University presidents may occupy the loftiest perch in the ivory tower but for one night, four presidents – a descendant of slaves, a gay man, a “small girl,” and an Orthodox Jew -- shared the unique stories that led them to the heights of academia. (A video of the session is available on the Hillel Web page.)
Moderated by Williams College President Morton Owen Schapiro, the panelists discussed “Is the Personal, Presidential? Reflections on Ethnicity, Faith, Gender, and Leadership.”
Wheelock College President Jackie Jenkins Scott spoke movingly about growing up as one of 33 grandchildren to a couple who did not receive any formal education. Scott recalled summer vacations at her grandparents’ farm in Arkansas, sleeping on the floor, milking the cows, even using the latrine outdoors. “Their grandparents had been slaves and they still knew those stories,” she said. “My grandfather did not have an education but he was the wisest man I knew.”
After a career in public health, Scott was asked to become president of Wheelock in 2003 after serving as the school’s commencement speaker. As the first African-American to head the college, she feels a particular commitment to its mission of service to the lives of children and families. “What has guided me? Faith, hard work and the understanding that to one who has been given much, much is to be expected,” she said.
Hampshire College President Ralph J. Hexter put it succinctly: “When I recognized that I was gay, it got my brain started.”
Hexter explained that his homosexuality is just one of the many components of his personality and upbringing that taught him the empathy he needs to succeed as the head of a liberal arts college. Raised in a non-observant Jewish home, Judaism played no role in his identity. “When I told my mother that I was going to this Hillel event, we both found it ironic,” he said.
He credits his parents with giving him the support he needed to excel in school and to be openly gay. “The infinite love of my parents allowed me to be who I am,” he said.
Nancy Cantor also credits her family with her path to becoming the president and chancellor of Syracuse University. She revealed that growing up in a “typical Jewish family” in New York City -- where a premium was placed on achievement, and primacy was given to the males -- she constantly competed with her older brother for her parents’ respect.
Her struggle for attention continued in the streets of New York where “little girls” had to fight for survival. “I am a social psychologist because I grew up in New York City,” she explained. “When you are a small girl and you take the subway at rush hour the world is literally in your face. I learned that groups are not things to be feared. You have to come to terms with them or perish.”
Cantor said that coming of age in the 1960s has fueled her passion for change. She called on Summit participants to support today’s generation of college students who feel like they cannot take risks. “We need to find ways to ensure that the university is a venue in which they can bring about change,” she said.
The appearance of Yeshiva University President Richard M. Joel at the Summit was a homecoming: Before joining Yeshiva, Joel had spent the preceding 15 years as president of Hillel. Joel credited his parents, his wife and his tradition for leading him from a career in law to the presidency of YU. He recalled how his wife pushed him to apply for the position with Hillel, and how she supported him as he worked to transform the organization.
Joel recalled the almost inevitable path that led him to Yeshiva. As a teenager he visited the school with his parents to receive an award. During the trip, he saw his father cry with joy. An immigrant from Eastern Europe, Joel’s father said, “I never thought I would see a school like this run by Jews.” Tragically, the elder Joel died of cancer a few months later. Joel’s mother then enrolled him in Yeshiva University high school.
Above all, Joel sees his Jewish identity as the root of his personality: “Being Jewish shapes who I am. It is the defining feature of my identity and gives me my sense of mission. The Jewish story teaches that we are not just creatures but that we can be noble creatures that matter to the world.”