Higher Education Administration in the United States

by Joan N. Burstyn and Lesley Bogad

The academy and Judaism share a tender core of values. At both their roots lies a passion for knowledge—the love of learning, the necessity for debate and discussion, an appreciation for the challenge of scholarship. This would suggest no mystery in the number of Jews in universities. However, it is women’s space in these intellectual settings—historically unwelcomed by the academy and unsupported by Jewish scholarly institutions—that poses the wonder.


Higher education began as an enterprise by and for men. In the United States, women’s formal entry into higher education came less than two hundred years ago, in the 1830s. Many colleges established before the Civil War were single-sex institutions and were backed by Christian denominations; some state colleges and universities, established before and after the Civil War, began as single-sex (male) institutions also, but soon became coeducational. Women’s colleges always needed some women administrators, especially to assist with student housing. However, the pattern was established early, even in most women’s colleges, that men, not women, should be the guardians of academic standards and the presidents of institutions.

As the twentieth century progressed, the route to becoming a senior university administrator became more formal. Entry into the professoriate with a doctoral degree (usually in arts and sciences) was followed sequentially by experience as chair of a department or director of a program, dean, provost or vice president for academic affairs, and finally a presidency. Since the proportion of doctorates awarded to women hovered around twenty percent throughout the twentieth century, the likelihood of a woman becoming a university administrator has always been small, even without taking into account the traditional pattern of male leadership in higher education. The first women in university administration were in women’s colleges, or as dean of women, or in fields such as nursing and home economics. Overall, however, there were very few women in positions of senior administration in four-year colleges and universities in the first half of the twentieth century.

Despite the immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe, Jewish women formed only a small proportion of the female undergraduate population until the 1920s. Before this time, Jewish students were marginalized in university culture—attendance at prayers was often compulsory, at least at private colleges and universities, and sororities and fraternities refused admission to Jews. Admissions practices also discriminated against Jews in less overt ways. The elite women’s colleges, in particular, grew as “socioeconomically and ethnically homogeneous communities,” building thriving centers of intellectual stimulation and opportunity for white upper-middle-class women. But schools such as Barnard (with a more recent history of Jewish women leaders), Vassar, Bryn Mawr, and Wellesley maintained subtle policies such as “geographic diversity” or more blatant quotas to control the “Jewish problem.” Growing interest in higher education at women’s colleges by Jewish women prompted fears that a large Jewish population would endanger the “Christian missionary spirit” of a college, or simply devalue the prestige of these growing elite institutions. The tides of change brought a gradual shift away from the overt discrimination against Jews in admissions policies, as well as a relaxing of rules for religious practice, particularly in public institutions, which enabled Jews to enter colleges and universities with greater comfort in the second and third decades of the twentieth century (Gordon 1990). “The Jewish immigrants, few though they were, played their part, directly and indirectly, in the reform of higher education” (Gorelick 1981, p. 59).

Not until the end of World War II, however, when the demand for university teachers expanded, did many Jewish women (and men) stay in academia to become professors in colleges and universities. Jewish women were prominent in the development of feminist scholarship. As they matured as scholars, some chose or were chosen to become department chairs, deans, and senior university administrators. For instance, in 1963, historian Barbara Miller Solomon was named associate dean of Radcliffe College, and in 1970, she became the first woman dean at Harvard College. From 1977 to 1992, Claire M. Fagin served as dean of the School of Nursing at the University of Pennsylvania; during the academic year 1993–1994 she served as the university’s interim president. In 1978, Frances Degen Horowitz became vice chancellor for research, graduate studies, and public service and dean of the Graduate School at the University of Kansas; in 1991, she became president of the Graduate School and University Center of the City University of New York. In the 1980s, more Jewish women gained deanships at universities, such as Elaine L. Cohen at Notre Dame University, June T. Fox at Lesley College, and Joan N. Burstyn at Syracuse University, while Daryl Goldgraben Smith became vice president at Scripps College, Judith Walzer, provost at the New School for Social Research, and Ellen Futter, president of Barnard College.

During the 1990s and into the twenty-first century, Jewish women served as administrators in all levels of higher education across the country. Some younger women with degrees in business and management became financial officers or deans of schools of business; others became student affairs administrators, or academic deans like Rochelle Robbins at Boston University. Several were appointed to presidencies, including Hannah Friedman Goldberg (Wheaton College, MA), Shirley Strum Kenny (SUNY–Stony Brook), and Judith Shapiro, who was provost at Bryn Mawr College before being appointed president of Barnard College in 1994. Judith Rodin, who became dean of the Graduate School at Yale University in 1991 and provost in 1992, was appointed president of the University of Pennsylvania in 1994, the first woman to be named to the presidency of an Ivy League institution. (Rodin stepped down from her position in 2004, becoming president of the Rockefeller Foundation.) In 2004, Nancy Cantor was named the eleventh chancellor at Syracuse University, the first woman in the school’s history.

