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From the first female president of the American Council on Education to the first female and Hispanic president of Texas A&M University, women have been appointed to a number of high-profile presidencies over the past year. Yet, according to ACE’s “The American College President” report for 2007, women and people of color still occupy comparatively few presidencies. Furthermore, female presidents are largely concentrated at community colleges and least likely to head research universities. But in the following Q&As, female presidents leading a cross section of institutions are represented and speak candidly, offering words of wisdom regarding leadership skills, professional goals and presidential aspirations.


A Capstone Opportunity


DI: What has been the reaction to your appointment?

MB: The expressions of support and the offers of help — which I am keeping close track of — are well into the hundreds of messages. So it is clear to me that American higher education believes that ACE can be a force for the good, and they want to help me.

DI: What are some of the challenges you foresee?

MB: I’m hoping that the Higher Education Act will be going into law before Molly Broad walks into One Dupont Circle. It has been the focus of efforts by David Ward during his entire service as president of ACE. Nonetheless, I think we will still be facing issues that are challenging, given the decline in the rate of growth in the economy, issues around the federal debt, the political divisiveness.

DI: What are your top three goals for ACE?

MB: I, frankly, think that the strategic priorities that ACE has set out are really the right ones, and now it’s a question of [looking] within those overarching topics — like leadership development, institutional effectiveness, internationalization and lifelong learning — [to see] where we can make a difference and where we need to do some serious study before we know what kind of action plan to build.

DI: What are the major challenges facing colleges and universities today?

MB: Near the top of the list has to be the leadership crisis that we are facing, with the mean age of college and university presidents now at about 60 years of age, and whether or not we have a pipeline that is ready to move into leadership positions, a pipeline that is reflective of the changing population demographics of our country. I think we’re facing other issues around how can we be more effective in enhancing not only the college entrance rate but the college graduation rate. We’re not going to have high-wage, low-skill jobs anymore in this country, and if we want high-wage jobs, they have to be accompanied by a high level of skill and education. Issues around lifelong learning — what is the 21st century counterpart to the GI bill in the middle of the 20th?

DI: Are there similar issues at HBCUs or do they have a separate set of problems?

MB: HBCUs have a very difficult set of problems and challenges, and yet remain a very important part of our higher education landscape if we are going to be successful in building a strong society. I think they continue to be up against the challenges of serving a significant fraction of students who come to their campuses not fully prepared to do high-level academic work, coming without the benefit of financial resources that have made tutors and other support services possible for kids coming from wealthier means.

— By Patricia Valdata

‘Never Lose Your Soul’


DI: What was the appeal of the California State presidency?
As U.S. News & World Report states, (CSU Dominguez Hills) is the most diverse university west of the Mississippi, where no one ethnic group is in the majority. I wanted to be at a university that should be a role model for the country in how to prepare individuals to become leaders in a diverse global, technological world.

DI: What are the challenges and/or benefits of presiding over a university that’s part of a large state university system?
I have a fabulous group of presidents at 22 campuses, and they have been so helpful. You have a chancellor who supports his presidents, that’s absolutely wonderful. I have seen a lot of people in command and this chancellor gets our student body. The challenges are the budget. The State of California’s elected officials need to understand that education is a benefit. Education is an investment, it is not an expense, and being at the bottom of the chain for funding is not the way to go.

DI: Diverse just wrote an article about an increasing number of students starting out at community colleges by choice. You started your college career at New York City Community College, tell us about that experience.
The community college was a fabulous experience for me. My experience was that the community college opened doors because I was thinking after two years I’ll stop, yet it was the faculty members that encouraged me to continue and go for a bachelor’s degree.

DI: What is the best professional advice you have received?
Acquire all the education you can, get as much experience as you can but never lose your soul. Be who you are. There were people in the profession who said to me, oh, you shouldn’t wear such colorful clothing, or you need to cut your hair, or you need to stop wearing that type of jewelry, or you need to stop publishing about issues of diversity. I remember that advice, and I said if it takes that to become a president, I don’t need to become a president.

