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When Julianna Barnes set her sights on a career in academia, she envisioned eventually becoming a vice president of an institution and assumed it would be her pinnacle role in the profession. She couldn’t imagine herself, a Mexican Filipina American, as a college president, much less a university chancellor, because she’d never seen someone like herself in those positions.

“I set limitations for myself without even realizing it, because I believed people like me didn’t become presidents,” she said.

Barnes eventually reset her goals and reached a new professional peak last August when she was named chancellor of the South Orange County Community College District. It was the culmination of a 30-year career that began as a student outreach counselor at the University of California, San Diego, and filling other jobs there over 10 years, followed by various positions with increasing responsibilities within the California Community Colleges system, leading her to the presidency of Cuyamaca College.

“Serving as chancellor was a natural progression, given my professional history,” she said. “I wanted to become a chancellor so that I could work with constituents and the board to positively influence practice and policy that facilitate equitable student access and success.”

Barnes was one of five people promoted to presidencies or chancellorships of colleges in the 116-college system last summer, and one of 11 recent CEO appointments over all, seven of whom were women. And, last month, Sonya Christian, chancellor of the Kern Community College District, was named the next permanent chancellor of California Community Colleges, the largest and most diverse public higher education system in the country.

The challenges and barriers women of color in higher education face while climbing professional ladders is well documented, but what happens after they reach these top positions is another story—and also a matter of growing concern. Some studies have found that women in leadership roles have shorter tenures over all than men and that women of color, in particular, face more challenges navigating these positions.

Although the number of women in CEO positions, which include presidents, superintendents and chancellors of California’s community colleges, has risen, they spent an average of 3.7 years in their positions, while men stayed for 5.7 years on average, according to the Community College League of California’s CEO tenure and retention dashboard. Male CEOs had a median of four years in the job, compared to a median of 2.9 years for female CEOs, according to the league.

The CCLC found that women leaders of color encountered more biases about their qualifications, a lack of respect for their position and authority, and subtle and not-so-subtle hostility, according to an addendum to a larger bi-annual report the CCLC produced with ResearchEd, an organization that provides custom research and related services to postsecondary institutions. The biannual report is an update of a 2020 report. The findings were based on focus group discussions with and surveys of 29 California Community College CEOs and trustees between January and March of last year. (This paragraph was revised to correct the references to the bi-annual report and to include the report addendum.)  

“When you look at the trends, and despite how things have kind of improved, you see that that women’s tenure is still shorter in these roles, particularly for women of color,” said Rachel Rush-Marlowe, principal analyst for ResearchEd and the study lead. She asked CEOs whether they believed their position and authority was respected by trustees and, if so, to what extent. The CEOs were also asked if they have positive work relationships with colleagues and board members. The report said 100 percent of white male CEOs said they somewhat or strongly agreed with that view, whereas 67 percent of women of color said they somewhat or strongly agreed.

“The differences in response between female CEOs of color and white male CEOs was really quite striking,” Rush-Marlowe said. “You can imagine not having a positive relationship with your board member is going to have a big impact on your tenure at the institution.”

Rush-Marlowe said women presidents and chancellors of color often reported challenges meeting their general leadership duties, and many said they experienced incredible amounts of racism and sexism. Women of color in both the surveys and interviews overwhelmingly reported a lack of trust or respect from white board members, and they described hearing “explicit racial slurs” and experienced racism and gender bias at higher rates than white male CEOs. (This paragraph was revised to clarify what the researcher said the CEOs of color reported.)

“The majority of CEOs of color and women leaders identified a lack of civility and disrespect from boards, CCC colleagues and others involved in the larger CCC ecosystem,” the report said.

Rush-Marlowe said despite these challenges, “These women, these leaders, are so incredibly focused on their students and doing what’s best for their students in their communities, regardless of what they’re dealing with personally in their roles. I think things are improving over time and despite the difficulty.”

The report said while Black CEOs are now 10 percent of the total number of CEOs, which is higher than their percentage of the state’s population, “Latina/o and Asian/Pacific Islander CEOs are underrepresented at less than half of their respective populations in California.”


An Inside Higher Ed analysis of presidential appointments from June 2020 through November 2021, in the wake of the racial reckoning prompted by the murder of George Floyd, found that more than a third—35.4 percent—of the presidents and chancellors that American colleges and universities hired were members of racial minority groups, and that 22.5 percent were Black. The proportion of women hired during this period declined slightly, but those hired were more racially diverse, and women of color made up 13 percent of all presidents hired.

