Being an 'Out' President

I can’t say I was surprised that some of the inquiries and interviews that followed my appointment in 2005 as the fifth president of Hampshire College, in Massachusetts, had to do with the fact that I arrived at the president’s house not with a wife, and certainly not alone, but with my partner of now 27 years. Of our nation’s several thousand college and university presidents and chancellors, an exceedingly small number are known to be gay or lesbian.

January 25, 2007

I can’t say I was surprised that some of the inquiries and interviews that followed my appointment in 2005 as the fifth president of Hampshire College, in Massachusetts, had to do with the fact that I arrived at the president’s house not with a wife, and certainly not alone, but with my partner of now 27 years. Of our nation’s several thousand college and university presidents and chancellors, an exceedingly small number are known to be gay or lesbian. Word was that I might just be the first gay male president of a residential college, and certainly among the first few, of any institution, who have not been closeted.

Throughout my career in academic administration I’ve been keenly aware of this particular (if rarely mentioned) “glass ceiling,” but I’ve tended to regard being gay as ultimately tangential to my roles as professor, dean, and now college president. Of course, I knew that not every college or university searching for a new leader would look at it that way. I was fortunate enough in my last post to be able to take the position that I was uninterested in any institution that wouldn’t in practice apply to its top spot the non-discrimination language inclusive of sexual orientation now quite common in the academic world. I’m proud that Hampshire was entirely welcoming of my partner and me from the first interview with the search committee through discussions with trustees and our on-campus visit.

But perhaps my being gay is not so tangential as I thought. Among those who interviewed me during my first few months was Kirk Snyder, a lecturer for the Center for Management Communication at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, who was completing a book on gay leaders at the time. Snyder began his project with a survey several years back that revealed that employees of gay managers were substantially more satisfied in their jobs than the average, and he went on from there. The resulting book, The G Quotient: Why Gay Executives are Excelling as Leaders …and What Every Manager Needs to Know was published late in 2006, and I ended up as one of the featured “executives.”

My purpose is not to give the book a “puff” -- I note that Harvard Business Review put it on its “2006 Reading List” -- much less get you to read about me. (But do check out pp. 24-26 if you want to know what I said about “creativity.”) A scholar of classics and comparative literature by trade, I’m used to reading rather different things, but I certainly learned a good deal from the book, in which, I hasten to add, Snyder makes clear that the good managerial practices and styles he identifies are easily adopted, indeed, are already practiced by managers of both genders and without respect to sexual orientation.

Perhaps it’s not so tangential in other ways, and Hampshire’s own “welcoming and affirming” stance (to adopt language used by a number of religious congregations) models institutional behavior that unlocks unrealized human potential in many different ways. The passage from The G Quotient that sticks in my mind – “haunts me” would not be too strong -- concerns a work situation that does not support inclusion and equality. The words belong to an active-duty U.S. soldier who exchanged e-mails with Snyder about his workplace -- the battlefield. “Primarily,” Snyder writes, “he talked about how it felt to be expected to put his life on the line every day for an employer that didn’t value him enough as a human being to let him be who he is in the world.” In the soldier’s own words, “Even though the people I work with think I’m part of their group, I’m not.... [T]he respect they show me … [i]sn’t real because they won’t let me be real.”

And maybe it’s less tangential than I thought to my being the best president of Hampshire I possibly can be, where “it” is now not so much that I happen to be gay but rather that I have always been open and honest about that fact, even in a world that is still sometimes hostile. For it seems to me that openness and honesty especially in the face of risks are values we should look for in the presidents and chancellors of institutions of higher education, and perhaps all leaders.

Indeed, over the past 18 months, I’ve been surprised myself by the number of times that I’ve drawn on my own experiences and perspectives as a gay man and spoken with the license of one who has never hidden this major fact of his life. For example, in the convocation remarks I addressed to new and returning students in September, I spoke about what I called “habits of mind,” some bad, some better. Among the former was the indifference, callousness, even irresponsibility that hides behind the all-too-common dismissive “whatever.”

Given the realities of my own life, there was special meaning to my also placing in this category “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which I critiqued less as a current governmental policy than as an epistemology of willed ignorance and active deception. In the context of a college convocation, a president would naturally contrast the willingness to accept half-truths and the encouragement of deception, on the one hand, and the cherished goals of education and intellectual ideals, on the other. And, believe me, I did. I also made the argument that these and other “bad habits of mind” were deeply corrosive of our national culture and, most dangerously, of our democracy. But here let me maintain my focus on college and university, not national, leadership.

I believe that students on our campuses really do look to their teachers and their presidents to be individuals of integrity and courage, willing to speak their minds honestly and openly even when it involves taking controversial or unpopular stances. Of course, there are some students, at times the most vocal ones, whose approval depends solely on the particular position defended or attacked, but this itself is a bad “habit of mind,” unworthy of the highest ideals of education.

Naturally, I do not exempt the faculty and presidents who speak their minds from the responsibility to defend their positions. No one can evade responsibility for his or her views. Certainly, if we have any hope of convincing the public, not to mention our students and their parents, that higher education promotes character, which for me at rock bottom is synonymous with integrity, readiness to take responsibility, and the courage of one’s convictions -- and having some convictions to start with -- then college and university presidents must model what it means to have character.

One does have to pick one’s battles carefully, and not every silence betokens character deficiency. There is or should be a legitimate sphere of privacy around the lives of one’s own family members, and for obvious reasons presidents and other college officials must be circumspect when asked about personnel cases, grievances, or disciplinary actions at their home institution. There remain topics aplenty that can be discussed, and should be, by a college or university president. The long list might begin with issues directly impacting higher education but would include -- and these are but a few examples -- the environment and energy policy; corporate and governmental ethics and responsibility; the criminal justice system and our rates of incarceration and execution compared to those of nations we usually consider our peers; unequal access to opportunities of all sorts, at home and abroad; and democracy itself.

I even have the sense -- call it crazy if you will -- that a broader spectrum of society-at-large, certainly broader than the blogosphere or much of talk radio might lead us to believe, is ready to applaud college and university presidents for courageous championing of principled positions well argued and well articulated. Again, there are plenty of individuals, and not just off-campus, who approach certain issues with their minds made up, but this simply presents us an opportunity to broaden the argument, to model rationality, and to raise the general level of discourse.

If my optimism seems naïve, let me draw on another lesson I’ve learned from 35 years of being “out.” You may, indeed, you likely will run into negativity, whether it is homophobia in the narrower case or disputes and arguments of the nastiest sort in the broader sphere, but run the risk. Be out there, and you can at least console yourself that every bit of resistance you smack up against is the real thing. None of it is of your own imagining. You didn’t put those walls there by projecting your fears and practicing avoidance tactics.

Even more. It may well be that acting “as if,” assuming, that is, that courage and honesty will be met more often than not with fairness and generosity of spirit, might just in itself inspire the very appreciation college presidents deserve -- when, that is, they have the courage fully to embody their public duty as leaders and communicators.


Ralph J. Hexter is president of Hampshire College. Previously, he taught classics and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Colorado at Boulder and Yale University, and served as executive dean of letters and science at Berkeley.


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