Faculty News

Dean Karen Symms Gallagher fights on for equity

Returning to scholarship, Dean Gallagher will investigate what keeps women out of the most powerful jobs in education.

By Elaine Woo Published on

Karen Symms Gallagher was a doctoral student in education administration in the early 1980s when she began to consider a big step in her career.

She’d spent a decade climbing the K–12 district ladder in her native Washington state, North Carolina and Indiana, serving in positions that included middle school social studies teacher, PE teacher, women’s basketball coach and assistant principal.

As the first member of her family to graduate from college, she had battled the odds and triumphed. So, she thought: Why not reach for the superintendency?

When she brought up the possibility with her PhD adviser at Purdue University, however, the response she received was discouraging. “She said, ‘You have two problems,’” Gallagher recalled recently.

The first was that Gallagher wasn’t a Hoosier, practically a prerequisite at that time as far as Indiana school boards were concerned. “You’d have to spend 20 years here,” her adviser warned, before her candidacy would be taken seriously.

And the second obstacle?

“You’re a woman.”

The adviser suggested that higher education was more open to women in leadership, so Gallagher changed direction. She wound up becoming the first female dean at the University of Kansas School of Education in 1994 and repeated that first at USC Rossier in 2000. But she never lost sight of the challenges confronting qualified women aiming for top leadership roles.

Across the U.S., few women occupied the superintendency when Gallagher was in graduate school, and their numbers remain disproportionately low. Women make up 78 percent of teachers, 52 percent of principals and 78 percent of central office administrators but only 33 percent of the nation’s superintendents, according to AASA, The School Superintendents Association.

The preponderance of women in USC Rossier’s programs also underscores the disparity. Women make up 65 percent of the enrollment in the doctoral program in educational leadership. Across all of the school’s master’s and doctoral programs, 71 percent of the students are women.

With such a large talent pool, why are women still so poorly represented in the superintendent’s office? What roadblocks do they face in the difficult climb to the most powerful job in K–12 education?

These are among the questions that will command Gallagher’s attention in fall 2021 when she returns to the faculty in a senior research position. After two decades as the Emery Stoops and Joyce King Stoops Dean of USC Rossier, she says she looks forward to diving into research about the factors that hinder women’s progress as education leaders, particularly in the K–12 arena.

Her interest in the subject echoes what has been the overarching theme of her deanship and the centerpiece of USC Rossier’s mission: advancing educational equity for historically marginalized groups, whose success is essential to a healthy democracy.

“[Dean Gallagher’s] focus on diversity, equity and inclusion will, I think, be her most important contribution to the school’s future,”
—Lawrence O. Picus, Associate Dean for Research and Faculty Affairs

“What does it mean to be advancing educational equity when there’s such a strong mismatch between who is in our programs and who is getting into the superintendency or becoming community college chancellors?” Gallagher said in an interview not long after deciding that this would be her last term as dean. “I’m interested in finding out: Where is the disconnect and what can we do about it? How can we find out what’s causing it?”

“This is what I’d like to do, work on these issues as well as teach,” she said. “That’s where I can continue contributing to our mission.”

To honor the dean’s two decades of transformative leadership, the school has launched a $100,000 campaign to endow the Karen Symms Gallagher Scholarship, which will support doctoral students— especially women—who have demonstrated their commitment to USC Rossier’s mission and seek to become leaders in education.

She said she hopes the scholarship will send a strong message to the recipients. “I hope they will feel it means they have something to live up to,” she said, “that they’ll feel we’ve recognized their talents and their need.”


As dean, Gallagher has driven equity and diversity to the top of USC Rossier’s agenda. These goals form the crux of the mission statement the school adopted in 2017: “Prepare leaders to achieve educational equity through practice, research and policy.”

Gallagher brought more women into senior leadership; five of the seven members of USC Rossier’s Executive Council are women. She also greatly diversified the faculty: Eleven of the 20 new faculty hired in the past three years are women, and 14 are individuals of color.

The enrollment also has grown more diverse, with students of color making up 49 percent of the entering class in 2018–19, a 12 percent increase over 2003, the earliest year for which figures are available.

“Her focus on diversity, equity and inclusion will, I think, be her most important contribution to the school’s future,” Lawrence O. Picus, associate dean for research and faculty affairs, said of Gallagher.

When she arrived at USC Rossier 20 years ago, morale was low, and the school was rumored to be in danger of closing. It had just undergone a scathing academic program review, which cited a lack of nationally known researchers and an ill-defined mission.

“One of the biggest criticisms at the time of the review was that we really weren’t known for anything distinctive. Everyone [on the faculty] was doing their own thing, none of it very well,” said Professor Emeritus of Education Robert Rueda, who taught at USC Rossier for 30 years.

“That began to change at the start of Dean Gallagher’s tenure.”

Gallagher embraced the academic review as a blueprint for change.

