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Inside Higher Ed published data in February showing that colleges and universities had hired significantly more presidents and chancellors of color in the year and a half after the death of George Floyd. A full quarter of the presidents hired from June 2020 through November 2021 were Black, and the proportion of Latino presidents who were appointed roughly doubled from the previous 18 months.

A recent episode of The Key, Inside Higher Ed’s news and analysis podcast, invited two prominent scholars of higher education and the college presidency to dissect the data, what they mean and how much they matter. Lorelle L. Espinosa is program director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, where she focuses on grant making that drives evidence-based change around diversity, equity and inclusion in STEM education. She formerly oversaw research on the college presidency and other topics at the American Council on Education.

Eddie R. Cole, associate professor of higher education and history at the University of California, Los Angeles, offered context about the current moment based on his study of the civil rights era, when colleges also sought to diversify their leadership (for a while).

An edited transcript of the podcast follows.


Inside Higher Ed: When you look at the data we collected [about presidential hiring], what jumps out at you as most interesting, encouraging, worrying? What do you make of them?

Lorelle Espinosa: First of all, I’m really pleased that you did this. Thank you from the field. This looks like good news. If this is a sign of what the presidency might look like in five or 10 years, this is terrific. It took three decades to see the percentage of women double from 15 to 30 percent of presidencies, according to the most recent American Council on Education data, which, of course, is now about six years old.

And I remember when we worked on that at ACE, when I was there leading research, we actually looked at the growth rate over time of presidents of color and concluded that it wouldn’t be until 2050 that we would see a presidency that was at parity with the population, back-of-the-envelope math there. But it wasn’t too encouraging. And for Latinx presidents, that would be 2060. So … on first blush I was pleased to see what you were finding.

Eddie Cole: I echo what we just heard in the sense that it is promising. Certainly, the numbers jump out to you in passing. But something that stood out to me more specifically, as a historian of higher education, is context. I think you were spot-on in looking at these numbers both 18 months before and 18 months after the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, because that’s just a reminder of how higher education is so deeply shaped and interwoven with society at large.

And that’s something important for us to remember that as boards and other governing entities select presidents to lead institutions of higher education, those people who are on those boards are also connected to what’s happening in society and aware that their decisions have a ripple effect far beyond the walls of the campus. And so that’s what stood out to me most, how just one pivotal moment for us in 2020 clearly has been such a sizable, noticeable moment in terms of who’s been selected to lead colleges and universities.

And so it’s one of those things that makes me think so much more about context, the role of higher education with society, both influencing society but also being influenced by society.

Inside Higher Ed: That’s a good point. I can see ways in which that could be both a good thing and a bad thing. Because the more it’s shaped by what’s happening at a given moment, it raises maybe more questions about how permanent a change it is, versus being just reactive. Can you talk a little bit more about how, compared to what we’ve seen in the past, this is either similar to or reminiscent of, or maybe different from … the era you studied?

Cole: I spent a lot of time studying the mid-20th century, 1940s through the 1960s, and the college presidency. More particularly the college presidency in the Black Freedom Movement. There are a lot of parallels between what we saw in 2020 and the broader questions around racial equality in the United States. But also the same questions were being raised in the 1960s in the U.S. as well in very similar ways. We saw some parallels in terms of what universities were looking for in their college leaders.

So one thing that stands out to me when I look at the report, and the numbers that you’ve laid out for readers, is that in the 1960s it wasn’t necessarily a dramatic shift in the racial demographics of college presidents. But there was a notable shift in the interests and skill set of college presidents in engaging race relations in the 1960s. A lot of universities, predominantly white institutions, started hiring presidents who had some sense or some involvement with working on issues that reached out beyond white students on campus.

After 1963, when you see some of the most notable moments in the civil rights movement … from the water hoses and police in Birmingham, Ala., to bombings and so forth, President Kennedy reaches out to colleges and universities and asked them to help come up with solutions, special programs that would address some of the racial ills in society. So you saw a lot of hiring at the senior level of administrators with skill sets that were at the time assumed to be very helpful to lead universities into this new era, to where student bodies started looking different on a lot of campuses.

Inside Higher Ed: If there had been a push to try to increase the hiring of minority or Black presidents back then, it wouldn’t have had a lot of luck, because of some of the [candidate] pool issues that we’re still talking about today. But one of the heartening things is that there has been a lot of work on broadening the pool of potential leaders. Lorelle, coming back to you, what do you consider to be the most significant factors that are enabling this moment?

Espinosa: I think it’s two things. One thing you touched is that there has been a tremendous amount of effort to develop future leaders in professional associations and professional societies. There’s been a huge push, as we know, for the next tranche of leadership in two-year institutions, where we’re seeing some of the largest numbers of retirement and really a crisis of leadership in some of those settings. We’ve been preparing leaders. I think that’s showing up here.

