UK women who got away

Many years ago when I was learning to be a business reporter I attended a seminar at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business.

The faculty taught me a lot about my craft but the most enduring takeaway was a life lesson. Rolling his eyes about workplace dissatisfaction, one professor asked, "Why do you think they call it work?"

He meant professionals who grouse about long hours, lack of appreciation, etc., etc.

So, it always strikes me, as juvenile, perhaps, when a manager complains about how hard it is to hire women into powerful jobs.

Of course, it's hard, that's why they call it work.

But, let's face it, people get paid a lot less to do harder things than hiring someone who comes out of a group that includes over half the population, even more in academia.

Women have made up about half for a very long time, and for three decades now they've not only attended college at a rate higher than their male counterparts but outperformed them there.

So, if top management, as is the case at the University of Kentucky, is only 9 percent female, there's a problem somewhere.

Typically we're told there aren't enough qualified women and/or the competition for them is so fierce that UK gets outbid.

Let's leave aside for the moment that the latter point suggests that less qualified men are now occupying those jobs. Money is easier to address because it is simply an indication of perceived value. If UK gets outbid then it's clear that an individual is worth more to another institution. Does that reasoning apply to top-notch students, athletes, coaches, even presidents? I haven't noticed if it does.

So, on to the argument that there just aren't enough qualified women around. Given that there are so many women, this drives me to three possible conclusions: Women just aren't as good as men so fewer of them could ever qualify for the jobs; the culture of academic management is such that women don't want to join it, or the people doing the hiring just aren't looking hard enough.

My personal experience says you can throw out number one and, frankly, I don't expect any university administrator to make that argument.

So, I think the answer lies with some combination of two and three.

I wondered how hard UK has been looking within its own ranks for the last couple of decades. That led me to assemble this list of women who've left UK for bigger and better jobs:

■ Mary Sue Coleman. During 19 years as a biochemistry professor at UK she never advanced into administration. She left, eventually becoming the president of the University of Iowa for seven years before, in 2002, taking the top job at the University of Michigan, which she still holds. Time magazine has called her one of the country's 10 best university presidents. The last two years she donated her raises to scholarship funds.

■ Deborah Powell. In a 21-year career at UK she advanced to chair of the department of pathology and laboratory medicine. She left in 1997 to become a dean at the University of Kansas Medical School and then, in 2002, dean of the School of Medicine at the University of Minnesota, where she is now dean emeritus.

■ Phyllis Wise. A professor and chair of the department of physiology at UK for eight years, she left in 2001 to become dean of the college of biological sciences at UC-Davis, going on to provost at the University of Washington, where she also served as interim president for a year before her appointment in 2011 as vice president and chancelor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

■ Claire Pomeroy. She rose to associate dean for research and informatics at UK before leaving in 2003 to become executive associate dean of the School of Medicine at UC-Davis where she was appointed vice chancellor and dean in 2005. This spring she became president of the Lasker Foundation, whose awards for scientific and medical achievement are sometimes called "America's Nobels."

■ Shirley Raines. After two and a half years as vice chancellor for academic services and six years as dean of the College of Education at UK, she was appointed president of the University of Memphis in 2001, where she still serves. In 2012 she received the Francis Gassner Award for outstanding contributions to the quality of Memphis' built environment.

■ Deneese Jones. She taught at UK for 15 years, and served as associate dean of graduate school recruitment and civersity until 2005, when she left to become dean of the College of Education and Human Services at Longwood University. In June 2012 she was named provost at Drake University.

■ Lori Gonzalez. A native Kentuckian who joined UK's College of Health Sciences in 1991 and became dean 14 years later, in 2005, she was appointed provost and executive vice chancellor at Appalachian State University in 2011.

It took a matter of hours, not days or weeks, to put together that list, and I didn't use a search firm.

I've concluded that in general the top guys aren't looking hard enough, either inside or outside their institutions. But I also suspect the culture in many of the seats of academic power is such that brilliant women may question whether they want to join the club.

President Eli Capilouto, who came to UK after most of these women had left, says the school needs to do a lot of soul searching on the issues of diversity and equity. He's right.

There are a lot of questions he should ask, and not just of those in his inner circle. He should ask, of course, if UK's looking hard enough or working relentlessly to develop leaders from within its own ranks. But he should also ask if he's creating a culture that really smart, ambitious women want to join. And, in that regard, he might want to ask why the women listed above left, and why in the world did none of them moved up into the very top ranks at UK.

These are tough questions that won't be answered by blaming people for raising them.

But it's his job to answer them. That's why they call it work.

Reach Jacalyn Carfagno at jcarfagno@herald-leader.com.