Higher Education Ph.D. Dissertations


Madwoman, Queen, and Alien-Being: The Experiences of First-Time Women Presidents at Small Private Colleges

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Higher Education Administration

First Advisor

C. Carney Strange (Advisor)


This study examined the experiences, challenges, and transitions of eight college and university presidents who were the first women senior executives at their respective institutions. A qualitative research method, following the principles of the constructivist paradigm, was used as the underlying framework. Two in-depth sequential interviews were conducted with each president. Case studies were created for each participant and were aggregated to form the basis for these results.

Most of the participants in this study did not plan to become presidents. Usually the role emerged as a possibility later in their careers, while priorities—such as being with their families, remaining professionally challenged, and serving others—shaped their career directions. Although cognizant of gender, most did not believe that it significantly impacted their presidencies; yet because in each case, a woman, instead of a man, was appointed for the first time, several changes and adjustments occurred. In their view, the influence of gender was essentially peripheral, meaning that it affected major operations and concerns less than smaller matters located on the edge of their agendas. The professional demands of the presidency inevitably affected their personal lives, and finding a balance between professional and personal responsibilities often proved challenging. Several factors, such as individual management strategies or the kinds of external services employed, impacted the personal demands placed on them. The greatest challenges frequently related to the state of the institution when they assumed the office, addressing various leadership issues, and resolving intrapersonal issues. The participants recommended that presidential candidates be articulate and adept regarding financial and philanthropic issues, acquire a broad understanding of higher education, prepare for the magnitude of the position, and gain various leadership skills.

More attention needs to be paid to the mentoring and leadership opportunities women receive, while governing boards require education regarding non-traditional career paths. Before assuming a presidency, women need to examine their support systems, while assumptions about the position need to be analyzed. Further research should consider how the presidency affects personal relationships and explore the impact of institutional context, race, and generational influences on the experiences of first-time women college presidents.