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If Healey Were A He, Would Babson Get So Much Flak?

This article is more than 7 years old.

Modern college presidents raise a school’s public profile and lots of money. Kerry Healey can do that. Why shouldn’t Babson College be happy to let her?

The trustees had barely announced the appointment of the former Massachusetts lieutenant governor as Babson’s 13th president when the howls erupted on the bucolic Wellesley campus.

A politician! A Republican! A woman!

When is the last time a business school with more BMWs than Honda Civics in the student parking lot took offense at Republican leadership? Bentley University, just down the road from Babson in Waltham, has had Gloria Larson, a longtime Republican turned independent, at the helm since 2007 and the sky hasn’t fallen.

Meehan had never earned a patent for a game-changing medical device ... Bulger never ran anything larger than a compliant 40-member legislative body before he was tapped to run the flagship of the state’s university system. So why does Healey need to have run a hedge fund?

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Steven Comery, a staff writer for the campus newspaper, thinks Healey’s gender is fueling the opposition more than her politics. "There have been times when the level of sexism present has made me feel ashamed to be a member of this college community,” he wrote of conversations he has had with his classmates in the last week. “While there are realistic objections to Dr. Healey’s appointment, any question of whether she is an appropriate choice purely regarding her sex is archaic, irrational, and shameful.”

The “realistic objections” to Healey — that she does not come from the academy or have a deep business background — also ring hollow, given recent history. Was former Massachusetts Senate President William Bulger disqualified from taking the reins at the University of Massachusetts or former Congressman Martin Meehan from assuming the presidency of the Lowell campus? On the contrary, their political careers were framed as assets in a world where institutions of higher education are ever more dependent on government contracts and other financial assistance.

Meehan had never earned a patent for a game-changing medical device or new computer software even though UMass-Lowell’s reputation rests on its commitment to emerging technologies. Bulger never ran anything larger than a compliant 40-member legislative body before he was tapped to run the flagship of the state’s university system. So why does Healey need to have run a hedge fund?

Maybe the presidential selection committee at Babson, which promotes itself as an incubator of young entrepreneurs, has a broader definition of entrepreneurship than its internal critics. Healey is a something of a “social entrepreneur.” In addition to earning her undergraduate degree from Harvard and her doctorate from Trinity College in Dublin in political science and the law, she has been active on pressing social issues at home and abroad. She has worked on efforts to end homelessness in this country and to broaden educational opportunity for disabled students in Cuba and for girls in Afghanistan. She is a founding member of the U.S. State Department’s Public-Private Partnership for Justice Reform in Afghanistan to promote the rule of law. With former Ambassador Swanee Hunt, she chairs the Political Parity project, a bipartisan campaign to elect more women to public office. (Since women make up only 44 percent of Babson’s undergraduate student body she might be able to bring more parity to that campus, too.)

The daughter of a military officer and a schoolteacher, Healey attended Harvard on scholarship and has worked to ensure that there are funds enough for poor and working class students to follow in her path. She and her husband, Sean, have put their considerable resources where their priorities are on that score at Harvard. Babson would benefit from their largess.

Babson is hardly unusual in seeking leaders beyond the campus gates. While 34 percent of college presidents in the U.S. were promoted from the position of provost, a college’s chief academic officer, one in five in 2011 came from outside the academy, a jump from 15 percent in 2001.

There is a reason for that. A president’s success or failure is far more likely in 2013 to rest on her ability to raise money than on her talent for finding the right curricular balance among the physical and social sciences and the humanities. There are provosts, deans, assistant deans and more than enough committees of faculty, administrators and students for that. Babson is looking for a leader to keep the ship on course, not to steer it in a new direction. Healey can do that.

A modern president is also the face of a college and a few more female faces would be a refreshing change. Only 26 percent of college presidents in the Unites States are women, according to a report last year by the American Education Council, and more than a third of those lead two-year schools. The typical college president is — surprise! — a 61-year-old white guy with a doctorate in education.

She will make a better college president than she did a political handmaiden. At Babson, she will be the one setting the agenda.

Healey’s resume is much more interesting than that. Forget the myth that she was Mitt Romney’s co-governor between 2003 and 2007. She is smart enough to know she was window dressing, added to the ticket in a failed attempt to attract female voters who continue to spurn Romney. (see gender gap, 2012) That doesn’t mean Healey did nothing at the State House. She was a voice for victims of child abuse and domestic violence and an advocate for reform of the state’s prison system, a cause that has languished through Republican and Democratic administrations alike.

The disconnect between Romney’s record and her own more progressive views on social policy, from abortion to sexual assault, doomed her candidacy for governor in 2006. She could not talk about her commitment to tackle gang violence or to protect abused children without having to explain to skeptics, myself included, why those subjects never made it onto Romney’s agenda.

She will make a better college president than she did a political handmaiden. At Babson, she will be the one setting the agenda.


Editor's note: Kerry Healey is an occasional contributor to Cognoscenti. You can find links to her writing here.


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This program aired on April 26, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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