As an undergraduate, Amy Gutmann wanted to be a math teacher. Shirley Tilghman always thought she would spend her entire career in a laboratory. Ruth Simmons once wrote the best paper in a class at Harvard, only to have the professor never again speak to her because she is an African-American woman. Judith Rodin never thought she would stop teaching.

The four women, all whom are current or former presidents of Ivy League universities, gathered May 2 at Harvard’s Loeb Drama Center for a forum entitled, “Women at the Top: The Changing Face of the Ivies,” moderated by incoming Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust.

In a conversation that touched on subjects ranging from the American university’s place in an age of globalization to each woman’s path to the highest ranks of academic leadership, from overcoming gender and racial bias to advice for the husbands of university presidents, the four leaders said their appointments represent a turning point in higher education and urged other Ivy schools to follow suit.

“It’s a league, and it is a league based on competition,” said Simmons, the president of Brown University. “When it starts coming to the issue of becoming the last Ivy League university who doesn’t have a woman president, who wants that?”

The women spoke of being extremely ambitious and expecting to succeed, but none dreamed of becoming president of an Ivy League university, a position held exclusively by men until Rodin was named president of the University of Pennsylvania in 1994.

Tilghman said she was more surprised than anyone at her career path. A molecular biology professor serving as a member of Princeton’s presidential search committee, she left a committee meeting for a break. Upon returning, she was asked to assume the presidency.

“Since I was 5 years old I wanted to be a scientist, and it never really occurred to me that I was going to do anything else with my life,” she said. If she hadn’t been chosen for the search committee, she said, “I probably would still be a scientist.”

Reaching the top requires “an absolute inability to recognize reality,” Tilghman added.

The panelists noted that tenured faculty appointments are disproportionately given to men, and said more flexible schedules and aggressive recruitment are needed to hire and retain female professors, especially in math, science, and engineering.

Princeton played a prominent role in the conversation. Gutmann, the president of Penn, served at Princeton for 25 years, most recently as provost. During Simmons’ 10 years at Princeton, she served as associate dean of the faculty and vice provost.

Gutmann, Simmons, and Tilghman all said that president emeritus Harold T. Shapiro *64 had played an integral role in their careers. They pointed to his belief in putting the best person into a position, regardless of gender or race.

“He was an amazing path-breaker in giving women opportunities,” Gutmann said.

Simmons said Shapiro first let her shine when he asked her to chair a cabinet meeting in his absence, even though she was its most junior member.

Gutmann said the key point in her career came when she became a founding member of Princeton’s Center for Human Values and had to start fundraising.

“I went to see [Laurance] Rockefeller [’32] in my first fundraising venture,” she said. “At that lunch he committed a million dollars ... and a week later he gave $21 million to the Center for Human Values. It sort of opened my eyes to a world that was thrilling in a very different way than the world I always loved and still love, scholarship and teaching.”

Responding to an inquiry from PAW after the forum, Shapiro described Tilghman, Gutmann, and Simmons as “real pioneers” and said he was “very grateful and proud” to have been credited by them. “If I have played even a small role in the development of these distinguished leaders, it is certainly very rewarding,” Shapiro said in an e-mail.