-- It is a stock television shot during the broadcast of major college football games: Cut to the president's box for an image of the campus CEO, flanked by the state's political bigwigs and power brokers.
Come kickoff for Friday's Fiesta Bowl, in which top-ranked Miami will face No. 2 Ohio State for college football's national championship, the top dog in the Buckeyes' box will be a woman in a scarlet outfit: President Karen A. Holbrook.
To find her Miami counterpart, the cameras will have to search for President Donna E. Shalala, who will give up her seat in the president's box so she can whoop it up alongside the Hurricanes' most rabid boosters at Tempe's Sun Devil Stadium.
Friday's Fiesta Bowl marks the first time both teams vying for football's national title represent universities led by women. Shalala, who served as Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration, was at the helm for Miami's championship run last season; Holbrook, a zoologist by training, became Ohio State's first female president Oct. 1.
"It's a significant, symbolic day for female university presidents," said Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel of the American Council on Education (ACE), "because it erodes the negative stereotype that they cannot manage major university athletic programs and the attendant fundraising that it entails."
While female presidents are hardly new in higher education, they have traditionally been confined to two-year colleges or small liberal arts schools. But their ranks are growing at major doctoral-granting institutions, such as Miami and Ohio State, which are typically the schools that invest the most money and emotional capital to compete in big-time sports.
In 1986, women accounted for 3.8 percent of presidents at major research institutions. In 2001, they represented 13.3 percent, according to figures compiled by the Washington-based ACE.
As a result, female CEOs are calling the shots at four of the campuses that finished among the top 25 in the 2002 football season's final Bowl Championship Series rankings: Shalala (No. 1 Miami); Holbrook (No. 2 Ohio State); Mary Sue Coleman (No. 11 Michigan); and Maryanne Fox (No. 19 North Carolina State).
"It's very notable, and it signifies that the glass ceiling has been broken," Shalala said this week. "Women can not only talk to football coaches but also raise money, which have been the two glass ceilings in higher education. There simply is no question about women's ability to run the major universities in the United States any longer."
So far, the trend appears to debunk the deep-seated fear among trustees and boosters at campuses that play big-time sports: that the commitment to football would suffer under a female president, either through her gridiron ignorance or indifference.
There was nothing subtle about that fear when Shalala interviewed for the top job at Wisconsin in 1987.
"They were very wary," Shalala recalled. "But I think the males they interviewed for the job made them just as worried. It's a problem academics have."
Still, Wisconsin officials saved the delicate question for the end of the interview.
"They were worried it was an affirmative-action problem," she recalled.
"They said, 'Well, how about athletics? How about football?' "
Shalala replied, "What is it you want?"
"We want to be competitive."
Then president of New York's Hunter College, Shalala replied: "I don't know how to be competitive. I'm from New York. I only know how to develop strategies to be number one."
The answer drew laughs and the job offer that made her the first female chancellor in the Big Ten. Daughter of a nationally ranked amateur tennis player, Shalala was both a sports fan and participant when she got the job. And she was quick to demand more of Badgers athletics, firing the athletic director and football coach and recruiting Notre Dame assistant Barry Alvarez, who took a team that went 1-10 in his first season in 1990 to the Big Ten Conference championship and its first Rose Bowl appearance in 30 years in 1993 and two more Rose Bowl appearances since then.
But the job of running a campus that plays big-time football comes with more than prime game-day real estate in the president's box. There are thorny issues galore. Among them:
* Keeping priorities in check amid pressures to bend admissions standards for ill-prepared standout athletes.
* Ensuring compliance with Title IX, the federal law guaranteeing equal access for women, without compromising the competitiveness in football -- the most lavish spender in college sports and the obvious place to start trimming budgetary fat.
* Controlling runaway spending in sports, which shows no sign of slowing despite lean economic times on the academic side of the university.
* Ensuring that the football team is a point of pride rather than an embarrassment.
* Conveying the message that the university is as committed to educating students as it is to winning football games.
That's a particularly sensitive issue at Ohio State these days, in the wake of a cover story in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled, "Inside a Sports Factory," which documents the financial and academic costs of fielding the nation's biggest athletic department.
Ohio State's annual sports budget is $79 million, and its football team plays in a stadium that seats 105,000 -- roughly 25 percent more than the Washington Redskins' FedEx Field.
Under second-year coach Jim Tressel, the Buckeyes finished a school-record 13-0 this season, winning the right to compete for their first national title since 1968. But as is typical at most NCAA Division I-A schools, Ohio State's football players lag behind the rest of the student body academically. Just 36 percent of Buckeyes football players who enrolled between 1992 and 1996 graduated within six years.
"We're always working to improve it," Holbrook said. "Our coaches and athletic directors are always talking about academic values and academic goals being first and foremost. Our coaches are evaluated not only on their success in winning, but on producing graduates from their programs, as well."
On the financial ledger, Ohio State football could hardly be doing better -- generating enough money to not only pay for itself, but also underwrite the other 36 sports the school offers and donate more than $12 million to the university's general coffers.
But to tell the story of the university's academic success, Holbrook has come to the Fiesta Bowl armed with copies of a brochure called "13 & Oh!" that outlines "13 academic facts about Ohio State that you might not know." Among them: OSU ranks among the top 25 public universities in the country; among the top five universities in the number of PhDs granted to African Americans; and among the top five in industry-funded research.
"I want us to be known however we're known, but most of all I want us to be on everybody's mind -- that Ohio State is there," Holbrook said. "If they know us for football now, then it's our job to make sure they know us for academics."
Miami, a private research university about one-fourth the size of Ohio State, is widely associated with palm trees, football prowess and the bad-boy image that lingers from the 1987 national championship game, in which Hurricanes football players stepped off the plane clad in combat boots and battle fatigues.
Under Shalala and Coach Larry Coker, Miami has worked to polish that image.
Said senior offensive lineman Jim Wilson, "We've kind of taken pride in being by the book and doing things the right way and not being thugs."
Added Shalala, "If we're going to strengthen our academic program and our reputation, we have to have character and high standards in academics and in athletics."
Having returned to higher education following an eight-year stint in the Clinton administration, Shalala is struck by the creeping commercialism in college sports -- from the ubiquitous signage to the sale of alcohol in the stands. "Are there lines? Yes, there are," Shalala said. "And we better start drawing some more."
Regarding the task of complying with Title IX in the face of runaway spending on football, Holbrook leans toward applying the classic statistical approach: tossing out the so-called "outliers" or extreme cases (in this case, football spending) before evaluating the data (overall spending on sports).
"Maybe you do take out the one big program that skews absolutely every piece of data that you have and put it aside," Holbrook said. "But then you have to have some kind of measure of how you measure your football program. Are you spending too much? Are you not spending enough?"
Shalala believes that spending on football teams -- even the national champions -- shouldn't be exempt.
"I run the most successful football program in the country, and I am a huge supporter of our football program," Shalala said. "But the growth of the costs of football at almost every university are squeezing men's [non-revenue] sports. We've got to step up and be honest. We've got to be prepared to control all of our costs. We shouldn't pretend that we're cutting back on men's sports because of Title IX. We're not. We're cutting back on men's sports because we have some very expensive men's athletic programs. And we ought to find the proper balance."