Back to the Future: Why Is the Diversity of University Leadership Stuck in the '80s?

In the 1980s, we communicated via landlines and snail mail, we enjoyed our music on Walkmans and boomboxes, and we read books using... well, books. Much has changed in the past 30 years.Yet if you put a university president from 1986 next to a university president of today, you could hardly tell them apart.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.
Women wearing graduation cap and gown, ascending staircase, rear view
Women wearing graduation cap and gown, ascending staircase, rear view

In the 1980s, we communicated via landlines and snail mail, we enjoyed our music on Walkmans and boomboxes, and we read books using... well, books. Much has changed in the past 30 years.

Yet if you put a university president from 1986 next to a university president of today, you could hardly tell them apart. Both would likely be white middle-aged men with doctorates in education. Both probably rose from within the ranks of higher education with about a one-in-three chance of having come directly from the Chief Academic Officer position. Both probably served their entire careers in academia and have likely been full-time faculty.

Between 1986 and 2012, the American Council on Education published seven reports on "The American College President," and perhaps the most striking finding is how little has changed.

At the same time, our society and our students have become more racially/ethnically diverse, and demographic trends are clear that the future pool of higher education students in the U.S. will come increasingly from minority populations. The U.S. Department of Education projects a 25 percent increase in African-American students and a whopping 42 percent increase in Hispanic students by 2021 -- while only a
4 percent increase in non-Hispanic white students.

In contrast, white faculty comprise about 79 percent of full-time faculty at U.S. post-secondary institutions, while Asian (9 percent), African American (6 percent), and Hispanic (4 percent) are significantly lower. And the lack of diversity is higher among higher ranking faculty. For example, while 44 percent of full-time faculty at degree-granting institutions are women, they hold only 29 percent of tenure-tracked positions at doctoral institutions --- even though women outperform men 56 to 40 percent in national research grant awards.

As for university presidents, the 2012 ACE survey of presidents found that racial diversity actually decreased between 2006 and 2011. The dearth of Hispanic-Americans in both faculty pipeline and leadership positions in higher education is particularly noteworthy when compared to population growth. For example, the ACE studies show that from 1986 to 2012, the percentage of Latino presidents barely increased from 2.2 to 3.8 percent, while over the same period, the Latino population in the U.S. grew threefold.

And while women have comprised the majority of college students since 1979, only 26 percent of today's university presidents are women. And the pipeline is no better. Despite slight increases, the number of women in leadership positions in American universities and colleges continues to be low. A recent study out of the University of Colorado found that women hold only a quarter of leadership positions in academia, startling considering that women make up about 57 percent of university students.

Thus, university leadership increasingly reflects neither the student body being led nor the world in which graduates will need to operate, a situation that engenders disadvantages and lost opportunities. Students benefit from having mentors and role models from their own racial, ethnic, or gender group -- as do faculty who aspire to leadership positions. Institutional leaders can strongly influence institutional culture; having leaders from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences enriches the intellectual and cultural climate in which students learn. And exposure to and experience working with people from different cultural backgrounds better prepares students for the real-world working environment of their futures.

Why No Progress?

Most obviously, the lack of diversity in university presidents is related to lack of diversity in the presidential pipeline. Another ACE report, "On the Pathway to the Presidency 2013," found that between 2008 and 2013 there were slight increases in the age and gender diversity of senior administrators in positions that could aspire to the presidency, but no change in the share of ethnic or racial minorities.

Secondly, the diversity of university presidents relates closely to the diversity of the university and college governing boards that select them. A close examination of the composition of governing boards in higher education demonstrates that they too are less diverse than the student or general population. For example, a 2010 Association of Governing Board study showed that public and independent board members and chairs are overwhelmingly white and male.

Thirdly, a critical criterion for the selection of university presidents, or of any leader for that matter, is "fit." Importantly, "cultural fit," not only with the faculty and student bodies, but also donors, legislators and government officials, community leaders, and even the community at large. And university presidents that are more diverse, in gender, race, ethnicity, sexual preference, and the like, may be perceived to be a less optimum cultural fit with these constituencies.

And lastly, the lack of progress in the diversity of university presidents may be further exacerbated by today's increasingly competitive environment. The ACE survey found that in the increasingly complex higher education operating environment of today, universities may favor candidates with proven track records, which likely puts promising younger candidates, as well as aspiring women and minority candidates, at a disadvantage.

So What Do We Do?

To address this issue in an effective and deliberate manner, we must:

• Recognize and acknowledge the problem, while ensuring we understand why it is a problem;

• Educate responsible parties, especially governing boards, search firms, and legislators, as to the nature and implications of this deficiency, and the benefits of having more diverse presidents and governing boards;

• Train search committees, search firms, and governing boards not only to embrace the search for diverse candidates, but also on the available mechanisms that help ensure a diverse pool of applicants, including ensuring a broader appreciation of the pathways to the presidency, which will, in itself, help identify a more diverse pool of qualified candidates; and

• Create greater opportunities for the training and mentoring of diverse/under-represented candidates for university presidency.

Finally, we should recognize that the challenge is perhaps greatest for Hispanic-American and African American minorities because their underrepresentation starts so much earlier in the pipeline.

Increasing the diversity of university leaders, consistent with the increasing diversity of our student population and the U.S. population as a whole, is not only critically necessary... it's the right thing to do.

Popular in the Community