Three Women of Substance

I picked up my dear friend Judy Woodruff at the airport this afternoon.  She is in town to do an event for her all-woman’s college alma mater, Meredith College in Raleigh, where she matriculated for two years before transferring to Duke.  We didn’t’ spend much time on the great achievement she and Gwen Ifill have reached as the new anchors of the well respected PBS NewsHour.

When Judy graduated from Duke it was uncertain that a woman could be taken seriously as a journalist.  Ten years ago it was uncertain that a woman could lead and carry a major national newscast – let alone two women.  But these two-respected newswomen have not made big headlines with their emergence as the face of the PBS national newscast.  The two have integrity, news judgment, experience and respect.  They bring momentum to the NewsHour that is becoming a stronger digital player on PBS with a seven-day a week program and a deeper website.

Today as I drove back to UNC, I thought of how “ordinary” Judy & Gwen’s emergence as the leaders of the NewsHour seems.  Yesterday, I sat in Chapel Hill on the historic Polk Place for the 220th anniversary of the first U.S. public university – the University of North Carolina.  Only 11 educators have led this storied university.  Yesterday the first woman was installed.

Carol Folt – like Judy – didn’t enter her career and higher education with everyone cheering her on.  She had to reach the highest levels of success with extra hard word and steely determination.  She started her academic career at Dartmouth where she worked until coming to UNC, by sharing a science professorship with her husband.  Job sharing was just “in”.   Even so, I was amazed to learn that she and her husband in the 1970s could take one academic appointment and share it.

Her installation as Chancellor was a lovely ceremony.  These academic day events and huge installation ceremonies usually are.  The South Building was festooned with banners, the stage had magnificent floral arrangements that wowed the eye, the Governor of North Carolina was there and the choir and formal band brought the sincerity of the moment front and center.

But what I will remember is the ordinariness of a woman taking leadership.  There have been many strong women who have been given the reigns of America’s great institutions of higher education in the last ten years.  Folt spoke of important initiatives and the struggle to keep public universities affordable.  She spoke of the great opportunity higher education has in a society and why she was drawn to its public role because of its “higher purpose”.

But it wasn’t the big worldly issues that set her apart for me.  It was her warmth.  Her confident style of women’s leadership.  I will remember it because of how comfortable Carol Folt seems in her skin.  She had emotional moments, adlibs to her children who had tears in their eyes, and honesty about how powerful the moment

Carol Folt is a woman’s woman.  She reached the top the hard way – with scientific experimentation, tenured research that mattered, administrative chops that led to the Dartmouth Provost’s seat and an interim role as Dartmouth’s president.   She comes to UNC with experience.  And strength.  And for me what was most impressive was her ability to be a woman who could show the emotion of the moment and be humble in her confidence.

This is the “privilege of my life” she ended simply.  Carol Folt has risen from a science professor who shared a job, to the Chancellor’s position at one of America’s most respected research universities, and its oldest public university.  Impressive on its face.  And more impressive because she accepted it as a Mom, sister, wife and a hardworking female scholar.

Judy Woodruff.  Gwen Ifill.  Carol Folt.  Truly talented women leaders who make room for others to join their ranks.  They are rewriting the era of “exceptional” women leaders who sometimes seemed to say few others could do it.


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