A 2022 report by the College Futures Foundation, which is focused on increasing college degree completion and closing equity gaps among underrepresented students, says 51 percent of California public institutions are white-led. According to the report, “Whiteness Rules: Racial Exclusion in Becoming an American College President,” 60 percent of campuses in the University of California system, 57 percent in the California State University system and 49 percent in the community college system had white leaders.

Larry Galizio, president and CEO of the Community College League of California, found the league’s report troubling because 70 percent of the 2.1 million students who attended California Community Colleges in the 2019–20 academic year were students of color, and 35 percent were the first in their family to attend college.

“This trend is very concerning when there’s an ongoing attempt by many districts to diversify at all levels, whether that’s chancellor or president, cabinet or faculty, and the goal is to better reflect the student population,” Galizio said.

He said the community college districts are working with the boards of all their colleges on implicit bias training and are trying to develop new approaches to equal employment.

“We’ve also seen an increase just in the overall diversity and how there are more presidents and chancellors of color,” Galizio said. “I wouldn’t say the results of the study were shocking or surprising—I just say disappointing and a lot of work needs to be done.”

An American Association of Community Colleges analysis of an upcoming report by the American Council on Education shows that 36.6 percent of community college presidents are women, which is above the overall higher education rate of 30 percent, and that more women are leading multicampus community colleges and districts—this sector’s proportion of female leaders grew from 29 percent to 38.7 percent between 2010 and 2022.

“At the national level, we are seeing more women in leadership positions than ever before,” said Martha Parham, senior vice president of the AACC. “Community colleges are well aware of their role in educating many of the country’s first-generation and minority students and seek to ensure that there is equity in representation of gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation across the organization.”

Galizio said the league has ongoing trustee and board professional development programs focused on implicit bias about leaders of color and how to create the best conditions to support a chancellor or president of color and ensure their success.

“I think it’s important to recognize that we have some extraordinarily successful women of color presidents and chancellors,” he said. “But we need to do better, because we do not want short tenures, and we do not want boards and trustees who just have a lack of understanding or are not creating the conditions for success.”

Sunita Cooke, superintendent and president of MiraCosta Community College District since 2015, said although she has enjoyed a longer-than-average tenure for a woman of color—and one that has been relatively free of some of the more egregious problems cited in the report—she has seen how implicit bias and colleagues not fully understanding each other’s life experiences can create conflict in the workplace.

“People who may be our bosses, who are constituent group leaders and come in with biases and certain ways of doing things, may put us at conflict unnecessarily,” Cooke said.

Cooke, who is Indian, worked her way up from a professor of biology to director of a biotechnology institute; dean of sciences, health and wellness; and associate vice chancellor for workforce development, all at Lone Star–Montgomery College in Houston. (She’s also a founding faculty member of the college.) She was president of Grossmont College in San Diego before leaving to lead MiraCosta.

She noted that being a woman of color includes intersectionalities that can make a career in higher education more difficult, and she believes some of the racial problems experienced by community college women leaders of color also overlap with gender. She said in her experience, speaking as a woman can often be difficult in a “very male-dominated” society.

“When you speak as a woman, sometimes, it’s as if you haven’t spoken … and people don’t hear it in a way that you intend,” she said. “And then somebody else, a male, for example, would say the exact same thing, and it is as if the idea came forward for the first time.”

She said a common theme that comes up in discussions about addressing racial and gender bias against college leaders is that as long the higher education system keeps certain populations and identities from experiencing full success in their careers, in the same way that men have been allowed to, it will limit creativity and innovation over all.

“It behooves us as a society to make sure that every person has opportunity and feels included and is allowed to thrive in a workspace they choose to contribute to,” Cooke said.

Barnes said there need to be more effective ways to provide support to women of color in leadership positions and set them up for long and successful careers.

“An institution should recognize the issue and then be intentional about focusing mainly on retention rather than recruitment,” Barnes said.

For her part, she intends to continue to be a role model for women of color who dream of becoming leaders in higher education.

“We are paving the way for other women of color and standing on a pedestal so they can believe that they too can become presidents on their own one day,” she said.

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