Diversifying Academic Leadership: Targeting African American Males for Presidencies of Predominantly White Institutions

Diversifying Academic Leadership: Targeting African American Males for Presidencies of Predominantly White Institutions

DeWitt Scott, Chicago State University

The Need for Diversity Within Higher Education Leadership
Since their inception, the majority of America’s higher education institutions have been lead, governed, and controlled primarily by White men. (Chenoweth, 1998; Jackson, 2003; Jackson, 2006). From the governing board all the way down to the dean level, ethnic/racial representation in higher education leadership has not been inclusive of people of color. Studies have shown that 80.7% of the presidencies in the nation’s higher education institutions are held by White men (Jackson, 2003; Jackson, 2006; Leon & Jackson, 2009).

While historically there hasn’t been much of an uproar about the unbalanced ratio of these demographic groups in leadership positions, America’s population, and consequently, college and university student bodies are currently undergoing a swift change demographically. America’s college campuses continue to have increasing numbers of racial and ethnic minorities in its undergraduate and graduate ranks. (Jackson & Leon, 2010). Such a change in racial composition has led to a push by students and the public alike for senior leadership at colleges and universities that is more reflective of student enrollment (Jackson, 2004a; Jackson, 2004b). As Jackson (2004a) states in his study on African American leadership in higher education, “fundamentally…those making decisions for a diverse student population should themselves be diverse” (p. 1). In order for higher education institutions to continue to reflect the progressive, democratic ideals of American society, it is imperative that they begin to diversify their executive-leadership ranks.

A significant portion of this increased diversification among the student body can be attributed to African Americans. African American participation in higher education has always lagged behind that of Whites, but recently has seen admirable growth, particularly in student enrollment (Bjork, 1989; Holmes, 2004; Jackson, 2003). Prior to 1954, Black students, scholars, and administrators were largely concentrated in Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) (Allen & Jewell, 2002). Much of this isolation at Black colleges is attributed to racial discrimination, White supremacy, and elitism of the mainstream predominantly White institutions (PWIs) (Holmes, 2004; Chenoweth, 1998). This trend changed dramatically after the infamous Brown v. Board of Education ruling that declared segregation based on separate but equal schooling unconstitutional. In the years immediately following the ruling, Black attendance at predominantly White institutions (PWIs) skyrocketed Black enrollment at White colleges went from 3,000 in 1960 to 24,000 in 1965 to 98,000 in 1970 (Holmes, 2004; Jackson, 2008). Since then, African American representation among students at PWIs has consistently increased.

An escalation of Blacks among college student enrollment in the 1960s coincided with the crest of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, two of the most influential and significant social movements of the 20th century aimed at demanding equal social and civil rights for African Americans. These movements manifested on college campuses as Black students began to demand, through marches and other activist activities, increased representation of African American faculty along with the implementation of Black/African American studies programs (Holmes, 2004; Banks, 1984; Tucker, 1980).

Large-scale demands for more African Americans on the faculties of PWIs were assisted by the advent of federal government backed affirmative action mandates (Jackson, 2004b; Holmes, 2004; Jackson, 2003; Jackson, 2001; Konrad & Pfeffer, 1991). At the core of these mandates was the federal government’s order that all employers that received in excess of $50,000 from the federal government and contained a labor force of at least 50 employees were outlawed from discriminating based on race, creed, national origin, or sex in its hiring practices (Holmes, 2004). The combination of the Black student movements and affirmative action laws of the 1960s and 1970s led to a noticeable increase in the numbers of Black faculty. This increase in Black faculty presence is critical because empirical data has shown that the most commonly traveled path to the presidency is through faculty positions (Birnbaum & Umbach, 2001; Holmes, 2004; Jackson & Leon, 2010).

Black Males as Presidents of PWIs
Many of the Black male presidents of American higher education institutions lead HBCUs and 2-year colleges (Chenoweth, 1998). This reality can be translated to PWIs through a number of actions. A critical first step is developing a willingness of PWI boards of trustees to seriously consider presidents of HBCUs as candidates (Holmes, 2004; Roach, 2001). As the trend currently stands, very rarely are Black male presidents of HBCUs approached with interest by PWIs for open presidencies, regardless of how successful they have been throughout their careers. As Roach (2001) states in his study on African American college presidents, “African Americans from historically Black schools are not really considered to be in the same presidential leadership pool as Whites and the few minorities who’s careers have been based at predominantly White schools” (p. 19).

