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The number of openly gay college presidents has increased rapidly in the past seven years. And next year, a group of presidents will host a conference for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer academics who want to climb the college leadership ladder.

The conference, titled “LGBTQ Leaders in Higher Education: Shaping Our Futures,” will coincide with gay pride weekend next summer in Chicago, June 25-28. It will be hosted by LGBTQ Presidents in Higher Education, a group that has grown quickly since its first meeting — in summer 2010 — was attended by nine people.

Now, there are 48 members of the LGBTQ presidents group. For some comparison, there were only about eight openly gay presidents in late summer 2007. That increase has come amid a rapid expansion of gay rights in America, including the Supreme Court’s decision last summer to overturn an anti-gay marriage law and the spread of gay marriage rights in states.

There will likely be two tracks for conference attendees. One will be for sitting presidents, provosts and deans. The other will be for higher ed officials earlier in their careers, including faculty members.

While diverse candidates often go far in the academy, gay presidents and officials at search firms said there’s often a glass ceiling just beneath the presidency. That’s because, they said, the job is more political and requires the approval of people who are not academics — namely boards of trustees and governors, who on average, are less diverse and from an earlier generation less comfortable with homosexuality. Part of boards’ fear may, in turn, be of repelling wealthy donors, who may be even older.

“Boards do the hiring of presidents and boards often have a hard time seeing a gay person as president,” said Raymond Crossman, president of Adler School of Professional Psychology and a founding member of the LGBTQ presidents' group. Gay academics, he said, tend to hit a dead end at the level of provost.

Even at institutions that have hired or are open to hiring gay presidents, there remains the expectation that presidents be in a long-term relationships, according to several people who have been involved in presidential searches.

“As far as I know, most of the gay presidents — LGBTQ presidents — are people who are partnered or are married by a way, way big margin,” said James Gandre, who is the openly gay president of the Manhattan School of Music and is married to his partner of 17 years. “And so it follows the same pattern as heterosexual presidents, that the vast majority of them are married or partnered.”

Crossman said the LGBTQ presidents group has been giving presentations to major higher ed organizations’ conferences and has sent representatives to even smaller gatherings, including Campus Pride and LGBTQ affinity group meetings on campus.

Earlier this year, the group held a “candid and fearless” discussion with search firm consultants on the sidelines of the American Council on Education’s conference in San Diego.

The goal was to figure out what obstacles were blocking gay academics and what role search firms might play in the conversation with boards about gender diversity during presidential searches.

Search firms are in a good position to raise the issue at the beginning of a search, said Sharon McDade, a principal and senior consultant at the search firm Greenwood/Asher & Associates. Firms, she said, come with credibility and expertise meant to help presidential search committees think through everything.

“There is such greater awareness of LGBTQ [issues], which comes from the entire environment, society and culture we live in, that most boards, it’s not a conversation that they automatically shut down, ‘No, no, no, we can’t even think about going there,’ ” McDade said. “It’s a probably a conversation these days that, if the search consultant brings it up, it’s ‘Oh, yeah, we probably should have that conversation.’ ”

Crossman said gay candidates should disclose their sexuality upfront.

“It’s like voting in Chicago, early and often,” he said.

Otherwise, candidates and boards may end up wasting their time if a campus and its officials are not yet comfortable with having a gay president.

Andrea Warren Hamos, a vice president and senior consultant at Academic Search, met with the LGBTQ presidents group at ACE, and agreed it would be logical for gay candidates to talk about their sexual orientation in early conversations with a search firm.

“We are trying to get to know these candidates well enough to understand what would effect their qualifications – their ability to do their work – but also what would make this a good move for them,” she said. “Very often, family and personal issues come up at that time.”

If she had an indication that the culture at a college would not be welcoming, she wouldn’t want the candidate to go through the search process. 

But how can a gay president really know before they apply that a campus would be interested in hiring him or her, given that diversity has become, in some ways, part of the boilerplate language in job ads?

Some ads will mention diversity, and specifically sexual orientation. Others will note partner benefits. Campuses will have gay-straight alliances or other groups that would send signals.

McDade, who handles searches at mostly public institutions, said it takes only a few people in a community make it accepting. That gives some idiosyncrasies to the stereotype that Southern and rural colleges will be less open and Northern and urban colleges will be more open. At an institution in the South, for instance, a couple of gay faculty members that everyone loves may alter the campus culture.

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