Her first order of business was bringing a seesawing budget under control through a series of austerities. (She has demonstrated fiscal responsibility every year since—not only balancing the school’s budget but increasing it by $12 million to $14 million a year, Picus noted.) Then, she convened key faculty, staff, students and alumni in a three-day retreat to build consensus on new directions. “We were going to tear everything down and start over. Which we did,” Rueda said. “It was an intentional starting point to create something different.”

The first major effort was to redesign the doctoral programs so that each had a distinct purpose. The PhD program was scaled down and geared to students who desired careers as scholars. The EdD became the flagship program, aimed at producing research-savvy practitioners who wanted to lead school systems.

The new approach, unveiled in 2005, earned praise from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching as a national model for education schools. Its success was a turning point for USC Rossier, “a key factor in changing the nature of the school,” according to Myron Dembo, a professor emeritus of educational psychology who co-chaired the redesign effort with former Los Angeles County Superintendent of Schools Stuart Gothold EdD ’74.

“Karen,” Dembo said, “has to be credited with moving the school into a new era.”

The successful overhaul of the doctoral programs was the first of several groundbreaking initiatives in the Gallagher era.

The dean ushered the school into the digital age with the launch of the first fully online master of arts in teaching program in a major U.S. research university; it now enrolls more students than the school’s traditional MAT program.

Next, she led the school in a bold experiment to operationalize USC Rossier’s mission by creating successful schools in historically marginalized neighborhoods. The Ednovate network of public charter high schools, which serves predominantly low-income Latino/Latina and African American students, has achieved a 100 percent graduation and college acceptance rate for each of the five graduating classes since 2016.

“In the world of higher education, you can get stuck sometimes in a level of abstraction and theory. Sometimes it can be hard to innovate and try new things. Karen is not afraid of that at all,” said Benjamin Riley, founder and executive director of Deans for Impact, an alliance of education deans working to improve teacher preparation programs of which Gallagher is a founding member. “She’s a doer.”

“What does it mean to be advancing educational equity when there’s such a strong mismatch between who is in our programs and who is getting into the superintendency?”
—Karen Symms Gallagher, Dean

At the same time, the school has continued its proud history of supplying California school districts with superintendents. Currently, 75 of the state’s nearly 1,000 superintendents are Trojans. Of those 75, almost half—33—are women.

Although exact figures are not available, about 42 percent of 855 California districts surveyed by the Association of California School Administrators (ACSA) are led by women. That’s higher than the national average of 33 percent but too low considering the prevalence of women in the classroom and administrative ranks.

Five years ago, Gallagher began hosting a breakfast at ACSA’s annual Superintendents’ Symposium for women in the Dean’s Superintendents Advisory Group (DSAG). Founded in the early 1980s as a support group for USC Rossier, DSAG was dominated by male superintendents, including many who were retired.

“Karen noticed that women were in the minority and wondered what she could do to elevate their voice and be a stronger influence in that group,” said Professor of Clinical Education Maria Ott, who led the Rowland Unified School District and Little Lake City School District before joining USC Rossier in 2012.

At the DSAG women’s breakfasts, the dean invites attendees to share the challenges they have faced in climbing the administrative ladder. She particularly remembers the story one graduate told about her interview with a school board as a candidate for the superintendent’s job.

“Many of the questions directed at her were about her husband,” Gallagher recounted. “Did her husband approve of her going after this job? How did her husband feel about relocating?”

Ironically, the head of the board was a woman, and she was the one asking those questions.

“Our graduate said, ‘I don’t want the job if that’s what they’re saying to me.’ So school boards are obviously a big barrier to women seeking to move up.”


Gallagher is passionate about identifying barriers and the strategies to surmount them. When she rejoins the faculty in 2021, she hopes to establish a research center devoted to studying the issues affecting women in pursuit of leadership roles, not only in K–12 systems but also across the education spectrum.

In higher education, for instance, gender disparity in leadership is also problematic. About 30 percent of college presidents are women, despite more women than men having served as an interim president, earned advanced degrees and participated in formal leadership development opportunities, according to the American Council of Education.

“The issue is not about women getting ready,” Gallagher said. “They’re ready.”

The “disconnect” between who’s in the pipeline and who reaches the top jobs is not limited to USC Rossier. Nationally, women received nearly 70 percent of education doctorates in 2017–18. In fact, women have earned more than 50 percent of all doctorates for 10 straight years.

Nor do women lack the desire to lead.

In a 2005 study by Margaret Grogan and C. Cryss Brunner, 40 percent of women in central office administration reported that they aspired to the superintendency; 74 percent had the superintendent credential or were working toward it. In a 2010 follow-up, Brunner and Yong-Lyun Kim found that nearly all female central office administrators who aspired to the superintendency had their credentials.

Family obligations are commonly thought to be a factor in the underrepresentation of women in the superintendency, but researchers are finding this isn’t the case.

