Why "firsts" matter
On July 1, we will have the first University of Minnesota president who is a woman in the U’s 168-year history. Joan Gabel, who was chosen unanimously by the Board of Regents in December, has acknowledged this important turn of events, while at the same time stating that, “Five minutes after you start, it’s about the work.”
Clearly, the U didn’t hire Gabel because she’s a woman. Her skills, talents, and accomplishments got her the job. But, can we stop and reflect for a moment on how significant it is that the U didn’t not hire Gabel because she’s a woman?
Once, higher education was largely denied to women. Too many ideas, it was thought, would corrupt the female mind, which was believed to be inhospitable to intellectual, economic, and scientific complexities. Also, it was feared that female students would distract serious male scholars with their flirtatious winking and skirt rustling.
Slowly, these ideas were buried under an avalanche of female achievements and “firsts.” In 1855, the University of Iowa was the first state university in the U.S. to admit women and men on an equal basis. In 1886, Winifred Edgerton Merrill was the first American woman to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics. In 1975, biochemist Lorene Rogers became the first female president of a public research university, the University of Texas at Austin. In 1994, Judith Rodin became the first permanent female president of an Ivy League school, the University of Pennsylvania. In the early 1980s, for the first time, female college students in the U.S. outnumbered male students. By 1982, women were earning more bachelor’s degrees than men. Since 1987, women have earned more master’s degrees. And beginning in 2009, women have received the majority of doctoral degrees.
Yet, according to a recent American Council on Education study, in 2016 only 30 percent of college and university presidents were women. Today, among the 14 schools of the Big 10, Joan Gabel may take the helm as the lone female president, unless Michigan State or the University of Maryland—both searching—hire a woman before July.
Some will argue that the tackling of this “first” at the U is just a matter of semantics—it’s a change in pronoun; so what. They’ll say it’s vaguely insulting to women to acknowledge that Gabel is not just our next president, but our first female president.
I disagree. It’ll be nothing short of monumental to see a woman sitting at the big desk in the president’s office in Morrill Hall. However Gabel does during her tenure here, her selection serves as hard evidence that the U is prepared to treat men and women equally at all levels. As a woman, an alumna, and a U employee, I’m happy to cross yet another “first” off the list.
Addendum: After I wrote this, it was reported that former President Nils Hasselmo passed away in late January. He served from 1988 to 1997, during my time as a journalism student at the U. I recall that the U felt like a very open and welcoming place then, largely thanks to Hasselmo’s work, even for a student with a lousy high school academic record. He championed the U and its unique role, writing on his last day in office: “It should not and cannot be exactly like any other institution.”