Susan Fuhrman on supporting women in education leadership

President Susan H. Fuhrman

President Susan H. Fuhrman

This interview with Dr. Susan H. Fuhrman appears as the sixth installment in a year-long series on the public scholarship of women in education leadership

Dr. Susan H. Fuhrman is the President of Teachers College, Columbia University, founding Director and Chair of the Management Committee of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE), and former President of the National Academy of Education.

Dr. Fuhrman’s substantial leadership record includes her term as Dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. She is a former Vice President of the American Educational Research Association as well as a former Trustee Board member of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and a former non-executive Director of Pearson plc, the international education and publishing company.

Dr. Fuhrman received bachelors and masters’ degrees in history from Northwestern University and a Ph.D. in political science and education from Teachers College and Columbia University. Her research interests include accountability in education, intergovernmental relationships, and standards-based reform, and she has written widely on education policy and finance. 

In this interview, Dr. Fuhrman shares the story of her path to leadership and why she believes women should view positions in education leadership as do-able.

On a path to leadership

The fact that I started my life working at policy is in itself serendipitous. When I was a history teacher in high school, decided that I could run the high school better than the principal could. I must have had an early notion of leadership and I went to get another master’s in administration. I already had a master’s in history. I was talked out of it by the person who interviewed me at that time and was persuaded to go into education policy and to get a Doctorate.

I started my doctorate at Berkeley, then transferred here and finished it under Donna Shalala’s advisement and went into education policy doing research and working with states and districts. After my degree, I joined the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers as a researcher. After a few years we bid on a federally funded research center; it was a consortium of several universities and I co-found it and ran it. It is still in existence: the Consortium for Policy Research in Education. It is now 31 years old.

That was a leadership role. I was guiding the research, giving people opportunities, doing a lot of fundraising, heading the various committees such as the management committee of researchers, chairing the board of stakeholders, the advisory groups, and the meetings of associations that worked with policy makers. I was doing actually a general leadership role.

Then I was recruited from there to be the Dean of Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania in 1995 and then recruited here to Teachers College in 2006.

The leadership part of it must have always been in me, even those years that I was scholar I was also a leader in terms of my research consortium.

On working as a scholar in the early years of the field of education policy

Education policy was a brand new field because it really is a post war development. It was only after ESEA in the 1960s and the school finance movement, which was just starting in the 1970s, that educational policy at the federal and state levels respectively became substantial enough to warrant study. It was great being in on that ground floor in a new field. I helped establish Division L of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), which is devoted to policy and I think contributed in other ways to building the field. That was also a leadership role.

It’s very clear that to be a respected leader in higher education you need the academic credentials as well. You need to have that scholarship portion of your portfolio. You need to have that experience or else you’re really not going to be as able as you should be to support the research enterprise at the institution you are leading.

On the experiences and skills that are essential for leadership

Interpersonal skills are the most important and the older I get, the more I realize that. It’s a lot of listening. It’s a lot of trying to help people work together so that they can deal with issues and challenges without necessarily coming to me. You have to find ways to bring people together. So much of administrative work is actually personnel work and I don’t think academic leaders are prepared for that. Sometimes you end up letting people go. Sometimes you promote people. And, you are always recruiting of course.

I also think part of what was important was that my mother and her sisters were all important leaders in their fields, were well known and respected and set an example for me. Also I went to Hunter College High School, which was an all girls school at that time. There they told us we were the best and the brightest. I felt we were schooled to have an impact on the world.

On supporting women in education leadership

I don’t think that I’ve always been conscious of this issue because when you are in education you are in a field that is predominantly women. When I became a dean, the president was a woman. There were other deans who were women. I didn’t feel the uniqueness. When I was the center director before that, there were many who were women.

I have more recently reflected on that. I had a conversation with a faculty member who studies women in leadership about my role here. She made it clear to me how the gender issue is received by others, that some people are actually looking for a mother and I have a lot of that in me. I approach a lot of things from that perspective. I have three sons, so I can see myself mothering in certain aspects of my role.

She explained to me how some people might be confused. Do they want a mother or do they want a leader who is going to be way out ahead of them in sense that a mother would not be? It influences people’s perceptions, I think.

Many professors here try to be both role models and to turn around and give that hand up and conscious of promoting women. I provide flexible schedules so that women can take care of their children. That was done for me. My first boss after I had my doctorate made it possible for me to go to soccer games and still do my job. That’s something I try to do here.

There are still certain glass ceilings but the conversation is changing and people are searching for women leaders. I belong to the Committee for Economic Development and they had a major effort to getting women onto corporate boards. There are a number of attempts to enhance female leadership.

One of the major issues is work/life balance and I spoke a little bit about that. I try to attend to that but I think that remains a huge problem. I think one of the challenges of being a role model is that graduate students don’t understand how they can have a family, keep publishing, worry about tenure, teach, mentor, advise. It all seems undo-able and I think that we have to be careful not to send that signal.

Deirdre Faughey (Founding Editor, Publisher) is a doctoral candidate in the Curriculum and Teaching Department at Teachers CollegeColumbia University. She is also the Managing Editor of International Ed News, a Research Assistant for the National Center for the Restructuring Education, Schools & Teaching (NCREST), and has taught Masters-level Literacy and English Ed courses at Hunter College. Contact her at if you have any questions about Esteem. Visit to learn more about her work.

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