Trish Bugajski embraces opportunities, an attitude that has contributed to her rise from adjunct instructor to the female team of deans at the University of Saint Francis.
Leading the university's College of Adult and Distance Education isn't a job she imagined, partly because she didn't see many female role models in education other than religious sisters.
“I couldn't have articulated it then,” said Bugajski, who was educated in Catholic schools, “but looking back, yes, it would have been much more helpful for me.”
Saint Francis' new academic alignment, which took effect July 1, included shifting programs from five schools to three colleges. Andrea Geyer is dean of the College of Arts, Sciences and Business, and Angie Harrell is dean of the College of Health Sciences.
Other women in leadership at Saint Francis include two vice presidents and five academic directors.
Overall, the university's academic leadership is 61% female, spokesman Reggie Hayes said, noting other women also hold nonacademic leadership positions. The student body is 71% female.
Although younger generations might take women in leadership roles for granted – and Saint Francis has had three female deans in the past – Bugajski, Geyer and Harrell don't dismiss the significance of their status.
“For me, it's motivational just because of the prejudices that I've run into as a woman, to be able to work through those and be where I am today,” Geyer said. “I think it shows that as long as we keep pushing forward, no matter what comes in front of us, we can do what we want to do.”
Gender parity remains an issue in higher education. The American Council on Education reports women earn the majority of college degrees, but “made surprisingly little progress when it comes to gaining the top job at colleges and universities.” The council's 2017 American College President Study found about 30% of college presidents were women in 2016 compared to a U.S. population that is 50% female.
The organization's national campaign – Moving the Needle: Advancing Women in Higher Education Leadership – seeks to achieve gender parity by 2030.
Men lead most colleges in northeast Indiana, but women hold numerous top positions including chancellor, vice chancellor, vice president and associate dean.
At least two current presidents – the Rev. Eric Zimmer of Saint Francis and Dave McFadden of Manchester University – succeeded women.
“I'm the first male president of this university,” said Zimmer, who began July 1 following Sister Elise Kriss' 27-year tenure. “In this context, perhaps I'm the outlier.”
Zimmer, who previously worked at colleges including the University of Notre Dame and Georgetown University, said he has been blessed to serve for or with many excellent female leaders.
“It's not something that I see as unexpected in today's world, and if it is unexpected, I think it says more about the individual than the state of the academy,” Zimmer said.
Noting more women than men attend Saint Francis, Zimmer added it's important for students to see leaders like them.
Harrell agrees. She juggled classes while being a wife and mother, an experience that helps her relate to students and shows they don't have to choose between earning a degree, having children or pursuing a career.
“You can balance all of those things,” Harrell said, noting the College of Health Sciences is predominately female. “You don't have to pick what you want to be.”
But it's not always easy. A chemist by training, Geyer said she faced sexism before she joined Saint Francis a decade ago, particularly after she became pregnant.
“There was definitely a change in the way that people interacted with me because it wasn't acceptable within the chemistry community for somebody, before they had tenure, to get pregnant,” Geyer said. “It was viewed as having a misalignment of personal goals relative to career goals.”
Geyer never aspired to become a dean. She rose through the ranks at Saint Francis because others approached her about various positions, she said, noting the university has a supportive environment.
“Before being here, I ran into a lot of closed doors,” Geyer said. “Everybody would say, 'Nope, you can't do that,' or 'That's not possible.'”
Support from other women is especially important, said Bugajski, who also serves as associate vice president for academic affairs. She said she feels comfortable asking Geyer and Harrell questions – behavior that felt like a weakness elsewhere.
“Some of my harshest critics are other females,” Bugajski said. “So when there are females who do support us and each other, I think that makes a world of difference.”
Harrell called being a dean a privilege.
“I don't personally believe that because I'm a woman I'm a better dean than a male counterpart,” Harrell said, “but I do think that it comes with the responsibility to make sure that I am leading by example, for not only the other female leadership in the school but the students that are there, regardless of gender.”