DI: How would you describe the racial climate on campus?
What’s happening here in Dominguez Hills is people may be coming from neighborhoods that are very segregated. Once they get here, they are studying together, and they are doing student clubs together and they are learning together in classrooms. They’ve learned to accept people for what they bring to the table.

— By Veronica P. Mendoza

Staying True to Faculty Values

DI: What drew you to the University of Houston?
RK: I was looking for a university in a metropolitan area that is globally oriented and willing to step outside the box. So far, it has been much more than what I imagined it would be. There is phenomenal diversity here, and UH already has high-quality community partnerships with others.

DI: Speaking of diversity, you’re leading a university with a great deal of racial parity. Student enrollment is about 39 percent White, 20 percent Asian, 20 percent Hispanic, 13 percent Black. Another 7 percent are from overseas. What are your thoughts on that?
It’s very energizing. I feel so much at home here. I spend a lot of time walking the campus.

DI: When you were a teenager in India and your parents told you of an arranged marriage you would enter, one of your reactions was disappointment that you might never pursue a master’s degree. You not only pursued your education in this country, but you carved an ambitious career. At what point did you believe a college presidency was within reach?
I put my heart and soul into what I do without plotting and planning my next move. But when I became a dean in 2000, a letter came to me mistakenly addressed as “president,” rather than “dean.” My husband held onto that envelope and predicted I would become a president. He has always been two steps ahead of me!

DI: What are your goals?
Student access and success at the university and beyond it. Also, the fourthlargest U.S. city really does deserve a nationally recognized, nationally competitive public institution. We are in the middle of getting feedback from students, faculty and the community before forming specific plans as part of our “First 100 Days” period.

DI: As chancellor of the four-campus UH system, how much time have you been able to devote to the other schools? One of the other campuses is more than 100 miles from the flagship.
I visited the other three campuses my second week here. I intend to visit them as often as possible and am pleased to see that each has a unique mission.

DI: Share with us some memorable professional advice you received. RK: Stay humble no matter what position you hold. Anything you accomplish is because of the work of many people.

DI: What characteristics have helped you ascend through the administrative ranks?
RK: I’ve tried to stay true to faculty values. We are in the business of knowledge. The priorities are academics and student needs. So many smart people help educate students, help them learn. I always encourage faculty to do what they do best. We work as a team. I am only one player among many.

DI: What words do you live by?
When life gives you lemons and everyone else is busy making lemonade, think about making margaritas!

— By Lydia Lum

Preparing Students to Live With Curiosity

DI: How did being an English major prepare you to be president of Sarah Lawrence?
My preparation in literature and my work as a scholar and teacher in the humanities is really beneficial in this job. Sarah Lawrence has been described as being one of the “inkiest” colleges in the country, so we focus on writing more than tests, for example. The ethos of the college is very much about writing and communication and creativity.

DI: Most people see colleges and universities as preparing them for a job — what are you preparing your students for?
In a society where college graduates change jobs — once it was 3 times, now it may be 5 times in their lifetime — preparing for a particular vocation is probably less important than preparing someone to be a lifelong learner, to be adaptable, to think of how to pose interesting questions and problems and then how to solve them, to have critical thinking skills and communication skills. This is what a liberal arts and sciences education does. I have been visiting with alumni in the country in my first year, and one alum said to me that she thought what her Sarah Lawrence education gave her was Preparing Students to Live With Curiosity Dr. Karen R Lawrence Title: President, Sarah Lawrence College D032008_WomenPrez:D032008_WomenPrez 3/5/08 6:59 PM Page 18 WWW.DIVERSEEDUCATION.COM March 20, 2008 | Diverse 19 a way of living with curiosity. That’s a very valuable resource as people go out into the world.

DI: What have been your top challenges in these first few months? KL: I have two goals during this first year, and they’re not at all mutually exclusive. One is to get to know the campus culture, to be involved with the students, the faculty and the staff closely, so that I better understand the ethos of the place. I’m trying to balance that with travel around the country to meet with alumni.