Another thing is that we’re seeing the pathway to the presidency change. You also cited this in the article: the pathway typically comes out of academic leadership, out of certain disciplines. And what your data here shows is that there’s been an uptick in presidents coming out of the ranks of student affairs. Student affairs has the most diverse leadership in higher education when we look at the professions. So if they’re coming out of student affairs, it’s likely that you will see a more diverse pool.

I love what Eddie said about the context of today. What are the issues we’re grappling with? Crisis management, student mental health and well-being, campus racial climate, student success. Things that people who work in student affairs are very well equipped to address. So, when you think about the boards who are hiring these presidents and thinking, “What are the competencies that we want out of a president today?” Like Eddie said, in this moment … it makes a lot of sense that you’re going to see those people show up. And they’ll still do the other things, of course—financial management, fundraising, managing, you know, faculty relations, all the things that we know presidents do in their day-to-day. But this is a different moment for the presidency. And I think it’s showing up.

Inside Higher Ed: Eddie, you talked about how in the ’60s we saw institutions think a little differently about the kind of skill set they wanted, even if they weren’t ready to or weren’t able to radically change the composition of who [they were hiring]. What are some of the other issues that you see being raised if these data bear out and colleges are hiring greater proportions of Black and other historically underrepresented people as president?

Cole: It is important for institutions to give these leaders the autonomy to create change. When I think about the historical trajectory of the presidency, and into our current moment, it is going to be essential for boards to give these leaders the opportunity to actually lead and create change, and even go through the bumps in a road that may come along with creating that change. Because otherwise, we simply have the representation, the diversity … We want to move into questions around actual racial equity on campuses. And that’s the challenge for any leader. Can a leader come in and take the time necessary to make observations of the campus, the organization that they’re leading to actually get other leaders in place on campus that they feel can join them for where they want to go, and then have the actual support on the board to create those changes?

What’s essential when we think about this current moment is not just simply hiring more presidents of color, more women across college campuses, but also giving them the autonomy to truly create the campus environment that boards have hired them to create. That’s what campuses, and society at large, has demanded of universities, especially since the killing of George Floyd.

Inside Higher Ed: I want to come back to that in a minute, because I quoted you in the story raising a pretty significant note of caution about … drawing too many conclusions about what these numbers mean until we see how lasting these changes are, to see whether it’s more than a token moment.

Before we get to that, though, Lorelle, I want to talk to you a little bit about some of the issues you raised when we spoke about where these hirings are taking place. There’s been some history for much of the opportunity for minority presidents and for underrepresented presidents, including women, to be at institutions that were either struggling or not necessarily our most visible institutions, for instance, a lot more at community colleges than in other sectors typically.

Based on the imperfect data that I’ve pulled together, and what else you’re seeing on the landscape, do you have a sense that we’re seeing more presidents hired across the spectrum and across the institution type?

Espinosa: Your data say yes. You’re right that when you looked at representation in the presidency, it was often more diverse at the two-year sector, the less selective sectors, certainly in minority-serving institutions, especially in HBCUs. When you and I first had a conversation about this data, my mind is thinking, “This looks great in the aggregate. What does this look like when you drill down?” And I was specifically interested in numbers for doctoral-granting institutions, which have long been the whitest-led institutions of all.

We know the last time that we looked at the presidency in these institutions, 82 percent of the presidencies were white in these institutions. But your data is saying something very different. Your data is saying that 74 percent of the appointments in the years that you tracked at doctoral-granting universities were white. So this looks promising.

Time will tell what their retention will look like. We also know the presidency turns over. The average tenure of a president is five to seven years. This looks like a good moment, but what’s it going to look like moving ahead?

Inside Higher Ed: Let’s shift to how we should be judging whether this apparent upturn is real, lasting. Some of it will be about whether it lasts past the couple of years I looked at, to see if the numbers and the ratios continue to be different from how they’ve been historically. Then there is a set of questions around the extent to which these people being hired now succeed as much as their peers. We’re seeing much more generally that being a president of a college or university, there are more ways where you can run aground now than used to be the case. Eddie, what are some of the things you’re looking for to judge whether these presidents get the support they need?

Cole: It is important that we think about how long they get a chance to stay in their tenure as a presidency. Do they reach the average time frame of five to seven years? An analogy that really captures this that’s related to higher education is you think about, sort of, coaches in major sports on many of these campuses. Especially revenue-generating sports like men’s or women’s basketball, or football. Does a coach have the opportunity to go through the process of recruiting, hiring a staff and actually build a winning program? Or do you have a short temper and say, “We’re not winning fast enough”?

The same analogy is applicable to college presidents. And three, four years is probably not going to be long enough for presidents to create those changes [society is demanding]. But if a president has the five- to seven-year time frame, I think you can sort of step back and say, “OK, here’s a presidency that we can take a full snapshot of and then we can assess more accurately what they were able to accomplish.”

Another question about some of these presidents who have been hired into positions is what kind of situation they’re coming into. It’s one thing to celebrate more representation in leadership. But we have to be honest about what campus crises or scandals have been happening at a particular university. And then are they hiring their first minoritized identity president on campus?

