No Big Deal

Gay and lesbian presidents report more acceptance than ever with the legalization of gay marriage.

January 19, 2016
Karen Whitney, Margaret Drugovich, Charles Middleton

What’s the big deal?

That’s the thinking of many gay presidents across the country. In 2015 the Supreme Court ruled that states had to recognize same-sex marriages -- a long-awaited milestone for many -- but a lot of America’s gay college presidents report feeling fully accepted by the institutions they lead long before the justices weighed in. Their sexual orientation, they say, has had little effect on their presidencies.

“It’s not perfect. There are critics and there are bigots,” explained Karen M. Whitney, who has led Clarion University, a midsize public university in rural Pennsylvania, since 2010. “But by and large the greater [community] has been very respectful.”

Whitney and others say the marriage equality ruling was certainly a boon for gay and lesbian people in academe -- creating more spaces, and better ones as well, for gay students, faculty members and administrators. Gay marriage “gives people a framework that they're more used to,” and helps straight people -- including crucial constituencies like alumni, donors and board members -- find common ground with their gay peers.

For example, Whitney says the very word “spouse” “helps communicate” the relationship between herself and her longtime partner, Peggy Apple, in a way that people fundamentally understand. When Apple and Whitney first came to Clarion in 2010 -- and before they were legally married -- there were times where it was evident that people were struggling with how to address the couple. How should they refer to Apple? How involved would Apple, a faculty member, be in the presidency?

Six years later, that struggle has dissipated, Whitney says.

“Over the years of working together, we’ve replaced an awkwardness or anxiousness with mutual appreciation,” said Whitney. “The national discourse has made it a lot more routine and therefore has brought down the awkwardness.”

Yet despite the occasional bout of awkwardness, Whitney says she and her wife have always felt welcomed and been treated kindly by people at Clarion.

Just a decade and a half ago the landscape was very different, recalls Charles Middleton, president of Roosevelt University, in Chicago, from 2002 to 2015 and leader of the advocacy group LGBT Presidents in Higher Education. For a long time, gay presidents weren’t encouraged to be out or open about their partners. The partner “was invisible,” Middleton says.

“People approach the president and the assumption is you’re straight. So you have to tell them you’re not. You literally have to come out, and you have to do it again and again and again,” he explained. “We’re not afraid anymore. And we would have been totally afraid 15 years ago to do that.”

In several presidential searches, Middleton says his status as a gay man was a “deal killer.” When he was interviewed for the Roosevelt presidency in the early 2000s, that was not the case -- the hiring board was happy to learn more about Middleton’s longtime partner. Back then the two were among the first openly gay presidential couples in the nation. Now Middleton estimates there are or have been between 60 and 70 openly gay presidents in the country. Recent appointments include Ana Mari Cauce, of the University of Washington; Roberta Cordano, president-elect of Gallaudet University; and Nancy Roseman, of Dickinson College.

Yet gay candidates in other searches in the last two decades experienced less grace than Middleton. As recently as 1995, gay and lesbian candidates were pressured to bow out of presidential searches because of their sexuality. At the College of Wooster, in 1995, Susanne Woods withdrew from the presidency the day before she was set to begin, reportedly under pressure from board members who discovered that she was a lesbian in a long-term relationship. Woods did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

“I know I didn’t get presidencies because I was gay,” explains Thomas Minar, president of Franklin College, in Indiana. As a vice president for American University in Washington, D.C., Minar was interviewed in several presidential searches before coming to Franklin in July 2015. But Franklin was one of the first colleges to embrace his sexual orientation and not see it as a liability. “It takes guts for a board to go out on a limb and say, ‘Here’s our new president. We think he’s wonderful and extraordinary,’ and to be willing to absorb any blowback that that president is a gay or lesbian.”

Yet as the populace and U.S. policies get gradually more progressive, Minar says, “the amount of blowback decreases by the month or the year [and] boards are learning that.”

Raynard S. Kington has been president of Grinnell College in Iowa since 2010. Grinnell is a progressive campus and Kington says the fact that he is gay has not really been an in issue (what makes the presidency much more difficult, he says, is juggling it along with two young kids and a working husband). But as Kington began considering a presidency in the 2000s, he says it was clear that a lot of colleges weren’t ready to embrace a gay leader.

“I was approached by one school -- a prominent school -- about the presidency. I said, ‘Let me tell you, I’m black and gay. You go back to your board and make that explicit and see if they’re ready,’” Kington recalled. Soon after he received a response: “They said no, they’re not ready.”

Kathleen Murray, who became president of Whitman College, in rural Washington, in July, had a similar experience in the mid-2000s when she was invited to attend a forum for aspiring presidents. The invitation was also extended to her spouse.

“I called the organizing group about it and said I don't have a spouse, but I do have a partner and would she be welcomed?” Murray recalls. “I got a kind of equivocal answer that I found a little bit off-putting and decided we would not attend.”

She continued, “I would like to think that answer would be different today.” And her experience at Whitman, she said, has been wholly different. Her partner of two decades is very involved in the presidency -- even accompanying her on a university trip to Cuba -- and Murray says they “just haven't had one awkward or uncomfortable moment since getting here.”

Indeed, much has changed in the last decade, both legally and culturally. State after state recognized gay marriage -- 37 in all -- and eventually the Supreme Court recognized it as a right throughout the country. As a result, Kington believes more and more colleges are willing to hire gay and lesbian presidents, and more and more candidates will be comfortable putting themselves out there in a search.

