BIDDEFORD (AP) – When she was a young woman, University of New England President Sandra Featherman was interested in a career in academia but thought a glass ceiling might keep her from becoming a university president.

“When I was a young woman, there were practically no women college presidents who weren’t nuns,” Featherman said. “And when I was first offered the opportunity to be an administrator, I turned it down because I did not think that there was anywhere a woman could rise to.”

Featherman, 70, who became the university’s president nine years ago, recently announced she will leave the post in 2006.

When she arrived in 1995, the University of New England’s board of directors was looking for an administrator who could help the school grow. Featherman had to consider merging the 1,800-student school with smaller Westbrook College.

Featherman pushed for the merger despite misgivings from some at the former women’s college. The schools’ boards were merged, salaries were equalized, and administrators made sure to spend time in offices on both campuses.

The decision to merge the University of New England and Westbrook College was the hardest and most important choice of her tenure as UNE president, she said.

“It was a huge task,” said Lisa Dufour, then a professor of dental hygiene at Westbrook who was circumspect about the merger. But in retrospect, she said, “Both institutions have benefited.”

Since the 1996 merger, UNE’s two campuses have added programs and gained 400 students. With Featherman at the helm, the university’s revenues have tripled, and its endowment has grown tenfold. These days it is harder to find critics of the merger and of Featherman.

“At this point she has one of the most universal fan clubs that any university or college president could ask for,” said Paul Merrill, a member of the university’s board of directors. “It’s a great story for Maine – for a person to come in and accomplish what she’s accomplished at that university.”

Featherman said she hasn’t had time to consider her own future. But she and her husband, Bernard, who live in Kennebunkport, plan to stay in Maine.

Today, more than 15 percent of U.S. college presidents are women, Featherman said.

“That’s a huge change that I’ve seen in my lifetime,” she said.

AP-ES-05-30-04 1133EDT

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