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Thursday, June 20, 2024

When former UW-Whitewater Chancellor Beverly Kopper stepped down from her post, she recognized the predicament she was in: Allegations of sexual harassment against her husband, accusations of a hostile work environment under her leadership, a community demanding her resignation. The question is, was it fair?

What happened at UW-Whitewater: How gender dynamics, structural inequities affect female leaders

With a single sentence, Beverly Kopper resigned as chancellor of UW-Whitewater. 

In the six months prior, her ability to represent her campus and protect her students had been scrutinized amid allegations her husband perpetrated sexual misconduct. More, it is unclear if she knew about his behavior all along — or if she covered it up. 

While many community members pushed for Kopper’s resignation, others paused to ask if the backlash against her was fair, and what her departure means for women leaders in higher education.

Kopper’s resignation may illuminate some of the structural inequities and gender politics ingrained in higher education systems that limit women’s ability to hold leadership roles in them, whether or not she facilitated her husband’s behavior. 

“There are multiple levels at which gender power works. It works at the institutional level or systemic level, it works at the interpersonal or relational level, and it works at the level of identity,.” said University of Buffalo Social Studies Education Program Director Sarah A. Robert. “Would a husband pay for the crimes of the wife?”

The first allegations against Kopper’s husband Pete “Alan” Hill surfaced in June. He was banned from campus immediately afterward, and by October, a total of five women had come forward with stories of sexual misconduct. 

The women Hill harassed included former students and university employees. He had gained access to them through his unpaid, honorary role as “Associate of the Chancellor” — a position he received because of Kopper’s status.

For as long as three years, the women grappled with their experiences, while their assailant and his wife remained in top university positions. The claims they made against him were not publicized by the university until last September, after the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel filed an open records request.

Following those revelations, campus and community leaders demanded Kopper hand in her resignation. 

Complaints included accusations that Kopper had known about her husband’s behavior all along. At the very least, many were outraged that she potentially tried to conceal the allegations against him until it was clear they would be published anyway.

A series of investigations followed — the details of which have not been revealed. Kopper faced accusations that she had created a “hostile workplace environment,” and mounting pressure to give up her role. 

These criticisms led her to resign on Dec. 6, shortly before she was scheduled to give UW-Whitewater’s winter commencement address. Her resignation letter was a single-sentence memo addressed to UW System President Ray Cross. 

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"I am aware that the Board of Regents would like different leadership for UW-Whitewater and thus I hereby render my resignation as Chancellor effective Dec. 31, 2018,” she wrote.

The terms of Kopper’s exit agreement included a semester's leave at her full chancellor’s salary, as well as reentry as a tenured psychology professor starting next fall. In that role, she will be making 75 percent more than the average psychology faculty member. 

Kopper “had to go” because the allegations against her husband overshadowed her role of promoting the university, the Janesville GazetteXtra wrote in an op-ed. By appointing her husband to an honorary position, it said Kopper helped create a “toxic” campus environment. 

“UW-Whitewater Chancellor Beverly Kopper had to go and not only because of her lack of candidness regarding allegations of sexual harassment against her husband,” the editorial read. “We still haven’t learned what she knew and when she knew it.”

Yet clearly, whatever she may or may not have known was not grave enough to strip her of her tenure.

So, whatever criticisms have driven the outside analysis and debate to this point are distinctly speculative. And those speculations, Robert said, are rooted in the deep-seated gender biases that shape expectations an institution places on the people who serve it.

“It does reflect what we understand of the university, which is that it is, for the most part, still a male-dominated institution,” she said. “Even while he’s not the leader of that institution, it doesn’t matter because he still has the keys to the castle.” 

“Social hostesses” to Chancellors

Women have only emerged in higher education leadership roles within the last 20 years. Today, the percentage of women holding presidencies at colleges and universities stood at 30 percent in 2016, up just four percent from 2011, according to an American Council on Education report

Before that, men held top roles while their wives, said historian Clara Lovett, acted as their “social hostesses.”

Lovett is a contributor to Inside Higher Ed who studies the evolving role of spouses in higher education. Before that, she was president of Northern Arizona University — one of the first women in the nation to hold such a high-ranking role.

The “social hostesses” Lovett uncovered in her research were often young to middle-age, most with college degrees. If they had careers, nearly all put them on hold when their husbands took office. 

There were no written duties for these women, but the role they served was a tradition inherited from the generations before them. These were the wives who sat on — but rarely chaired — special action committees. They were the ones who poured tea at faculty meetings. 

Within that gendered world, there was no need to define the role of the spouse or the expectations that went with it. They were women who filled the roles, as Robert said, “without fault.” 

Just as the rise in female leaders is a more recent phenomenon, so is the emergence of their male spouses — which doesn’t take into account the leaders without partners or those who identify as LGBTQ+. 

“Now many spouses don’t fit those tradition roles,” Lovett said. “You have a multitude of roles, and the way in which university trustees hire presidents lags quite behind this changed reality.”

Even though it is common for the president’s spouse to receive an honorary, unpaid role, universities seldom assign them formal positions. That is the case at both UW-Whitewater and UW-Madison, according to UW-Madison spokesperson Meredith McGlone. 

