In her own words, Dr. Elizabeth Meade was not bred to be ambitious.
Growing up, she was a bright young woman who followed her love of language into academia. It was there, inside a world of classrooms, lectures and faculty meetings, that Meade was able to fully realize her unique leadership qualities.
Today, Meade is the 14th president of Cedar Crest College, a private liberal arts college for women in Allentown.
At a time when the value of higher education is being questioned, she is leading Cedar Crest and a generation of women into the future.
Lehigh Valley Business sat down with Meade to learn more, from the changing role of higher education, to the criticism of women in power, to redefining leadership.
LVB: Let’s start at the beginning. As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I grew up just outside of Boston in a town called Belmont. I always wanted to be a teacher. But I will say that when I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, the only careers that I saw being open to women were teachers, nurses and secretaries.
I didn’t see women in any other careers, so those seemed to be my only options.
As I got older, I got interested in languages and my undergraduate major in German literature brought me into constant contact with philosophy. I liked thinking about big ideas. At that point I knew I would go into academia. I loved teaching and I loved writing.
LVB: Let’s talk about women’s colleges. Their numbers are dwindling, just 34 in 2018. Cedar Crest seems to be thriving. Why do you think that is?
One reason is that we diversified early on. We started a program for women returning to college in the 1960s, before it was on anyone else’s radar. That gave area women the opportunity to return to college years after graduating high school and gave us another population of students even when the traditional population of students was declining.
We also added graduate programs. It has kept us with diverse-enough revenue streams to not be threatened with going out of business.
LVB: How can a women’s college still be important/relevant in today’s world?
It is massively important. I think selling a women’s education is not nearly as hard now as it once was. Enrollment at women’s colleges and historically black colleges is increasing.
Sure, the world is co-ed, and we need to know how to exist in a co-ed world, but there is still a large disparity in the work world for women. The C-suite is very male dominated. Women are overrepresented in elementary school teaching and nursing, until you start getting up the ladder in management and then things are male dominated, even in traditionally “female careers.”
Women are underrepresented in the legislature at a shocking level. We don’t really live in a coed world. Women are still at an enormous competitive disadvantage.
A way we are going to achieve parity is with institutions like women’s colleges that prepare women to change the dynamic. I think that’s what we do.
LVB: Why do women choose to come to Cedar Crest instead of a coed institution?
Truthfully the number one reason why is for the high quality of our academic programs. We have some students who come despite the fact that we are a women’s college, but every single one is converted to understanding the enormous power of a women’s college.
We have had students who were marginalized in high school because they were intelligent.
It’s sad to me that even today women feel they are sort of forced to choose between being attractive and intelligent.
LVB: Some reports state that 50 percent of colleges could close within the next decade. In an age where you can google the answers to most anything, and there are so many ways to learn besides going to a college class, is a college education still valuable? And is a college education worth the cost?
Information is available everywhere. Learning isn’t. The internet is a fire hose of undifferentiated information. What colleges do is teach students to evaluate information. In our world we desperately need people who can evaluate information. That is education’s purpose, 100 percent. Its relevance hasn’t diminished but if anything is more critical. People face a steady stream of misinformation now.
Affordability is something we are all working on.
When it comes to college, what it costs to provide is more than what most people can afford. The same is true for health care and child care. How do we bridge the gap between need and what it costs to provide?
We are doing what we can. We have very generous financial aid. We have a program where if you have a certain grade point average, your tuition will be no more than the Penn State tuition. That can only do so much, however, and we are working on more solutions.
LVB: How is Cedar Crest staying relevant and forward thinking as a school of higher learning?
We started the valley’s only nurse anesthetist program, and it is a desperately needed program. There is a shortage of nurse anesthetists. We also have a doctor of nursing program, Programs like those help our younger undergraduate students see what they can move on to achieve.
We are in the very early stages of a crime science masters.
Watching enrollment is challenging. There are a declining number of kids coming out of high school today. There is negativity all throughout media and society questioning the value of higher education.
Yet what I do is so rewarding. You see how four years of time and education transforms these students, their confidence and their maturity. Hands down, commencement is the most rewarding time of year.
LVB: Some say that there is a growing generation gap today between older and younger people. As someone immersed in the academic world, do you see this? And what is the younger generation better at than we are? Conversely, what can they learn from us?
There is always a generation gap; it just feels worse when you are the older generation. Our parents thought our music was too loud, and that we wasted too much time watching TV.
A generation gap is a healthy thing in society and part of the next generation defining itself. I think young people today are amazing. They are increasingly driven to have a meaningful and purposeful life. They are less driven by material pursuits. They want to measure success in terms of their impact versus their bank balance.
One of the challenges of higher ed is to meet this new normal. Young people are good at multitasking, they are accustomed to having an answer to every question available at the blink of an eye. Higher ed has to move past thinking of themselves as content providers, because content is everywhere. Higher ed has to move to a place where students learn discernment, analysis and synthesis.
Younger generations can always learn from older generations. The thing I most deeply miss in this current generation is reading. They don’t read as much as earlier generations because there is just so much more to do now. There is a loss there. When you read a lot, you absorb the lessons of grammar and debate, and now we have to try and teach it laboriously after the fact.
If I could fix that, I would.
LVB: The U.S. still has not elected a female president. Why do you think that is?
I think it comes down to a lack of women in boardrooms and positions of power in the C-suite, in the legislature. We as a society do not accept easily women in positions of authority.
In 2008, when Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama were in their primary battle, I knew for a fact that Barack Obama would win, because I knew that sexism is much harder to get over than racism. People will accept a black man in a position of authority a lot easier than a woman.
As a culture, we treat women who hold power very badly. We are very harsh critics of them. It is a deeply systemic sexism. I think women’s colleges have an important role to dissolve that.
LVB: What advice do you have for women in today’s workforce, whether they are just starting out, are mid-career or are starting over?
I went into my professional career not having any particular ambitions to go into a leadership role. I was not bred to be ambitious.
One of the things I think a lot about these days is broadening our understanding of leadership. Women may have leadership characteristics in themselves that they may not conceive as authoritative.
Don’t allow your efforts to be marginalized or deemed less important.
I wasn’t deterred by the fact that society’s definition of leadership didn’t match who I was.
I’m here because I was able to successfully redefine what leadership meant for me.