DI: What do you see as challenges facing higher education in general right now?
Making education affordable for the middle-class student without jeopardizing access for the neediest. It’s wonderful for the families who are getting greater financial aid; that’s a very positive thing. But there’s a real differential effect of rising tuitions on different kinds of institutions, and it’s a challenge for institutions not even approaching the kinds of endowments of the wealthiest institutions.

DI: How are you trying to meet that challenge?
Fundraising is a major aspect of what a president does at a liberal arts college. We have very supportive alumni, but our pedagogy is quite expensive, because it’s very tailored to the individual student. [We’re] also making an attempt to provide access to needy students who otherwise couldn’t afford to come here. I think there is a challenge now in conveying the benefit of a liberal arts education. I see a direct connection between someone’s ability to get and to keep interesting jobs and liberal arts education, but I think some of that discussion is lost in the emphasis on vocationalism. Another challenge on campuses has to be issues of security and health, figuring out how to prepare [for] and react to emergencies on campus and preserve the open campus access and policies of American education, which seems to be fundamental.

DI: Do you have any advice to other incoming college presidents? KL: Listening to the campus culture, understanding where you are and the voices of the campus culture are crucial. No matter who you are or where you come from, campuses have distinctive languages and culture. It’s important to balance what you know from the national scene with the particular ethos of the place.

— By Patricia Valdata

‘An Oasis for African-American Women’

DI: What appeal did becoming an HBCU president hold for you especially after enjoying a very public life as an economist, author, columnist, and sought-after commentator?
The appeal was not in becoming an HBCU president, but in becoming president of Bennett College for Women. I honestly do not think there would be another HBCU, at this point in time, that interested me in the way that Bennett did. My history with the college began when I was the Diversity Professor in 2005, and I became “Bennettized” by the history, the energy and the possibilities. Being president of Bennett combines many of my passions — for education, for African-American institutional development, and for the full actualization of African-American women’s talents and abilities. Further, this is an opportunity to lead, to serve, and to more directly have an impact on the lives of young women.

DI: Why turn to higher education at this point in your career?
I’ve never seen my life as a career, but instead as a series of adventures. I left teaching in 1992 to embark on a series of media adventures, including commentary, a nationally syndicated column, talk radio, and the production of several television programs through my company Last Word Productions, Inc. This is another adventure, built on the foundation of an academic background, my media experiences, and my coverage of higher education for 15 years as a Black Issues In Higher Education magazine columnist. I have never been far from higher education, having done some part-time teaching, held chairs at several colleges and universities, and consulted, spoke, or provided services to other colleges and universities.

DI: What challenges if any have you faced thus far in your tenure as a Black, female president in the South?
Nobody likes change but a wet baby, and even the wet baby cries. Transitions are unsettling to people who have become accustomed to another style of leadership and to doing things a certain way. I don’t think that many of the challenges I face are because I am Black and female, but because I’m new and different. However, it is certainly the case that my tart, sardonic humor, and my legendary bluntness are discordant in the more indirect South. I’m constantly reminded that you can kill more flies with honey than you can with vinegar.

DI: What are your top three goals for Bennett College?
1. Increased fiscal stability and more scholarship dollars; 2. Expanded academic programs, especially around global studies, entrepreneurship, leadership development, and excellence in communications; and 3. Enhanced student life with more co-curricular student activities, programming, and more comfortable living and learning spaces.

DI: Is it too early in your tenure to start thinking about the legacy that you want leave at Bennett?
Our mission is to move Bennett from good to great, and to leave the college better than I found it. I have not yet dealt with the specifics of a legacy, but instead, during this first year, with the daily challenges of higher education leadership.

— By B. Denise Hawkins

Maintaining Balance or ‘Hozho’

DI: What are your words to live by?
Balance. In Navajo, the word is “Hozho.” It means balance in all aspects of my life, spiritual, intellectual, physical and emotional. If I don’t have balance, I am shortchanging my institution and myself. I also keep a sense of humor. It’s amazing what we can accomplish if we get off our high horses.

