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The Best Is yet to Come

The Best Is yet to ComeWomen of color have risen to the top ranks in higher education, and observers agree that more leadership opportunities are on the horizon

By Kendra Hamilton

In some ways the picture for women of color in higher education leadership has never looked brighter. “We have Ruth Simmons, a woman of amazing grace and grit, (leading) Brown University. And that Shirley Jackson,” president of Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute, “is off the charts!” enthuses Dr. Johnnetta Cole. But for Cole, the beloved president emerita of Spelman College, who has the helm at both Bennett College and the board of United Way of America, the enthusiasm has to be tempered. “We can’t think that because we have these two, we have won the race,” she says.
Other women who have risen to the top ranks agree. “Clearly there are more provosts and presidents — and more women ready to take on these jobs,” says Dr. Yolanda Moses, whose resumé includes stints both as president of City College of New York and the American Association for Higher Education. “More importantly, you have senior administrators and boards who are more willing to pick (women of color to lead).
“So the novelty has worn off — it’s not such a big deal any more to have a woman president of a Big Ten school, an Ivy, a research institution. And when those first records are broken, it creates space for other women to come in and not have such a brouhaha made,” says Moses, who left AAHE for family reasons in 2003 and now holds a dual appointment as special assistant to the chancellor of University of California-Riverside and member of the faculty at the Claremont Graduate Schools.
“But the question for institutions is the same as it’s always been,” she adds. “Will they support the changes needed to make these women successful? Are they willing to give women the authority they need to lead, or will they put up roadblocks and stumbling blocks to transformation?”
 Judging by the numbers, the answers are inconclusive. Since 1986, the percentage of women college presidents has more than doubled — from 9.5 percent to 21.1 percent — and the percentage of minority presidents has increased from 8.1 percent to 12.8 percent, according to “The American College President: 2002 Edition,” produced by the American Council on Education (ACE).
So women and minorities now hold a greater share of the top positions at colleges and universities than they’ve ever held before. Still, in comparison to their share of all faculty and senior staff positions, both groups remain underrepresented.
Women held 21.1 percent of the presidencies compared with 40 percent of all faculty and senior staff positions. Similarly, minority presidents led 12.8 percent of colleges and universities, while comprising 15 percent of all faculty and senior staff positions.
And the rate at which women and minorities are rising to the presidency is beginning to slow. Since 1998 — a year when White women held 391 presidencies, compared with 38 for Black women and 18 for Latinas — there has been only a 1.8-percentage-point increase for women. The increase for minorities was slightly smaller: 1.5 percentage points, according to the ACE study. As to whether the slowdown represents a temporary blip or the beginning of a rollback of previous gains, it’s impossible to say.
But one thing is assured. American campuses — like American workplaces generally — are in the midst of a historic transformation.
“The contemporary work force is at a different place in terms of how they want to be led,” notes Dr. Toy Caldwell-Colbert, a former provost at Howard University who’s currently spending a year as a senior research associate with ACE’s leadership development initiative.
“A lot of what you hear (workers) expressing draws upon ideas of team building, of collaboration, of individuals working together. The work force appears to be moving away from (being comfortable with) a patriarchal, autocratic form of leadership to one that offers more opportunities for shared decision-making,” she says.
The shift is a slow one, and it’s proceeding more rapidly in some institutional types than others. But, combined with the tremendous demographic shift on the horizon for America’s campuses — the fact that racial and ethnic minorities are expected to comprise more than 37 percent of postsecondary students by 2015, according to one government survey — observers agree that, as these changes gain force, they hold the potential to open up more leadership opportunities for women and particularly for women of color.
“At this point of history and herstory — because I am a feminist — I’m convinced that the leadership style most associated with women is the one that I think will have the greatest advantages in the future,” Cole says.
Both research and casual observation confirm that women have a different leadership style from men. And while there are exceptions — “men who practice inclusiveness” and “women who are into command and control,” as Cole puts it — the style is generally one that stresses building consensus and collaboration, closing the distance between the leader and the led, manifesting power “through” people rather than “over” them.
Some call this leadership style “inclusive”; others use the terms “participatory” or “distributed,” meaning that power is “distributed” around the organization. Entire research areas, complete with institutes and conferences, have sprung up around the terms “transformational leadership,” “feminist leadership” and “servant leadership.”
The names keep changing, but the models are quite similar, notes Dr. Adena Loston, former president of Houston’s San Jacinto College, who currently serves as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s education chief. “I used to call myself a participatory leader. I can also think of institutions where I labeled myself ‘transformational’ because the institution was in the process of transforming itself,” she says.
Labels are of far less importance to Loston than the substance. “The person, the culture and the institution drive the label,” she says, while the substance, for her, has always been about “inclusiveness.”
But while inclusive models generate a great deal of research buzz, Moses points out that they have yet to achieve wide acceptance. Female presidents are always praised for inclusiveness — “until they get into trouble,” she says.
Moses says the glass is only “half full” for women of color who aspire to leadership. “What’s changed is that there are more women and there’s more willingness to give them a chance. What hasn’t changed is that institutional structures die hard.
“We’re at a crossroads now in terms of how committed we are to diversity. Diversity is not just something we’re doing this year. It’s an ongoing process that’s about how we commit ourselves — forever. That’s shocking to some folks. But diversity has to be in the budget, it has to be in the strategic plan, it has to be part of the core mission of your institution. If it’s not, it’s all lip service,” Moses says.  

Kendra Hamilton was a Black Issues In Higher Education correspondent before joining the staff as assistant editor in 2001. In addition to her 21-year career as a journalist, Kendra publishes scholarly and creative work and is also completing a doctorate in English at the University of Virginia.

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