are you concerned about gender balance in higher education? I went to a school where there were 100 of us and 3,000 of them. It was OK. I felt it was an enormous benefit to essentially grow up with guys, and I think that benefitted me for the whole rest of my life. I was kind of socialized like a male, being in that atmosphere. And that's tremendously helpful if you're going to enter a male-dominated world. I understand how guys get along.

Does that work in the reverse? You could argue that for men to have the experience of being in the somewhat female-dominated milieu at that young age could be a positive thing. We talk and think about the need for men to give more recognition to women and be more understanding of a woman's point of view. Maybe that would not be a terrible thing, but it's clear that the common wisdom is, 'Oh, no, we have to have this balance.'

Should college admissions be gender blind? A part of me thinks we probably should be. I'm not yet convinced that we know that it's tremendously important for things to be 50-50. Is there a point at which the place then becomes less attractive to both genders? That's what people claim. We know that a lot of Kenyon students end up marrying one another, but students today are not going to college to find a life partner. If that's not the case, why should that be a major criterion? By the same token, we're interested in diversity of all sorts—a diversity of viewpoint and experience. Those are obviously inflected by gender.

What does the gender imbalance portend for the culture? For women to be more educated has to be good. For men to fall behind is really a mystery to me. Why are men dropping out of that pipeline? It's hard to understand because the data could not be clearer. To succeed in today's world, you must have an education. How could men turn their backs on that?