In the last decades of the twentieth century, women also gained senior administrative positions in Jewish institutions, such as Anne Lapidus Lerner (former vice chancellor, Jewish Theological Seminary, the first woman to hold this post), Rena Spicehandler (dean of students, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College), and Marsha Edelman (dean, Gratz College). While these women faced some different problems from those in secular institutions, they also experienced the need to negotiate multiple roles.


To ascertain how their being Jewish influenced their work, we interviewed nine Jewish women administrators and focused on the aspects of their work that they attributed to their Jewish roots and identity. As these women attested, many Jews struggle with naming their connection to Judaism, which they perceive as more than just a system of faith parallel to other faith communities in the world. When Jews first came to America, Orthodox traditions of belief and practice were the only form of Jewish observance. As the demands of American life-styles made Jewish observance more difficult, the Reform Movement, with its less rigid interpretations of Torah she-bi-khetav: Lit. "the written Torah." The Bible; the Pentateuch; Tanakh (the Pentateuch, Prophets and Hagiographia)Torah and The legal corpus of Jewish laws and observances as prescribed in the Torah and interpreted by rabbinic authorities, beginning with those of the Mishnah and Talmud.halakhah [Jewish law], became increasingly attractive to those who wished to maintain their Jewish identity in a non-Jewish world. As of 2000, some two hundred years later, the affiliated Jewish population in America identified itself in a survey conducted by the United Jewish Communities as thirty-five percent Reform, twenty-seven percent Conservative, ten percent Orthodox, and the remaining twenty-eight percent Reconstructionist or Other (National Jewish Population Survey 2000/2001).

Individuals vary in the ways they define their Jewish identity even within these formal movements. Immigration, the Holocaust, the creation of the State of Israel, and assimilation into American culture have all contributed to shifting identities for the Jewish community, which has been called a “religion,” a “race,” a “nation,” and a “culture” (Borowitz 1979, pp. 72–73). Several of the women we interviewed live their Judaism as a cultural commitment—a shared context of family and values, celebration and ritual, history and tradition. Most live their professional lives in secular spheres, where their Jewish identity (belief and practice) has to be negotiated.

Several women we interviewed had no religious affiliation and no involvement with Jewish organizations; others belonged to synagogues, where they were active in their children’s Jewish education. Their involvement in Jewish community activities was also influenced by their geographical location, the size of the Jewish population there, and the general ethos of the college and university communities to which these women belonged. Those with young children, particularly, commented on the difficulty of juggling university administration, family, and Jewish community activities. Community activities were often what they curtailed. One woman saw this curtailment as a reason why, now that her children were adults, she had only a minor role in the Jewish community compared to her Jewish male counterparts. A woman administrator in a Jewish institution regretted her lack of time to further her own Jewish learning even while she fostered others’ learning daily. Some women, particularly those in their fifties or older, had held office in Jewish organizations, such as board member of the university Hillel, youth advisor to B’nai Brith, and officer in Jewish community organizations such as Hadassah and community councils. Some had become speakers for Jewish organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League. One had taught a college course in Jewish studies; another had incorporated her interest in Judaism and Israel into her research.

Some women commented on the relationship between their Jewish community involvements and their university lives as another space where a Jewish woman administrator’s identities become intertwined. One woman suggested that her dual roles in Jewish community and university community “feed off one another,” a leadership role and prestige in one realm leading to leadership and prestige in the other. Another woman wished that at times she could separate the two roles, desiring to go to Jewish holiday services as a synagogue congregant, but often being addressed by others in her university title even in that context.


The percentage of Jewish women administrators at four-year colleges is greatest in the region where the largest number of Jews lives. This is not the region where there are the most four-year colleges and universities, even though that region might suggest more opportunities in administration. As of 2000, the Jewish population in the United States consisted of approximately 5.2 million people, with forty-three percent residing in the Northeast, twenty-two percent in the West, twenty-three percent in the South, and thirteen percent in the Midwest (National Jewish Population Survey 2000/2001). Four-year colleges and universities across the country fall into a slightly different distribution, most heavily weighted to the southern part of the United States, where thirty percent of the 2,200 institutions exist. Another twenty-seven percent fall in the Midwest, twenty-six percent in the Northeast, and sixteen percent in the West (Digest of Education Statistics 1996). In our sample of eighty-two Jewish women administrators, fifty-five percent held positions in the northeastern part of the United States. (These data represent a sample of Jewish women—eighty percent self-identified Jewish, twenty percent identified by other means—in senior administrative positions at four-year colleges and universities obtained through interviews, listserve requests, and Dialog and Lexis/Nexis searches.) Another seventeen percent held positions in the Midwest, fifteen percent in the South, and thirteen percent in the West.


