Nannerl Keohane, the Laurance S. Rockefeller Distinguished Visiting Professor of Public Affairs and the University Center for Human Values, came to Princeton two years ago after serving as president of Wellesley College and of Duke University. Keohane, who has written widely about political philosophy and feminism, talked about women in leadership, Ivy League athletics, and other topics with PAW’s Mark F. Bernstein ’83.
You recently spoke on campus about popular perceptions that women lead differently than men. Do they?
I don’t think there is an easy answer to this question, but I’m intrigued that so many people believe that women lead differently.
Do women believe that they lead differently than men?
They do. Just as an example, I asked several dozen classmates at my Wellesley reunion whether women lead differently than men, and they all said yes. I was amazed at the unanimity and the immediacy of that response.
You have been a leader yourself. Did you lead differently than a man would have?
You would have to ask other people who observed me, but my own feeling was that I wasn’t leading any differently because I was a woman. When I went to Duke, I didn’t think of myself as a woman leader. The only way in which it was relevant was that it was a wonderful thing for women undergraduates to see a woman in that sort of post.
You have said that people should appreciate the rewards of juggling work and family. Is juggling something women and men need to accept as a part of adult life?
A wide range of dreams and hopes for yourself, and some possibility of realizing them, is something every human being ought to have open. If somebody wants to combine a professional career and marriage and a family, there ought to be ways in which it will be easier to do this than it has been in the past. It will never be a piece of cake. But at the moment, the tensions are exacerbated because there is so little support available for people who want to have some harmony between family and jobs. I am well aware that some jobs require very long hours. What I’m arguing against is the assumption that in order to prove you’re really serious about your work, you must be available 24/7 and be able to travel on the spur of the moment and be around at 10 o’clock if the boss needs you. I don’t see that any corporation needs to work that way, except in emergency situations.
Some feminists have written that well-educated women have an obligation to remain in the workplace and not opt out to raise families. Do you agree?
I think the obligation to stay in the workplace, if it comes as a constraint on what people really want to do, is just as wrong and as limiting as the obligation to stay at home if what you really want to do is get a job. But I understand the sentiments behind that feeling. A lot of people are investing a lot in training young women at places like Princeton. I don’t think you should lightly say that none of that matters. What we need are more on-ramps and off-ramps, so women can take time off to stay at home when their children are very small, if they choose to do so, but then come back without being regarded as if their brains had rotted out. That would be better for our whole society.
You were president of Duke University, which manages to play in the very competitive Atlantic Coast Conference yet also maintain high academic standards. Can Ivy League schools also compete at a national level in football and basketball?
Only a very few institutions — Duke, Stanford, North-western, and maybe a few others — try to sustain their academic standards and also pursue athletic excellence. It isn’t easy, and I don’t see that it’s necessary as a goal that universities should set for themselves. The balance of academics and athletics on a campus like Princeton is so fine, in a more low-key way. I don’t see why one would want to change it. Just because you get more coverage in the papers? Big-time intercollegiate athletics is a different world, and not necessarily one the Ivy League should think that it needs to enter.
How has the role of university president changed over the last few decades?
Some of the most important changes have to do with the expectations from the outside about the engagement of the president in many different ways. There are so many audiences that expect the president’s time — townspeople, parents, alumni, legislators, not to mention all the folks on campus. There used to be more of a sense that life was focused on the campus, and now I think presidents are expected to be global ambassadors engaged in promoting the needs of the university in Washington, the state capital, and the press around the world.