WASHINGTON -- Glass ceilings are cracking across this city's higher education associations.
A little over a year after Molly Corbett Broad's hiring at the American Council on Education made her the first woman to run one of higher education's six major "presidential" associations, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities on Tuesday named Muriel A. Howard as its new president, replacing Constantine W. (Deno) Curris. Howard, now president of the State University of New York's College at Buffalo, will be the first black female -- and the first member of a racial minority group -- to head one of the six associations.
"Boy, will I miss my students," Howard said in a telephone interview after her appointment was announced Tuesday. "But I'm eager for the opportunity to be able to help shape policy and essentially continue the work I've been doing -- taking the 11,000 students I have, and multiplying by 430 institutions" -- the four-year public colleges that make up AASCU's membership.
Howard has spent virtually her whole career in Buffalo, the last 13 as president of SUNY's state college there and the previous 23 as a faculty member and then senior administrator at SUNY-Buffalo, the city's major research institution. She saw firsthand, she said, how important higher education institutions are to their surrounding areas, as ladders of opportunity for students, engines for local and state economies, and providers of services for residents.
She said that she was drawn to the prospect of helping AASCU's member colleges carry out the association's goals of being "student-centered" institutions and "stewards of place," to "make sure that we deploy and ask our faculty and students to help out in their communities."
There might be better -- safer -- times to seek a position of national leadership, Howard acknowledged in response to a reporter's question, given the economic downturn and the financial troubles facing many colleges at a time of waning state support. "It's not going to be easy, and there's a lot of hard work to be done at a lot of levels," she said. But the key will be to "find the opportunity within the challenge," an opportunity presented in part by the fact that the country's leaders are increasingly looking to higher education to help get the country out of the mess it's in.
"As a nation, we have to keep higher education at the top of our agenda, or all the goals that are being proposed will not be met," she said. "We're the organizations and engines that make it possible for those problems to be solved."
Howard said she was honored to break through a barrier, following ACE's Broad and, more recently, her soon-to-be neighbor at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. "I just hope we are the last generation of firsts, but I hope there are many more such firsts," Howard said. "I do think we should pay attention to it when those steps are made, as happened in the presidential election. Those role models and opportunities are so important, and so many people helped me and encouraged me.
"If I am a role model for other young women, for children of color, I'm ready."