DI: As one of only a handful of American Indian females in executive positions within the academy, how has your heritage helped and/or hindered your career?
Being Navajo has tremendously helped my career. I come from a long line of native leaders. My grandfather, Chief Manuelito, was one of the signers of the 1868 treaty for the Navajos. He believed that education was the ladder to success. He said, “Tell my grandchildren to climb this ladder.” This is the strength of my heritage that carries me in my leadership today. The other important piece from my culture includes the support of my family and community in terms of prayer and ceremony.

DI: What do you see as your top three goals for Antioch University Seattle?
I want to give some bench strength to our diversity. At Antioch, we have students and faculty from all walks of life, but as a woman of color I want to give diversity more emphasis. I want to see us walk our talk. In that vein, my last four hires have been people of color. No. 2 increase our enrollment. The campus has had a flat pattern and has even seen a slight dip in enrollment. We’ve had to deal with the Antioch College closure in Yellow Springs, Ohio, which has caused some confusion here, in Seattle. Some people think it’s the Seattle campus that is closing. We are reminding students that there are five other Antioch campuses and assuring the public that we are alive and well. Additionally, I’d like to increase enrollment among underserved populations and open the campus to those who might never have considered a private school education, particularly Native students. No. 3 increase scholarship dollars that will help bring in more students of color.

DI: What was the appeal of this position?
The biggest appeals were the innovative Native programs that Antioch has in place. The Center for Native Education, funded by the Gates Foundation, allows Antioch and its group to go out into Native communities, both on the reservation and in urban areas, and assist communities in bringing in early college programs to high schools. Participating communities have seen a 75 to 90 percent increase in high school graduation as a result. The First Peoples Program is a teacher-training program that offers Native teachers curricula at tribal colleges, allowing them to gain teacher certification. I thought, “This is dynamic, I want to be a part of this!” I also like the Antioch history of inclusiveness and social justice and change. In 1852, the university invited Blacks and women to apply and even allowed women teachers.

 — By Mary Annette Pember

A Passion for Continuous Learning

DI: What suggestions or strategies would you offer young female scholars who aspire to be college chancellors or presidents?
The first thing that I would suggest to them is to make sure that they understand what a great or an exemplary leader is and the skills needed to become one. I find that so often people get into positions of responsibility without really understanding what’s expected of them.

DI: What are some of those leadership skills that you refer to, especially ones that have helped you?
I think that it is important that a leader build trust. Oftentimes we come into situations where there is a new culture that exists. In order for you to be an effective leader and to operate within that culture, you have to build trust. We have to inspire a shared vision and inspire that vision in others about where we want to take the college. We should challenge the established process that is in place. You have to enable others to act; you want people to be motivated and empowered to do the things that they are charged to do. Good leaders should also possess a passion for continuous learning and a passion for creating and understanding the culture of evidence. So much of what we do is about making sure that when our students leave here, they are able to do what they need to do in the work force.

DI: What career benefits or opportunities have you gained in the community college system that you may not have acquired at a four-year institution?
The benefits for me have been the opportunity and the challenge to develop quality services and programs that benefit an entire group of students that fall along the entire continuum of academic preparedness; from those students who need remedial support in math, English, language, and writing, to those who are honor students. I just don’t think that I would have had this cross section of students if I had been in some other type of college. In the community college we’ve got probably the most diverse group of students compared to any other type of college in this country … the 18-year-old coming out of high school and who may have a child to the 60-year-old who may not have been working for 10 or 15 years, to the manager of a company who is coming back for refresher courses.

DI: What trends if any do you see emerging in the nation’s community college system when it comes to creating the next generation of female college chancellors or presidents?
Making sure that people who are aspiring to become community college presidents have individuals at the colleges to help them with leadership development and to make sure that they understand the importance of environmental trends. If you are really going to make a difference — and that’s what it’s about, making a difference — you’ve got to understand the environment in which you are operating. What’s going on in the country? What’s going on in the world, in the state that you are in, in the region and community that you are in? We (female chancellors and presidents) need to understand what is happening in the next 10 to 20 years and give that information to potential presidents and chancellors. And finally we need to make sure that prospective female chancellors and presidents are involved with a continuous leadership development program that trains them to become what we are.

