Calling Gay Leaders

Michael Roggow shares expert advice on how gay administrators can become presidents and how search committees can be welcoming of their candidacies.

December 13, 2010

Competition among colleges has forced boards to beat the bushes in search of the best leaders. Fewer provosts are drawn to the presidency. More talent is needed, and the performance bar continues to be raised. Who has emerged in this competition? The answer: many, and many more than in the past who are openly gay.

Historically, the gay college president is not so rare. Yet who could name one from previous generations who was open about his or her orientation? I cannot recall one, and for good reason: the out college president or presidential candidate probably would have paid a heavy price. However, times are changing. There now are at least 25 openly gay presidents, and they are nothing short of pioneers. Their stories forever grab my attention. So two years ago, I set out to interview them for a long-term research project. To date, I’ve met 13, but hope to meet more.

All are remarkable, but there are a few who made a lasting impression: among them, Charles Middleton, from Roosevelt University; Theodora Kalikow, from the University of Maine at Farmington; and David Wain Coon, from Evergreen Valley College in California. They spoke about many topics, and they offered up plenty of career advice for other gay people who hope to become presidents. As gays often make good managers, they say, search committees and boards of trustees would be wise to recognize their promise in advancing institutions. And as a gay man who continues to reach for leadership positions, I got my share of good advice, too. I’m most likely not bound for a presidency, but their words still hold great value for me. Here, I will share what I heard, with hope that others will also learn, regardless of where they happen to be in their careers at the moment.

You may be surprised to learn that most of these presidents waffled about coming out to search consultants, committees and boards. Yet without gay presidential mentors, they were left to their own devices. They found ways to be out and land presidencies, though it was hardly smooth. What I’ve learned from them is that we can be out. But that’s secondary. The first priority is performance, as an administrator or professor, and leading with integrity.

Authenticity: the Cornerstone for Gay Leaders in Academe

Honesty and openness will never fail us. Being out is being authentic.

Hire a gay president and you often get someone who is thoroughly committed to diversity, says Charles Middleton. A gay candidate knows what it means to struggle. You will also certainly get a role model for members of the community, both LGBT and others. This authenticity encourages other people to relax, feel safe and be more open.

Faculty and students will benefit. Presidents who offer the role model of authenticity send a message that others are free to be themselves. It is symbolic and powerful. The president is a public figure and it’s as important for him to be out as it is for a public official like a state senator or governor.

Yet, might authenticity get in the way of fund-raising? Also, how have alumni reacted? "The alumni don’t care if the president is gay," says Theodora Kalikow. "They care that you’re a good president. They care about how you ask them for money. They care about how you follow through after they donate. They don’t care that you’re gay. If they do, you don’t want their money."

Another who oversees a selective liberal arts college agreed: "If the alumni had problems with the fact that there’s a gay president, then they probably wouldn’t return for alumni events. What’s important is bringing energy to campus and running it well."

Advice for Gays Who Seek a Presidency

"Presidential searches work best when the common focus becomes mission-driven, and race, gender, sexual orientation and other factors go by the wayside," says Nancy Martin, an executive search consultant.

To be successful, your search and selection process must be open. If we are at ease with who we are, boards will be as well. Angela Provart, a consultant who helps identify candidates for senior positions at community colleges, said that more and more candidates are out, and they often want assistance with finding a comfortable place to work. In fact, many search consultants agree that it is now more common to meet candidates who are openly gay. Some consultants work comfortably with them. Still, others do not. Some well-meaning but homophobic professionals suggest not coming out at all. Others don’t respond to gay candidates, period.

But it is important to let the search committee know you’re gay. Don’t surprise them, most presidents and consultants warn. A search and selection process must be open. Unless you want to live and work in the closet, everyone involved should be aware of your orientation, and a job offer should be made only with this knowledge.

When you are ready to work with a search firm, express that you are gay or lesbian early on. The consultant can then be prepared to find the most effective ways of including this information in a conversation with the chair of the search committee (without necessarily identifying you). They can often judge whether it is likely to be an issue in the search process.

Determine as accurately as possible whether you will be a match with a particular institution. Get as much information as you can. As David Wain Coon advises, be sure it’s a safe place to be out. "Don’t put yourself at personal or professional risk," he says. "It’s about reading your environment. If I feel a bad vibe after an interview, I won’t work there."

For Search Committees and Boards of Trustees

Board membership carries with it a moral and fiduciary responsibility. Boards must seek out excellence, and voices for the future. Leaders in education must come from the broadest spectrum of our treasure chest of possibilities. If they limit the possible candidates, our nation is diminished and board members will not have fulfilled their trust to their institutions, says consultant Nancy Martin.

Middleton adds that if boards are to attract more talent, they are going to have to focus on accomplishments more than personal characteristics. When they advertise presidential positions, they should state that LGBT candidates are encouraged to apply. They need to make it very clear as early as possible in the search process that sexual orientation per se is not an issue to the board, and they should say that explicitly by including sexual orientation in a list of qualities under which the institution does not discriminate.

When it comes time to invite candidates to campus, the domestic partner should be invited, as well, several presidents agree. "The board should put them through the same process as a heterosexual candidate," Middleton says. "If an institution doesn’t do this, then fine. But the institution should then make it clear that it doesn’t do it for anyone. The more explicit the institution is, the better."

To Gay Leaders Who Want to Advance

"It is important to prove yourself — as a scholar, in administrative roles, as department chair and as a committee chair," says Kalikow. “People need to see how you perform in these positions."

She adds, “It’s also important to have good friends. You need a network of supportive professional persons at your institution. You develop friends in the wider communities that you work in. As a scholar and administrator, those friendship networks are important."

Middleton adds that we need to be very effective and professional in our jobs, and especially reliable. Opportunity is enhanced if we do all these things — and while nothing is guaranteed, our careers are more likely to prosper by making these a priority.

Finally, David Coon reminds us never to hide. “If you hide, people may wonder what else you’re hiding,” he says. “By being out, you’re saying: This is who I am. I’m comfortable and I’m humble.” People may find you more approachable and more trustworthy.

Tips for Gay Presidential Candidates

  • Focus on your accomplishments. Your sexuality is important, but it's not the most important feature you bring to the table.
  • Make certain the values of an institution are consistent with your own. Take the institution's tolerance temperature.
  • Be upfront with the search consultant and with the board. Your search must be open. Candidates who are gay should say so, when the time is right.
  • Those campuses that welcome gay leaders are not always obviously welcoming. Some rural or suburban colleges may be more welcoming to gays than colleges located in urban centers with large gay populations.
  • If you are comfortable with yourself, the board will be as well.

How Search Committees and Boards of Trustees Can Signal That They Welcome Gay Candidates

  • When advertising presidential positions, state that LGBT candidates are encouraged to apply.
  • Make it clear as early as possible in the search process that your institution welcomes diversity with regard to sexual orientation.
  • When inviting candidates to campus, invite the candidate’s partner as well.
  • If your institution provides benefits to same-sex partners, advertise it on your institution’s human resources web page.
  • Communicate your institution's values when you advertise professional positions. If you value social justice and challenging the status quo, say so.


Michael Roggow has conducted interviews with many gay college presidents over the last two years. He works for the Office for Academic Affairs and is an adjunct assistant professor of psychology at City University of New York’s Bronx Community College. He can be reached at [email protected]


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