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On May 10, 1981, graduation day at the University of Rochester, I set my career sights on becoming a president of a small college. My senior year I was the president of the student association. I had worked with senior leadership to create some needed reforms for students, including the first course evaluations and a student-funded teaching award that exists today.

As we walked off the platform, I thanked President Sproull. “How did you get that job?” I asked him. “Go to law school,” he replied. I explained that I was on my way to graduate studies in history and did not want to be a lawyer. He replied that he knew that, but if I wanted to be a good college administrator, I should go to law school, not to be a lawyer but to understand the relationships among higher education, the law and government. Fifteen years, a doctorate, marriage and a child later, I graduated law school. He sent me a congratulatory note, which I still have and cherish.

I did not become a college president, but I have always watched that world closely. My adviser in graduate school was aware of my career interests and insightfully suggested that I “go back to my roots” and study Catholic women’s higher education. My dissertation focused on the 13 Catholic women’s colleges in New York State. The larger theme is about the struggle between acculturation and assimilation in the American Catholic community in the 20th century. Obviously, it is from the perspective of gendered relations in that subculture and is a double-edged story.

On the one hand, women were and still are under patriarchal authority in the Roman Catholic Church. On the other hand, sex-segregated orders allowed women to take initiative, build colleges and become presidents, provosts, deans and faculty. In their heyday, colleges such as New Rochelle, Manhattanville and Marymount, among others, flourished. They provided pathways for young, middle-class Catholic women to earn degrees and enter professional worlds, most often in education, nursing and social work, but also in higher education, medicine and business.

For some complicated social and political reasons, American society now confronts a crisis in female leadership in higher education. I will not repeat the excellent article in The New York Times by Kate Zernike on this subject, since it is available for your own viewing. Nor will I go into a fulsome analysis of sexism and gender bias; those areas have also been covered extensively, although, one might note, not sufficiently to make a difference in the experience of some women university presidents.

What I will say with emphasis, in the case of the institution to which I am indebted for more opportunities and gifts that I can enumerate, is leave Martha Pollack alone. She is an excellent and exemplary president, the best Cornell has had in a generation, and it is wrong for some wealthy hedge-fund players to be throwing their weight around at her expense. If there are concerns about this matter or that, DEI or anything else, these matters can be addressed in the appropriate manner of board governance. There is absolutely nothing, and I repeat, nothing President Pollack has done that warrants resignation.

Were this a more exacting analysis, I would throw light on the influence that money now has not only in politics but in American society and culture and large. Need one do more than recite a few names—Zuckerberg, Musk, Ackerman—to make the point. Repeatedly I find that these individuals might know a lot about coding or building a business or making tons of money in hedge funds, but they know little about the First Amendment, national security or historical patterns of artificially inflated egos and the potential to corrupt. It is time to throw that light, especially because in one more year the 2017 tax breaks will expire and we will have an opportunity to reset the material compass of our country’s social structure and national debt. But this little blog is not the place.

In the meantime, however, I mention this subject because it is driving power behind the men who have jumped up to overpower women presidents of major American universities. American women’s historians have long noted that women fill the professional gaps that men leave as the market moves them to other, more powerful areas. Think of clergy, clerks, teachers, even soldiers and, to some degree, politicians over the course of the last centuries.

There might be 30 percent women presidents in higher education, filling in as men have fled those roles because colleges and universities have lost prestige in American society, but nota bene, there are fewer than 5 percent in hedge fund finance. That is still no excuse for those with the bucks to throw their weight around in an area they know close to nothing about. Sure, say your piece, masters of the universe. As people of influence, we want to know your opinions and thoughts. But you play maniacally with an institution so vast, important and critical to American greatness at our peril, and, frankly, you are not anywhere near as great. All that money in your bank account has distorted your sense of significance. Stop now before you carve out an even more dangerous path for all of us.

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