This Week in History


Judith Rodin, first woman named president of Ivy League university

December 17, 1993
Judith Rodin
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Forbes Magazine

This date marks two “firsts” for Judith Rodin—the first Penn graduate to serve as president of the University of Pennsylvania and the first woman to become president of an Ivy League institution.  But being first was not an unusual place for this research psychologist to be.

After completing a Ph.D. at Columbia, she taught briefly at New York University,  before beginning a 22-year career at Yale. Arriving there in 1972, she soon earned an international reputation as both a pioneer in the women’s health movement and one of the first psychologists to study the biological and psychological factors that led to obesity.  Her research also contributed to the understanding of aging by demonstrating that elderly people given control over their environment are more active, healthier, and live longer than those who are not.  She became Chair of the Department of Psychology, Dean of the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and finally Provost before accepting the position at Penn.

The Penn trustees praised her “interpersonal skills [and her] political and social sensitivity, indeed, the charisma, to inspire others …”  But at a going-away party at Yale, her former students told her that she had been “a horrible role model” because she was “always strung out and anxious, trying to do too many things at once.  We made different decisions with our lives,” they said, “and we’re really happy.” 

Almost 20 years later, Rodin told a Washington audience that the party was a turning point in her life. “I changed a lot of things in my life after that to really make sure I was focusing on balance.”

In 2005, Rodin achieved yet another first when she became the first woman to serve as President of the Rockefeller Foundation, one of the world’s leading philanthropic organizations.  In 2011, she was on the list of Forbes magazine’s “World’s 100 Most Powerful Women.”

See also: “Psychology in the United States” and “Higher Education Administration in the United States,” in Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia;

Sources: “History of Institutional Planning at the University of Pennsylvania,” UPenn Archives; “Judith Rodin, PhD,” Rockefeller Foundation; “Judith Rodin and the Myth of Women ‘Having It All,’” Time Magazine, June 15, 2012.

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