That shapes where the starting point of their presidency is for someone. Are they trying to clean up and recover from a previous administration and then start with what they’re trying to do, or do they get to come in on the up and up?

Inside Higher Ed: That coach analogy is one that I used in thinking about the hiring of these folks, because a couple decades ago, when I was covering college sports pretty closely, the only time you would see a Black coach get hired in football and men’s basketball was when the team went 2 and 11 the previous year. And the leaders said, “Ah, what the heck? We might as well try this. It can’t hurt.” [Black coaches] were only hired into places that had been struggling and that may have been close to impossible to succeed in.

We’re now seeing minority presidents hired to places like Rice University and Colorado College, places that are highly selective and pretty successful. That seems to be breaking that pattern a little bit. Lorelle, what’s your sense of what we should be looking at to judge the success of these presidents and whether we get to true equity as opposed to just increased representation?

Espinosa: Time is the ultimate revealer here in terms of success. It will tell us about retention, it will tell us about a continued trend like this trend that you’ve picked up, it will tell us about the kind of change that Eddie is talking about, which does take time.

At Sloan, we’re thinking a lot about systemic change. This is a conversation in higher education that has been a long time coming. That you can’t make true change without a systems-level approach. And one part of that approach, one of many parts, is leadership. You absolutely cannot reach racial equity if you don’t have a leadership that looks like the student population, which is by now well over half students of color. It’s just not possible. Right? And you can go to any sector of society and raise this issue, and people will agree with you.

Like you alluded to a moment ago, it’s not only about representation, it’s about seeing these individuals thrive. This is a hard job. It’s getting harder, and any one person is not gonna walk in this door knowing how to do everything. As we said, the student affairs folks walk in having a better handle on some of the student issues, like mental health or student support systems. They’re not going to have a strong track record in some of the more academic environments … the way a provost does. No matter what, we have to take more seriously professional development for these folks. Higher education has done a really poor job of providing professional development for its own. Ironically, we’re educators, but we don’t educate ourselves very well.

Inside Higher Ed: I talked about this with some of the presidents I spoke to who were new in these roles, about whether they were going to be expected to take up issues related to race and equity more so than white presidents would, and whether that’s an opportunity or a burden for them. Do you think this group of presidents is likely to come in with agendas that are meaningfully different from what a comparable group of white presidents would do or has historically done?

Cole: I don’t think a president from an underrepresented background is going to have an agenda dramatically different from previous presidents. I’m OK with that, because history suggests that simply them doing what they do already as an academic leader will bring a different perspective to those conversations. All we need these presidents to do is to be themselves within their usual academic skill set. I don’t expect to see new agendas that directly target racial equity on campus, to do this or do that. Campus leaders have always been OK saying, “We have to have better representation in the faculty we hire. We have to do better in who we recruit on campus.”

They haven’t been effective at it. But that’s been on the agenda. I would think a Black college president would come in and say, “I’ve got a different perspective, perhaps, potentially on how to approach recruiting more faculty and recruiting more students.”

Espinosa: I’m just thinking a lot about fit. If you are a Black, or Latinx, or Indigenous, or any other president of color who does want to have that kind of change, who comes in with that agenda, you better make sure your institution is ready for it. And the search firm should also be really attuned to this and not set people up for failure because their agendas don’t match what the institution is seeking or what the board is seeking. Fit is so important, just like anything, just like any relationship. It’s on both parties that prospective presidents come in and ask the right questions and have a deep understanding of how they fit and that the people hiring and the search firms also get that. We certainly don’t want to see anyone set up for failure in this regard.

Inside Higher Ed: What are the best- and worst-case scenarios here? Let’s say we convene back here in three or five years—what is the upside of what we might see with these leaders in their colleges? And what would be most worrying if it were to unfold in a particular way?

Cole: I would, again, lean on history. As I mentioned earlier, in the mid-1960s, there was an emphasis on who was leading institutions and how they engaged these issues. What we saw in the 1960s was that learning institutions quickly moved on from that point of emphasis. By the 1970s, they reverted back in so many ways to what they’d always done. So, the worst-case scenario, in my opinion, would be five years from now we look eerily similar to how we looked 10 years ago. That the numbers shift and leadership is just about the same. That’s sort of a worst-case scenario.

But if I were to be optimistic in this conversation and looking forward, I would just hope to see the trend continue. And so we see percentages increase so that the leadership starts reflecting the student bodies, or even more so reflecting society at large.

Espinosa: That’s precisely what I was thinking in terms of worst. And it would be even more harmful if there was a takeaway from the field that we tried this and it didn’t work, or we weren’t ready, so, let’s just keep our finger on the pause button. That people who are not interested in seeing diversity at the top use this as an example of failure, and it’s just not worth it to take that risk. That would even be like insult to injury.

Best case would be that these trends keep going the way that you have found them, and that we see change agents at the top so we start to see campuses that not only have leadership that reflects our student bodies but are taking the issue of racial equity and all forms of other equity very seriously precisely because we have diverse perspectives at the top, as Eddie said. That would be truly amazing.

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