Women Lead the Way

Calculation Pie Chart: 6 slices indicating that women have held the office of UW Chancellor for 14 or the last 31 years, or 45 percent of the time since 1988.

Women have served as UW chancellor for 14 of the last 31 years. Illustration by N. B. Rinehart; photos by Jeff Miller

Donna Shalala

When Donna Shalala entered Bascom Hall at 6 a.m. for her first day on the job in 1988, a security guard told her, “You must have a tough boss.” As it turned out, she was the boss — making history as the first woman to serve as UW–Madison’s chief executive and one of only a few to lead a major research university.

“I’m sure she’s going to shake the place up,” Robert Clodius, a former UW acting president, prophetically told the Wisconsin State Journal after she was hired.

Just as Shalala arrived on campus as chancellor, Mary Rouse became the first woman to hold the title of dean of students. A year later, Shalala created the position of vice chancellor for legal and executive affairs and selected Melany Newby, the UW’s first female vice chancellor and top lawyer. In 1991, Sue Riseling was hired as the director of police and security, becoming the first female campus police chief in the Big Ten and one of just a handful in the country. “I’m a manager who brings about change,” Riseling told the State Journal at the time.

During this era, women also led the way at the Wisconsin Alumni Association (WAA) and the UW System. Gayle Langer ’83 was named executive director of WAA in 1989, and Katharine Lyall became president of the UW System in 1992.

Now, a woman entering high office in Bascom Hall is a familiar sight. Between Shalala, Biddy Martin PhD’85, and Rebecca Blank, women have been in charge of the university for almost half of the past three decades. Many other central leadership positions — provost, top administrators for research and student affairs, deans of various schools and colleges — have also been held by women in recent years.

Progress, however, can feel slow. A year after Shalala arrived, students criticized her for hiring three men to fill dean and vice chancellor vacancies. (The only female dean at the time was the School of Nursing’s Vivian Littlefield.) Shalala defended the moves and insisted that the UW was still committed to diversifying leadership. “The proof is what the UW will look like in three years,” she told the Capital Times. “Come back and take a look then.”

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