Also, PWIs must intensify their efforts to recruit, retain, and graduate African American male graduate students. One of the informal prerequisites for becoming a university president is the possession of a doctorate degree (Jackson, & Leon, 2010). A popular reason given for the lack of Black male presidents is the relatively low numbers of Black male doctorate degree recipients (Holmes, 2004; Jackson, 2003). Research shows that one of the most serious leakage points of African American males in the educational pipeline is the inability to successfully complete undergraduate study (Jackson, 2003; Holmes, 2004; McJamerson, 1991). Failure at this level places Black male participation in subsequent levels of the pipeline in serious danger. If PWIs increase their efforts at recruiting, retaining, and graduating Black male graduate students they will inevitably create a pipeline of qualified Black male applicants that can compete for academic and administrative positions that lead to the presidency (Allen, Epps, Guillory, Suh, Bonous-Hammarth, 2000; Jackson, 2006; McJamerson, 1991; Jackson, 2008).

Empirical studies have shown that the majority of presidents, regardless of race, at America’s postsecondary institutions held faculty positions before moving into executive leadership roles (Holmes, 2004; Birnbaum & Umbach, 2001; Jackson 2003; Jackson, 2004b). PWIs can take steps to increase the number of Black male presidents leading their schools by making an effort to develop a leadership ethos among its Black male faculty. This can be done in one of two ways: mentoring and leadership development opportunities.

Most of the research on mentoring Black male employees at PWIs has focused on being a resource to help acclimatize the employees to often unwelcome racial climates on campuses (Bridges, 1996; Jackson, 2001; Allen et al., 2000). This same research has shown that Black males who have professional mentors, of any race, fair much better in advancing to senior administrative positions. Placing a promising Black male faculty member with a successful upper-level administrator will allow the faculty member to gain a better understanding of institutional practices, become more acquainted with institutional politics, and obtain a more comprehensive view of career mistakes normally suffered in an ascending academic career (Holmes, 2004; Chenoweth, 1998; Jackson, 2006; Jackson & O’Callaghan, 2009; Jackson & O’Callaghan, 2011). Through mentoring, PWIs can groom Black male candidates for the presidential office.

Leadership development opportunities manifest themselves in different ways across America’s college campuses. Most popular of these opportunities is the joining of professional leadership development organizations such as the American Council on Education (ACE) Fellows Program (Chenoweth, 1998). The ACE Fellows Program is a leadership training institute that prepares aspiring higher education leaders for administrative leadership positions, particularly at the executive level. Membership for ACE is done on an institutional level and in order for one to participate the institution in which he/she works must be a member. PWIs that are members of ACE and similar programs must make an extra effort to encourage their Black male faculty and mid-level administrators to participate in these institutes and think seriously about executive leadership. It has been suggested that by participating in such programs, individuals are able to build and strengthen their professional networks and let other leaders know their capabilities and that they are interested in administrative leadership (Holmes, 2004; Chenowith, 1998; Roach, 2001; Jackson, 2001; Jackson, 2006; Jackson & Leon, 2010; Jackson & O’Callaghan, 2011; Leon & Jackson, 2009).

Lastly, PWIs can focus attention and resources on supporting K-12 schools in adequately preparing and educating Black boys. As indicated by Jackson (2003), Black males are significantly underrepresented at the university presidency level because of their failure to matriculate through the educational pipeline beginning in elementary school. If the desire is to increase the number of Black males in presidential positions, “additional attention must be placed on each phase of the educational pipeline to increase the pool of eligible candidates” (Jackson, 2003, p.43).  PWIs that focus on supporting Black males early in the educational pipeline will see greater production in college ready Black male freshman, higher achieving Black male undergraduates, increased numbers of Black graduate students, and ultimately a larger pool of eligible Black male academic leaders (McJamerson, 1991; Jackson, 2008).

Due to the changing student demographics on the nation’s campuses, and the need and desire of universities to build campus climates that are more responsive and inclusive of these diverse students, higher education leaders will need to take significant steps to diversify the ranks of leadership. Historically dominated by White males, executive-level leadership positions such as the presidency will need new faces, backgrounds, and perspectives to address the new demands that an increasingly diverse student body will bring. Instituting, assisting, and supporting African American males into these positions can be a critical first step for institutions to show stakeholders, aspiring students, and society at large that they are serious about diversity and inclusion. The recommendations above are just a beginning and are not intended to be exhaustive. As The Ohio State University (Dr. Michael Drake), Kenyon College (Dr. Sean Decatur), and University of Massachusetts at Boston (Dr. J. Keith Motley) have shown, African American males can transition into PWI presidencies successfully and help move a university forward.


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