“It is customary for the spouse to receive what is known as a ‘zero dollar appointment’ — an unpaid position called ‘associate of the chancellor’ that allows them to be considered an employee for the purpose of access university facilities,” McGlone said.

Blank’s spouse, Hanns Kuttner, was appointed to the same position as Hill when the UW-Madison chancellor took office in 2013. Both Hill and Kuttner were given official titles, a distinction that the UW System grants all chancellor's spouses, but that, historically, was rarely afforded to women who filled the expected role of the “social hostess.”

Robert finds this to be very telling of the gender relations at play in higher education leadership and a pervading patriarchal culture in the United States.

“For how many generations have women never been given a title? It was just assumed that they knew how to pour a good cup of tea,” she said. “But when it’s a man who is the spouse, they suddenly have to come up with an institutional role.” 

Both Lovett and Robert acknowledge the lack of clarity surrounding the unofficial spouse position, which extends well into the information — or lack thereof — that’s been released surrounding the investigation into Kopper’s husband. 

In this grey area, Lovett sees room for tensions to develop. It is harder to trace out accountability when no policy to establish it exists in the first place, she said.

Robert reaffirmed that the qualities women were celebrated for are representations of weakness for men. If roles were switched, Hill “might be labeled effeminate and not in control of his household,” she said.  

“The ‘president’s husband’ is often not an acceptable stand-in at an event, whereas the ‘president’s wife’ is,” the American Association of University Women Barriers and Bias report read

Breaking into the “boy’s club”

Women haven’t traditionally held leadership roles in higher education. 

It’s an inequity begins as soon as women enter their institution’s doors as professors, where they often take on larger teaching loads for lower salaries compared to men. They also obtain tenure at a slower rate, according to the National Center for Higher Education Statistics. 

“Women’s underrepresentation as tenured and full professors in turn limits their opportunities to advance into formal leadership positions at colleges and universities. It is therefore not surprising that men outnumber women even among newly appointed deans, provosts, and presidents,” reads the American Association of University Women Barriers and Bias report

Men who are confident, assertive and self-promoting are respected, while women who share the same qualities are suggested to be “inappropriate” or “undesirable,” according to the AAUW report

“Sometimes seemingly benign comments can take a toll on women’s advancement. In one study, top female college and university leaders cited discouragement, sabotage, and unfair expectations as barriers to leadership,” the report read. 

These factors can prevent women from obtaining tenure, without which doors to other leadership roles within universities begin to close.

“In tenure track positions, you find that men are married and have kids, their careers just skyrocket,” Robert said. “Women who are married and also have children are actually much less likely to even get tenure.”

For Kopper, this meant serving as one of four female chancellors out of 13 in the UW System, which is consistent with the national average.

And for aspiring women academics and leaders in the UW System and beyond, Robert says that the hostile workplace allegations leveled against Kopper send a somber message.

“Unfortunately, they stand and they remain in people’s memory long after the person has walked away,” Robert said. “Those memories become the basis on which a candidate is passed over for a future leadership position. They become empty rationale and rhetoric for why women aren’t in more leadership roles.” 

But while others acknowledge that there are significant structural barriers preventing women from taking leadership roles — and that undermine women’s credibility once they land them — they say Kopper’s case does not illustrate these problems.

“In principle, a woman or man should not suffer as a result of the actions of their spouse,” said UW-Madison Department of Gender and Women's Studies Chair Aili Tripp. “But as the Kopper case suggests, the real world situation may be more complicated, especially given the prevalence of outmoded understandings of the roles and responsibilities of the spouse.”

Tripp does not think that any person should be held accountable for the actions of their spouse. However, if they try to hide those actions or don't take action to remedy the situation, then they claim some liability.

And as long as the “outmoded model” of spouses as a team persists, Tripp said such problems can occur.  

Both Robert and Lovett are hopeful that redrafting institutional policies and defining spousal positions will empower women in academics.

For Lovett, the insurmountable grey area surrounding this case could be alleviated by crafting a proper outline of the spousal position at post-secondary levels. 

“Going forward, I think it’s going to be wise all around to pay much more attention to the role of the spouse and define it in a way that is not done now,” Lovett said. “If the institution expects the spouse to have a role and contribute to the institution, something ought to be negotiated and defined before a presidential contract is signed.” 

The grey area is common, according to Lovett, especially in scenarios like this. Scandals and resignations may be more salient, but “behind the scenes there are lots of tensions.”

However, perhaps there need not be a spousal definition if there aren’t separate expectations for women. 

Robert stated the importance of cultivating a “new frontier” that would take a look at the gender identities that shape educational institutions, which would dive deep into the official policies that universities strive to uphold.

“It’s not enough to put women in power; it’s not enough to put people of color in positions of power, because there is something called an institution with a very strong history,” she said. “And with educational institutions, specifically, one thing that the research shows is that we’re very slow to change. It is a very static institution that is very difficult to transform. But, it can change.” 

Update Feb. 22: Clara Lovett was president of Northern Arizona University, not Northern Arizona State University. The article has been updated to reflect that.

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