In 1980, a university report revealed a startling truth: There were hardly any women in leadership positions at Virginia Tech.

Out of 75 senior administrators, just four women held positions at the level of assistant dean or above. Altogether, only 34 administrators at any level were women.

A lot has changed for women at Virginia Tech in 40-plus years thanks in part to the university’s involvement in the Virginia Network, a program of the American Council on Education (ACE) Women's Network that has supported female leadership at campuses around the commonwealth since the late 1970s.

To continue the university’s commitment to advancing women in administration, President Tim Sands has named Mary Grace Campos, the director of College Access Collaborative, and Heidi Lane, assistant dean for clinical skills, assessment, and education at Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, as new institutional representatives to the Virginia Network. They will replace Donna Cassell Ratcliffe, director of Career and Professional Development, and Anna LoMascolo, co-director of the Virginia Tech Women’s Center, who have held the roles for a combined 37 years.

Institutional representatives serve as a link to the Virginia Network, encouraging female administrators to participate in events such as its annual conference or senior leadership seminar. They connect campus to ACE as well and participate in ACE's national leadership development programs if they choose. More broadly, institutional representatives advocate for and increase the visibility of women administrators and celebrate their achievements.

Campos and Lane, whose new roles were formally announced at a Women's Leadership Lunch on April 28 before a crowd of 200 women, are clear on the need for the work. “Do I think there are enough women leaders at Virginia Tech? The short answer is no and not in higher education writ large,” said Campos. “It's why the Virginia Network exists. These opportunities to connect and advocate for and work with other women wouldn't be in place and there wouldn't be a Virginia Network if there were enough.”

Building the Virginia Network

Virginia Tech has a storied history with the Virginia Network, stemming back to the group’s founding in 1978, when a Virginia Tech administrator named Sandra Sullivan became its first statewide coordinator. She was later named vice president for Student Affairs, becoming the first woman to hold a universitywide executive position on campus.

Back then, the Virginia Network’s stated purpose was getting more women into the pipeline for college and university presidencies. In 1986, only 9.5 percent of college presidents were women.

The group's mission has broadened over time to encompass preparing women for all levels of higher education leadership. “It's still very much about identifying women with potential to advance into leadership, getting more women into the pipeline, making sure women have the networks of support and the knowledge and skill set to advance,” LoMascolo said. “We really try to mark it as being for leaders and aspiring leaders.”

But the organization’s work of elevating women in higher education is clearly still relevant. In 2022, as ACE’s newly released American College President Study revealed, just 33 percent of presidents across all institutions of higher education were women. There's progress but not yet parity.

Women supporting women

To rise in higher education, women often need the encouragement and mentorship of other women. That's what the Virginia Network did for Pat Hyer, emeritus associate provost for academic administration. Serving as an institutional representative and a board member led her to deep friendships with colleagues across Virginia who sustained her as she fought for women at the university. “Where do you get your soul fed as a professional in this field when you're in such scarcity in any campus location? Who do you talk to about those things? That was what the Virginia Network was for most of us. It fed my soul.”

Campos said she would never have become the new institutional representative to the Virginia Network if it weren't for another female leader lifting her up. Her supervisor, Associate Vice Provost for College Access Karen Eley Sanders, asked if it would be OK to nominate her for the position.

“Sure, throw my name in the hat,” Campos replied, not believing that, among a campus of exceptional female leaders, she’d be chosen. When she was, “surprising and humbling are the two words that come to mind.”

Lane, too, has benefited throughout her life from a community of encouraging women, starting with her six older sisters. “Since I was the youngest, they kind of mentored me and took care of me. That was my biggest influence.”

As institutional representatives, Lane and Campos intend to provide opportunities for women to network and learn through VT Women Connect, an organization that carries out the mission of the Virginia Network on campus. Campos hopes to center women of color in conversations about leadership, while Lane wants to build bridges between women at Virginia Tech’s geographically disparate campuses as well as those of different ages and career stages.

Women supporting women through organizations like the Virginia Network is the surest route to advancement, Lane believes. “Whether it's mentoring or just a shoulder to cry on or laugh with, I think we are our own best advocates.”

Share this story