On Saturday at a meeting sponsored by the Education Writers Association, L. Ling-chi Wang told a group of journalists that Asian Americans were "marginalized" and "invisible" at the top rungs of American higher education, despite considerable success as students and professors at many institutions. Wang, who teaches at the University of California at Berkeley and was one of the founders of Asian Americans in Higher Education, recalled a joint conference planned by Asian American studies and black studies scholars at Berkeley. The latter group planned to invite all the black presidents of colleges in the country, and so proposed to Wang that he provide a list of all the Asian American presidents so they could be invited as well.
"What list? I can count them on my hand," he recalled saying at the time.
The list just got longer. Dartmouth College on Monday named Jim Yong Kim  as its next president. Kim is chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard University, previously led the World Health Organization's HIV/AIDS program, holds degrees in anthropology and medicine, and has won numerous honors, including the MacArthur "genius" fellowship.
Kim, 49, has mixed a career in academe with one in public health and world development, winning praise in both. And in a sign of multi-tasking abilities, he accepted the Dartmouth presidency three days after he and his wife (a physician) welcomed their second son into the world.
In terms of higher education history, however, Kim may attract much attention because he was born in Korea and came to the United States at the age of 5. Kim will become the first Asian American to lead an Ivy League institution. While Wang could no longer count Asian American presidents on one hand, their numbers remain small. According to data from the American Council on Education,  Asian Americans make up 0.9 percent of college presidents (by comparison, 5.9 percent of presidents are black and 4.6 percent are Latino).
And only 1.9 percent of provosts are Asian American, along with 2.8 percent of deans -- even as many elite colleges have large percentages of Asian American students. (At Dartmouth, 14 percent of the most recent class to enroll is Asian American.)
Among the elite colleges and universities, Wang noted that only Berkeley has been led by an Asian American. Chang-Lin Tien,  who died in 2002, was chancellor from 1990-97. Wang said in an interview Monday that he was "elated" about Kim's appointment, and said that it was key for administrators and boards to see an institution like Dartmouth make such a choice. "This is an incredibly important appointment," Wang said.
In an interview Monday morning, while en route to Hanover, N.H., to be introduced to students and faculty members, Kim said he realized that because relatively few Asian Americans have held senior positions in higher education, the news of his appointment would be "the first of many" such announcements. He noted that his background -- running major programs, but not serving as a dean or provost -- was unconventional for a college president, and he suggested that college search committees may want to cast wider nets to include people with such backgrounds as a way to attract more diverse pools.
James P. Ferrare, a senior consultant with Academic Search, which advises college boards on presidential hiring (and which played no role in the Dartmouth search), said he thought the appointment was "significant" and might prompt search committees to think differently. Too many boards, he said, "don't have the familiarity" with the talent available for senior positions.
"I think there are many really high quality Asian American administrators who have not gotten to the presidency as fast as some would have liked," he said. Ferrare said he thought it was important for firms such as his to reach out to identify more candidates, and he encouraged those who want to be provosts and presidents to contact the consultants. Ferrare also agreed with Kim that the key may be broadening the search criteria "outside of the traditional step of being a dean or provost first."
Rosalind S. Chou, a doctoral student at Texas A&M University and co-author of The Myth of the Model Minority: Asian Americans Facing Racism, also spoke Saturday to education journalists about the lack of power of Asian Americans in academe. She said Monday that the appointment was "great" and that it was important to see such a move.
At the same time, she cautioned that just as the election of President Obama did not erase issues of racism in American society, neither does the elevation of more Asian American leaders. She said the most powerful impact of Kim's appointment may be in showing other Asian Americans "what they can do," now that there has been "another crack in a glass ceiling."
Leslie Wong, president of Northern Michigan University, is one of the few Asian American university presidents today. He said on Monday that Asian Americans advance at high rates to jobs as professors, department chairs and lower level administrative positions, but that then they hit the "bamboo ceiling," as many call it. "We have no idea what is going on but the data are unmistakable. It is most benign but if the label was 'African American' or 'female' I'm sure the discussion would be louder," Wong said. He called the news about Kim "fantastic."
The Job at Hand
While experts on diversity in higher education were noting the significance of Kim's selection for Asian Americans, Dartmouth's new president will take over at a time of economic difficulty even for wealthy institutions like the one he now leads. In an interview, he said that his approach to the current frugality would be "strategic," and he said it was important for the college to protect key values and programs -- such as undergraduate teaching. He said that he rejected the idea of economizing through across-the-board cuts, which he characterized as "demoralizing" and having the potential to endanger key programs.
Kim also noted the "incredible loyalty" of Dartmouth alumni and said that he believed that because of their philanthropy, the college "will be able to move forward more quickly" than will other colleges. "You see Dartmouth alumni who are just crazy about this school," he said.
In recent years, even as Dartmouth's leaders have enjoyed strong faculty support, some of those alumni have been deeply critical of the college, saying that its governance changes have deprived them of their traditional say in selecting board members,  and accusing the college's leaders of neglecting athletics, being hostile to the Greek system, and -- in a comment frequent among critics -- trying to turn Dartmouth into Harvard. As a Harvard-educated Harvard professor, Kim might reinforce the concerns of these alumni. But he seemed determined to stress the ways in which he embraces Dartmouth's traditions.
The press release about his appointment notes that he was a quarterback on his high school football team. In the interview, he said that "far from trying to turn Dartmouth into any other kind of institution, my job will be to preserve Dartmouth's strengths," which he said include undergraduate education with courses taught by tenure track faculty members -- and also robust fraternity and sorority systems, and athletic programs.
In his acceptance speech in Hanover, Kim also linked his interest in becoming president to the legacy of John Sloan Dickey,  the college's president from 1945-70, who also had a non-academic career before leading Dartmouth, and who encouraged students to think about their responsibilities in the world at large.
Kim said that he had lengthy conversations with some of the alumni leaders who have been critical of the college's direction, and that he was confident that they were ready to work with him. "I have never been one who has participated in the so-called culture wars," he said. "I'm involved in projects that tackle serious problems."