Women, Minorities, and the College Presidency

Six ACE (American Council on Education) reports on the state of the presidency in U.S. colleges and universities, produced approximately every five years between 1986 and 2012, provide a glimpse of changes in higher educational leadership within this time frame, with women and minorities gradually gaining some ground. In 1986, the overwhelming majority of presidents surveyed were white and male, and their average age was 53. Five years later, small gains were recorded by minorities and women, but a reviewer in The Chronicle of Higher Education summarized the 1993 ACE Report thus: “Typical President Is White, Male, and 54 Years Old.” Jack Stripling’s review of the most recent ACE Report in 2012 in The Chronicle highlights minimal but steady progress, especially for women, but records a drop in minority presidents. He summarizes the ACE Report by noting “a troublingly stagnant portrait,” of “a profession dominated by white men who have hardly changed in more than a quarter century. They’re just older.” The average age of the president in 2012, still typically white and male, it turns out, is 61. Stripling’s title this year could as easily have glanced back towards 1993: “Typical President is White, Male, and 61 Years old.”

While the ACE Report surmises that the aging presidency might result in high turnover in coming years, thus presenting opportunities for women and minorities, such predictions made earlier about impending faculty retirements proved overconfident and many faculty remained in post far longer than in previous years. The same might occur with regard to college presidents, a significant percentage of whom are now in their late fifties and sixties and could continue in leadership into their mid-seventies. And even if a significant number of vacancies occur in coming years, it is as likely that the majority of these will be filled by white males in their late fifties and sixties.

More Must Be Done
If the pace of change that will bring minorities and women into leadership within the academy is to accelerate, much more needs to be done to enable, support, encourage, and advance women and minorities in mid-level leadership roles. Organizations such as ACE, AAUW (the American Association of University Women), and CIC (the Council of Independent Colleges) are doing much in this regard, through workshops, seminars, mentoring programs, and fellowships. If these efforts bear fruit, we might well imagine an academy with more minorities and women in leadership roles in another 25 to 35 years, assuming that the rate of change persists at current levels. That is still a considerable distance into the future.

If meaningful and significant change — in keeping with gains made by women and minorities in all other aspects of the academy — is to occur with regard to leadership of our colleges and universities, the groups that need to lead this are institutional governing boards and organizations that support the development of these boards. Not surprisingly, the governing Boards of colleges and universities are still the domain of white males, and data provided by the Association of Governing Boards (AGB) on the composition of governing Boards is remarkably similar to the data on the composition of college and university presidents:

Gender — In 2010, men outnumbered women by more than two-to-one on governing boards of both independent and public institutions. Approximately 71.6 percent of all public board members and 69.8 percent of all board members from independent institutions were male.

Race and Ethnicity — The 2010 board composition survey results show that 74.3 percent of public institution boards and 87.5 percent of boards at independent colleges were white. In 2010, 23.1 percent of board members of public institutions were racial and ethnic minorities. In 2010, 12.5 percent of board members at independent institutions were racial and ethnic minorities.

Is it a surprise then that governing boards, with a two-thirds male majority, appoint male presidents more often than they do women? Did the boards that appointed women and minorities include a larger percentage of women and minorities? Were the search committees for these appointments more diverse? Was the executive leadership on these boards more diverse? Is there a correlation between the average age of board members and the average age of their appointees, between the average age of trustees on a search committee and their selected appointee? Are boards that have no age limit regarding service by their trustees more likely to appoint older presidents?

Acknowledge the Importance of Diversity
A study which explores and correlates data on the presidency with research on the composition of governing boards by exploring these interdependent issues and other related ones might answer some of these questions. With, at best, minimum presence on the governing boards of institutions, women and minorities are not even at the table where decisions about leadership choices are made. Self-perpetuating governing boards need to be educated about the importance of diversity in the academy at the highest levels and, more importantly, guided into diversifying their own membership.
If women and minorities are to make significant inroads with regard to leading our colleges and universities, the most significant change we can make will be in the composition of the governing boards of our institutions. The diversification we have witnessed elsewhere in the academy — in our students, faculty, and staffing — has not yet extended to the board or the presidency; these areas of governance have remained impervious to the significant pace of change that we have witnessed everywhere else.[1]

Dr. Molly Easo Smith
currently serves on the Executive Committee of the International Association of University Presidents (IAUP), where she leads an initiative to develop women as academic leaders, globally. Dr. Smith has served in a core leadership position in a number of higher education institutions, including Seton Hall University, Wheaton College, and Manhattanville College.

[1] The Catalyst Census of 2010 which looks at similar data regarding leadership of Fortune 500 companies attends both to leadership in the corporate sector as well as board composition and notes that “While women are 46.4 percent of the Fortune 500 workforce, they are only 25.9 percent of senior officers and managers, hold only 15.2 percent of board seats, are only 13.5 percent of executive officers, and just 2.6 percent of CEOs. That’s 13 CEOs out of 500. These numbers reflect a deep leadership gap.” The leadership gap in higher education, where women outnumber men as learners and as recipients of doctorates, is even more striking.