“It made it become more mainstream,” he said of the Supreme Court ruling. “Given all the things that college presidents have to deal with, making that less of an explicit issue for those who are gay and lesbian is a great thing.”

A Couple’s Experience

Margaret Drugovich took office at Hartwick College, a 1,600-student liberal arts college in upstate New York, in 2008 -- three years before the state would recognize gay marriage and a full seven years before the Supreme Court decision. Her longtime partner and their two children moved into the president’s house with her -- she was adamant from the start that she wouldn’t accept the job unless the college’s governing board was fully on board with her partner, Beth Steele (and in a forum during her interview, she invited Steele to speak publicly, which is uncommon for even heterosexual couples).

“That was a really important moment for me, but also for them,” Drugovich said of her partner and children. “They needed to feel comfortable here and they needed to feel welcomed.”

She was one of the first openly gay presidents to serve at a college with a religious history (Hartwick was founded by a Lutheran minister, though the college is now nondenominational). Though gradually changing because of the prevalence of female presidents and working spouses, the role of the president’s spouse is generally a very public one. Drugovich and Steele together host student dinners and attend alumni events. Eventually Steele became editor of Hartwick’s alumni magazine, gradually building her own reputation and brand on campus.

And though the experience has been largely positive -- “My spouse felt embraced by the community immediately,” Drugovich says -- there have been hurdles to overcome. At first, not knowing how alumni would react to the fact that she was a lesbian, Drugovich attended some events alone to introduce herself and gauge people’s acceptance levels. She and Steele have since abandoned their cautionary approach -- as it turned out there was little need to be worried, Drugovich recalls.

“When I first arrived here, we were very careful of where Beth would be with me,” Drugovich said. “We just took it slow, and over time -- now that we’ve been here for over seven years and a wider circle of people know about my presidency and her role here and our relationship with one another -- we are less likely to make that kind of decision or even have that discussion.”

A large donor, upon the selection of Drugovich as president, vowed to never donate another dime to the college, believing the governing board should not have picked a lesbian for the role. Though Drugovich recalls how hurt she was by the donor’s initial response, she didn’t immediately write him off. “He was taking exception with a personal quality of mine. It's tricky. It's very hard. It's very personal,” she said.

Nonetheless, Drugovich continued to solicit advice from the alumnus. Despite his objections to her sexual orientation, she met several times with him and his wife to discuss issues facing the college.

“That gained his confidence in my ability to lead the college in a way that he was comfortable with,” Drugovich recalls. Ultimately the alumnus did resume his giving, but the two never discussed his initial objections with Drugovich’s presidency (the donor has since died).

“It's a great example of the fact that while people may not share the same values … if you're going to be a college president it's incumbent on you to meet people where they are,” she said. “Fortunately we were able to bridge that gap because he gained confidence in my leadership over time.”

There have also been times when, after receiving negative letters about how “it’s not appropriate for me to lead a college” because of “my identification as a lesbian,” Drugovich has had the Hartwick webpage introducing her family temporarily taken offline. Any threats or letters, Drugovich says, have almost always been sent by people who are not closely affiliated with Hartwick. And each time, the family webpage has eventually been reposted.

“From day one we felt comfortable here,” Drugovich says. “As the dialogue on openness, on marriage in particular, has become broader on the national front … this conversation has helped to put it out in the public and for individuals like myself to feel supported.”

The ripple effects are quite large. Drugovich is hearing of more and more universities and colleges that are willing to hire gay and lesbian presidents, and believes that there’s more interest from openly gay young professionals in becoming college administrators. Where before they weren’t sure there was a future in the upper echelon of the administration ranks, now they’re more confident there will be a place for them.

“In part it is the national setting and environment of being a gay couple. People are literally and figuratively out, so being a gay couple is less noteworthy. It’s nice not to have to think, ‘Is somebody going to care? Is somebody going to be critical?’” explained Steele. Drugovich and Steele legally married in a small ceremony at the Hartwick president’s house in 2013. Instead of objections about the wedding itself, Steele and Drugovich fielded complaints from people who wanted to attend but weren’t invited. The marriage, they say, was widely celebrated on campus.

“Because of the shift in the national landscape, we are not an anomaly,” Steele continued. “Even though I have never been a person who strives to be normal, I feel more normal.”

Further Progress Needed

Yet the landscape is far from perfect.

When Whitney and Apple, of Clarion, got married in 2013, for example, a disgruntled area resident got a copy of the couple’s marriage license and sent it to the local newspaper. The couple got married, along with 130 other gay and lesbian couples, during a brief period when a Pennsylvania clerk was granting marriage licenses. Pennsylvania had not yet recognized gay marriage, and eventually an injunction forced the clerk to stop issuing licenses. Gay marriage was recognized in the state in 2014.

Apple recalls an uncomfortable interview with the local newspaper.

“Someone had spent money to get a copy of our marriage license and was very upset about it. There were all kinds of rumors as to why we would get married,” Apple recalled. One such rumor was that Apple wanted better benefits -- but as a faculty member at Clarion, Apple’s benefits were the same as they would have been if she was under Whitney’s health plan. By that time the couple had been together for nearly two decades. Apple stresses that the vast majority of feedback the couple received after their wedding was positive. In fact, after the article appeared in the local newspaper, the pair received several wedding presents in the mail.

Yet one question from the local reporter still sticks in her mind.

“To me one of the silliest questions they asked is, ‘Why did you get married?’ I just looked at them and said, ‘I think the reason that everyone else gets married: we love each other.’”


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