Not all the women we interviewed could articulate why their attitudes toward their work were Jewish. For instance, having a liberal approach to education, one that valued intellectual creativity over rote learning, “felt Jewish” to one person. Many of the things that these women spoke about could be attributed to other sources: to family influence, to social and cultural norms, to university ethos, or to their personal work ethic. But we took very seriously the ways that these women attributed their attitudes and behaviors to their identities as Jews.

Several women said they drew upon metaphors from Judaism to explain situations to themselves and others. One described her job as “that of the Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac; b. Troyes, France, 1040Rashi of the rules and regulations.” Because she was Jewish, she said, she did not feel, as her colleagues did, that her job as a university administrator was to “remove occasions for sin.” Some considered the Jewish metaphors they used to be cultural; they commented that other minorities might use different ones. Others considered their Jewish metaphors as religious, bound to Jewish morality and Jewish observance. One woman described her concern for life at the university in the here-and-now, as opposed to primary concern for shaping its future, as the “Fiddler on the Roof syndrome,” inherited from the need for Jews to be ready to move at any time.

Jewish women administrators mentor Jewish students, particularly women. On campuses with few Jewish administrators, they serve also as authorities on Jewish issues, consulted by presidents on issues of sensitivity to Jews, particularly those affecting the academic calendar. One person described herself as “the Jewish One,” a position she held with pride, having always been considered an encyclopedia of Jewish knowledge. Another had addressed the issue of hate speech on campuses, condemning hate but defending free speech. Many others work on behalf of other minorities as well as Jews, claiming that their experience as Jews provides them with an understanding of what it means to be “the Other” in society.


Some women we interviewed found it “hard to say” how their being Jewish influenced their administrative style. Frances Degen Horowitz (1988, p. 12) wrote that “Jewish women bring into their academic experience a double consciousness about difference being female and being Jewish.” Most women we interviewed had difficulty disentangling the influence on their work of their being a Jew and being a woman. Several expressed their concern for the well-being of faculty and administrative colleagues, which might as well have grown out of their socialization as women as out of their upbringing as Jews. However, some distinguished between them as they told their stories. One woman drew upon having “rakhmones” [compassion] for others as the source of her concern for the well-being of faculty, while several others attributed their concern to their parents’ commitment to helping others. Still others felt they brought to their work a profound understanding of the role of diversity in society from their experience as Jews. Such double consciousness about difference apparently is not shared by all Jewish women academics, however. A few of the women we interviewed, who live and work in cities with large, active Jewish populations, claimed never to have experienced, as a Jew, being an outsider.

Some women felt a sense of purpose that came from being a Jew in a non-Jewish setting such as the academy. One named her “passion” as arising from her Jewish past. For some this passion was visible in the value they placed on education, in their love of learning, in their intensity for rigorous scholarship and debate in the tradition of Lit. "teaching," "study," or "learning." A compilation of the commentary and discussions of the amora'im on the Mishnah. When not specified, "Talmud" refers to the Babylonian Talmud.Talmud and A type of non-halakhic literary activitiy of the Rabbis for interpreting non-legal material according to special principles of interpretation (hermeneutical rules).midrash. Others connected this passion to a general sense of personal ambition and drive, handed down from grandmothers, in the “tradition of strong, Jewish women.” One woman noted that she finds herself encouraging students to take a stand on issues, often posing to them the question, “Is this something you believe in?”

Regardless of synagogue affiliation, involvement with Jewish activities, or commitments to Jewish belief or to Jewish practice, women who identify themselves as Jewish in the academy share something—a spirit of inquiry, community, perseverance, and a passion for equity—that shapes how they live. While these things are not unique to Judaism, they were expressed by those we interviewed as integral to their lives as Jewish women administrators.


Borowitz, Eugene. Understanding Judaism (1979); Council of Jewish Federations. 2000/2001 National Jewish Population Survey. Google archives, accessed August 15, 2005. http://www.ujc.org/content_display.html?ArticleID=60346; ; Digest of Education Statistics (1996); Gordon, Lynn. Gender and Higher Education in the Progressive Era (1990); Gorelick, Sherry. City College and the Jewish Poor (1981); Horowitz, Frances Degen. “A Jewish Woman in Academic America.” In Seeing Female: Social Roles, and Personal Lives, edited by S. Brehm (1988), and “Jewish Women, Jewish Life and the Academic World.” Unpublished invited address, Jewish Lecture Series, Queens College (1993); Kaufman, Polly Welts, ed. The Search For Equity (1991).


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How to cite this page

Burstyn, Joan N. and Lesley Bogad. "Higher Education Administration in the United States." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 17, 2021) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/higher-education-administration-in-united-states>.


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