It’s almost a given. Go to the head of a university or college system in Tarrant County, and you’ll see a woman in the top job. 

At University of Texas at Arlington, Texas Wesleyan University, Tarrant County College, University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth, and Tarleton State University Fort Worth, a woman leads the campus efforts. 

All these women came together for the “Women in Leadership” series, organized by the Fort Worth Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. The leaders talked about their career trajectory, their quest to find work life balance, and their commitment to education and learning.

“When we introduce these phenomenal women, it’s about students. It’s about people. It’s about those that we serve. It’s about getting up every single day and wanting to ensure that people … have the opportunity to pursue an education,” said Rachael Capua, the dean of Tarleton State Fort Worth. Capua is not the president of the university, but she leads the Tarleton campuses in Fort Worth, Waco and Bryan.

The five women on that panel may defy national statistics. Around a third of college presidents nationwide are women, and 28% of all college presidents are non-white, according to a 2023 study on college presidents conducted by the American Council on Education. The percentage of women college presidents — around 33% in 2023 — climbed up about 10 percentage points from 2006. The higher education group characterizes trends in diversifying the college presidency as a “slow march” to parity and equity.

Here in Tarrant County, both TCC Chancellor Elva LeBlanc and Capua are Mexican American, while Sylvia Trent-Adams, the president of UNT Health Science Center, is the first Black woman to lead a health science center in Texas. 

The top positions at Texas Christian University — chancellor and president — are held by men, as is the top position at Texas A&M University School of Law. Of the six campuses that make up the Tarrant County College system, there are two women presidents and four presidents of color.

  • Chancellor Elva LeBlanc

    Tarrant County College Ph.D. in early childhood education (University of North Texas)

  • President Emily Messer

    Texas Wesleyan University Ed.D. in higher education administration (University of Alabama)

  • President Jennifer Cowley

    University of Texas at Arlington Ph.D. in urban and regional science (Texas A&M University)

  • Dean Rachael Capua

    Tarleton State University Fort Worth Ed.D. in department of educational leadership and policy (Southern Methodist University)

  • President Sylvia Trent-Adams

    University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth Ph.D. in public policy (University of Maryland, Baltimore County)

The women talked about their steady climb up the career ladder. And for some of them, there wasn’t even a ladder in sight at first.

“I’m a graduate of Arlington, Martin High School. And I was pretty darn immature. I had no clue what I was going to do. None of my high school teachers would have ever, ever predicted that I would be sitting (on this stage),” said UTA President Jennifer Cowley. “I knew I wanted to go to college, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do.” 

It was through finding the right courses, and getting the right faculty mentor that put her on her path. Texas Wesleyan President Emily Messer as an undergraduate was mentored by her college president at Jacksonville State University. It was through that mentorship that in her junior year in college, she set her sights on becoming a college president. 

“And it wasn’t because of the title or the position. It was because I saw the difference that my university president was making in my life, and the lives of the students on campus and I wanted to live in that arena, I wanted to have that opportunity,” said Messer.

Trent-Adams of the UNT Health Science Center, who was a nurse officer in the U.S. Army, was prescriptive and candid with her advice.

“I’ve learned the hard way that it takes a village,” said Trent-Adams. “I would say to all the women leaders in this room, build your village. Start early in your career, because those who start with you may not be able to go with you.”

Also through talking to her friends in leadership positions, she’s come to a conclusion.

“My theory is that you can have it all, maybe not all at the same time,” said Trent-Adams. “What I mean by that is that when you’re driving hard on mission, something has to be less of a priority. But you have to always be very intentional about your priorities and not let things get away from you.”

And that balance could include bringing your kids to the college campus or making date nights with your significant other attending college events, Cowley said, sometimes with the same “boring chicken dinner” and sometimes at an event that is “pretty fantastic.”

Throughout the talk, the women mostly focused outward, rather than on their personal  journeys. They talked about leading with compassion and making hard decisions through a collaborative process. One common thread in the conversation was the women’s commitment to their students and their love of learning.

“And that’s the great part about education. Education speaks to hope. It speaks to creating a better life for everyone,” said Tarrant County College Chancellor LeBlanc. “I think about that every single morning as I get up and bring all my passion to work.”

The event ended with a question from a rising high school senior on how the leaders encourage others to pursue higher education. The women leaders talked about the transformative path that college creates, and how people don’t have to travel far to find the school that’s the right fit for them.

Higher education reporter at Fort Worth Report in partnership with Open Campus.