Frances Daly Fergusson was on the nine-member presidential search committee that selected Drew Gilpin Faust to be the next president of Harvard University.

As the former president of Vassar College (1986-2006), she has a first-hand perspective of the challenges women face in public leadership roles. And as the newly elected president of Harvard’s Board of Overseers, she will be working closely with Dr. Faust in the coming year.

Elizabeth Hemmerdinger, a 1967 graduate of Vassar, talked with Dr. Fergusson, whose many accomplishments are outlined here, about Harvard’s decision and what it means for women.

Women’s Voices for Change: Congratulations to the search committee on what everyone seems to think is a job very well done. Dr. Faust sounds like a wonderful choice.

Frances Fergusson: The search has ended up with a spectacular president for Harvard. Drew is so good, and I am truly thrilled that we came down the way we did. It was not pre-ordained to be a woman, or to be Drew, but her qualities kept coming out more and more strongly in any of the comparisons we made with other potential presidents.

WVFC: What’s been the campus reaction to the selection?

FF: Harvard is rejoicing. We’ve chosen someone extremely effective and smart and also very, very nice and popular with her colleagues. I am thoroughly happy.

WVFC: Particularly from your vantage as a woman who has headed an important institution when it was still a pretty small field, what does Dr. Faust’s appointment mean for women in academia — at the faculty, administration and student levels? Is this the “crack” in the glass ceiling, as others have said?

FF: The point you make about women and the “crack in the glass ceiling,” however unfortunate that phrase is, is true. We realized it even more after the appointment. Drew was being stopped in the airport in Philadelphia the day before the “official” announcement, after she was on the front pages of the newspapers with the reportorial scoop that she would be appointed that weekend. Mothers and fathers wanted their daughters to shake her hand and applause broke out in the airplane itself when people realized she was on board.

WVFC: That’s an incredible story.

FF: This has touched a deep vein of pride and a realization of potential for all women. There can be no doubt that, in the future, women will be equally considered for virtually anything (except perhaps in the corporate world), especially after Drew does the bang-up job I expect she will do.

WVFC: Why do you think the corporate world lags so far behind? What can we do to bring about further change?

FF: The corporate world actually benefits from women on boards and in positions of leadership.  They bring superb skills, knowledge and different perspectives to business issues. However, there is a clear tendency to choose board members and CEOS from among those already in those positions: i.e., men. Change is happening, but it is slow.

I am on three corporate boards (HSBC USA, Wyeth Pharmaceuticals and Mattel). One has one woman (me), one has two and the third has three. We are easily accepted on those boards and readily heard, so there is no radical cultural change required. There just needs to be more of us. The search firms dealing with board memberships are now becoming more sensitive to this issue and have helped. Women, too, who have positions on boards need to promote other women’s candidacies.

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