“The issue is not about women getting ready. They’re ready.”
—Karen Symms Gallagher, Dean

Using responses from more than 700 female superintendents who participated in the American Association of School Administrators’ 2007 National Study of Women Superintendents and Central Office Administrators, Brunner and Kim reported on the top four reasons female administrators didn’t aspire to the superintendency: 1) They were satisfied with their current positions and didn’t want to change jobs; 2) The politics of the superintendent’s job didn’t appeal to them; 3) The superintendent’s job was too stressful; and 4) The salary wasn’t commensurate with the responsibilities.

As Brunner and Kim noted, all four of these reasons could easily be cited by men. Only 11 percent of the respondents in the AASA survey cited family demands as an impediment.

Another study that Brunner co-led found that 35 percent of female superintendents had raised children under the age of 20 while they were in the position; 32 percent of the women raised children who were 15 or younger.

If formal preparation, ambition and family concerns are not holding women back, then what is?

Gallagher is especially interested in investigating “structural barriers” to women’s progress—where the pipeline breaks down.

Studies of the career paths that lead to the superintendent’s office show stark differences depending on gender. In their 2010 study, Brunner and Kim offered side-by-side charts that were startling in just how different women’s journeys are compared to those of men.

For men, the rise to the top is quite linear and simple, leading from the classroom to coaching to principal, with a stint as assistant or associate superintendent before landing at the top.

For women, the path is neither simple nor straightforward. Instead, as Brunner and Kim illustrated, it zigs and zags, with more stops on the journey (see illustration below).

This chart compares men's and women's most typical paths to U.S. superintendency. While men's mobility is concentrated in line positions, women's paths include both line and staff roles. While men's path to the superintendency is simpler, Brunner and Kim argue that this doesn't necessarily mean that they are more prepared than women, whose paths typically include more variation and focus on curriculum and teaching. Adapted from “<a href="https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ913584" target="_blank" rel="noopener norefe
This chart compares men's and women's most typical paths to U.S. superintendency. While men's mobility is concentrated in line positions, women's paths include both line and staff roles. While men's path to the superintendency is simpler, Brunner and Kim argue that this doesn't necessarily mean that they are more prepared than women, whose paths typically include more variation and focus on curriculum and teaching. Adapted from “Are Women Prepared to Be School Superintendents? An Essay on the Myths and Misunderstandings.” Brunner, C. Cryss; Kim, Yong-Lyun, Journal of Research on Leadership Education. (Illustration/Chris Gash)

Gallagher notes that for men, moving from the classroom to coaching is a crucial step: Brunner and Kim found that 63 percent of male superintendents began their ascent as coaches. Among female superintendents, only 16 percent had been coaches.

The dean can attest to the significance of the position. Early in her career, she was asked to coach basketball for middle-school girls.

“I enjoyed bringing young women together to learn to compete as a team,” she said. “And I also discovered that being a coach really impressed people. I learned that many of the qualities desired in superintendents are attributed to you if you are a coach, such as the ability to motivate others to work at high levels, delegate authority and being willing to be judged publicly by others about your performance. People assumed I was an experienced leader.”

Because many women begin their careers in elementary schools, they don’t have access to coaching positions. The same goes for assistant principalships, which, like coaching jobs, are not common at the elementary level.

Another notable difference in men’s and women’s trajectories is that men tend to go after line positions—those with responsibility for achieving an organization’s major goals—while women are more likely to take staff positions, which typically are support and advisory roles. “We need more research to find out why so many women administrators choose the staff route,” Gallagher said. “Is this route a personal choice, or perhaps the only choice?”

Given Gallagher’s passion for the subject of women in educational leadership and her record on advancing equity and diversity at USC Rossier, “I hope she will facilitate conversations on this topic and create a research center,” Ott said. “The school’s culture attracts women seeking to make an impact as leaders in their various fields. The dean seeded this culture, nurtured it and defended it to ensure that its roots would grow deep.”

The Next Chapter

A year has passed since Gallagher began wrestling with the decision about whether to pursue a fifth term as dean. Her family, who too often had to take a back seat to her work, was excited by the prospect of spending more time with her. “My son said, ‘Think about having time to be a grandmother,’” Gallagher recalled.

She was also swayed by an article in The Atlantic by Arthur C. Brooks that was ominously titled “Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think.”

In the piece, Brooks described the experiences of high achievers, including athletes, artists and academics, noting the average age at which they peaked and faltered. Gallagher thought of people she has known who “stayed too long” in their jobs and concluded that she didn’t want to be one of them.

And she was inspired by Brooks’ advice for finding late-life happiness: Avoid the temptation to keep accumulating accomplishments—running one more marathon, writing one more book, earning another million dollars—but focus instead on cultivating the most meaningful personal virtues. “As we grow older,” Brooks wrote, “we shouldn’t acquire more, but rather strip things away to find our true selves—and thus, peace.”

For Gallagher, that odyssey means taking a sabbatical year to adjust to the rhythms of her next phase, then plunging back into teaching and research.

“I’m very proud of my career,” she said. “But everybody gets to the point where you should go try to do another thing.”

She intends to give her successor the space to create new directions for the school. But, she adds, “I’m not done making a difference in education. I think I can do it in other ways.”

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