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A collection of human cut-out paper figures of varying colors and genders placed flat against a blue background, illustrating the concept of diversity.

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The American college student population has become increasingly diverse, a reflection of the changing demographics of our nation. But unfortunately, the leaders running our colleges and universities remain far from reflecting this diversity.

Exactly how far is difficult to fully assess. While institutions of higher education are required to provide data on the race and gender of students and faculty to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), they inexplicably are not asked to disclose the demographic makeup of their top academic and administrative leaders or their governing boards.

That must change: Collecting and publishing demographic data about presidents, provosts, deans, department chairs and trustees is foundational to increasing gender, racial and ethnic diversity among higher education leaders.

The need for this information is particularly urgent in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action. Higher education leadership will play an increasingly pivotal role in ensuring not only diversity on campus, but also in creating a welcoming environment for a diverse student body.

Top leaders oversee research agendas, admission policies and budgetary decisions. They influence curriculum and lay out institutions’ objectives and goals for educating future generations. To do so most effectively, it is essential that their ranks reflect the diversity of the student bodies they hope to serve.  

More diverse leadership will ensure that the needs of all students, especially those from underrepresented populations, are understood, appreciated and considered. Moreover, leadership diversity enhances the exposure and experiences of a generation coming of age in an increasingly globalized world.

To be sure, higher education leaders are a more diverse group than they were 20 years ago, but progress toward parity has been painfully slow. A recent Women’s Power Gap initiative report found that only 30 percent of presidents at the nation’s top research universities (R1) are women, and nearly 40 percent of these institutions have never had a woman president. As for boards, WPG found that only 28 percent of R1 board chairs are women and a mere 8 percent of their boards have reached gender parity.

This is especially disconcerting given the fact that, for more than 40 years, the majority of students on university and college campuses have been women. Today, women earn 58 percent of undergraduate degrees, 62 percent of master’s degrees, and more than half of all Ph.D.s.

Just as troubling is the fact that so few people of color hold top administrative and board roles. Our research found that just 6 percent of presidents at top research universities are women of color; Black and Hispanic women are especially underrepresented, at 2 percent and 1 percent respectively.

It will no doubt take a conscious and concerted effort to change the status quo, but one easy way to get the ball rolling faster is to require colleges to disclose demographic information about top leadership. The NCES should add a few short questions to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), a survey conducted annually and required from any college or university that participates in federal student financial aid programs, which is pretty much all of them.

This is far from a radical notion. Even corporate America demands greater transparency than our colleges and universities. The Nasdaq stock exchange, for instance, mandates that its listed companies share data on the gender, race and LGBTQ+ status of their governing board members. Many companies are publicly disclosing leadership data from their EEO-1 reports.

Education has long held the promise of being the great equalizer in our society—but to achieve that goal, its leadership must better reflect its students. It’s high time to hold the higher education industry accountable and demand faster change.

Andrea Silbert is president of the Eos Foundation, and leads the foundation’s Women's Power Gap initiative.

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