DI: What are your top three goals for SOWELA Technical Community College?
I couldn’t narrow them down to three, I have four. We have only been a community college since 2003. Then Hurricane Rita hit us in 2005. So, I am actually in the process of transitioning from a technical college to a technical community college. We have a lot of work to do, but my top priority is to make sure that we create a simple but comprehensive strategic planning process. You can’t get to where you want to go if you don’t plan for it. I would like to double our enrollment. I think that the potential is here in the community to do that. I would actually like to build a new campus. The campus that we have is outdated.

 — B. Denise Hawkins

 ‘The Proof Is in the Pudding’


DI: You and your family lived in several Latin American countries before settling in the United States. Having left Cuba when Fidel Castro came into power, what was it like traveling all over Latin America as a child? EM: My family and I left Cuba in 1961. We lived in Colombia, Peru and El Salvador. Finally, we settled in Puerto Rico, where I started first grade and went to elementary school speaking Spanish exclusively. In retrospect, I think it was a good thing. It helped me retain my knowledge of Spanish in terms of being able to speak it but also to read and write it. At the age of 14, we moved from Puerto Rico to Miami, where I learned English.

DI: Was education heavily stressed in your family?
My mother valued education tremendously. There was no question for us kids that we were going to go to college. My four siblings and I are all college graduates. It was very much an expectation for my mother. She was always there helping us with homework, even when she didn’t know how to help us.

DI: Never in the history of Texas A&M University, the oldest public institution of higher learning in Texas, has there ever been a woman or Hispanic president. You are the first. What prompted you to pursue the position?
I did not pursue it. I was the vice chancellor and dean of agriculture and life sciences and was having a tremendously good time at that. I was minding my own business, as they say, when I got a call from the board of regents. I knew the board of regents well. I’d dealt with them a lot throughout my career in agriculture and life sciences. They came after me and made a compelling case for [why] this was the right time for Texas A&M to be led by a woman, by a minority. By 2040, Texas will be a minority-majority state, and we’ve got to educate our citizens. We are a land grant university. By definition, it is our responsibility to educate the masses. Frankly, we’re a little behind … a lot behind. Texas A&M has about a 3 percent African- American student population, which is very low. It’s been increasing over the years, but still low. We’re at about 11 percent with Hispanic students, again pretty low considering the demographics. It is one of our goals to continue doing what we can to attract these students so that we can reflect the population of Texas.

DI: Throughout the course of your career, how have you dealt with individuals that question your competency on the basis of your ethnicity or gender?
There are always going to be people that question your credentials. At this point in my career, that doesn’t even enter into the discussion because of all the posts I’ve held. Certainly, when you are brand new, you always have to prove yourself. My first job was at Iowa State University. I was an assistant professor in a department where not only were there no minorities, there were no women. I was the first woman and the first person under the age of 40. At the time, my colleagues were wondering if I, the young whippersnapper, had what it took to make it. The proof is in the pudding. *This audio interview first appeared on on Jan. 24, 2008.

— By Michelle J. Nealy

Returning Home


DI: What are your top three goals for Haskell?
I want Haskell to start acting like the university we CAN be! A friend recently advised me to quit talking about Haskell’s potential and start doing something about it. 2. We are making a concerted effort to raise awareness of our presence both in Indian country and beyond. 3. We are working to build a stronger relationship with the BIE K-12 schools (Bureau of Indian Education schools). We have created the RED center, Research, Evaluation and Dissemination, which will give our baccalaureate students credit for work on research that creates a culturally relevant curriculum for the BIE K-12 system. DI: What was the appeal of this position? LW: It was kind of like returning home for me. I had worked here in admissions for five years. My children and mother attended Haskell. I want my grandchildren to attend the school as well.

DI: Describe the main difference between mainstream universities/colleges and Haskell.
The small size is one of the most important differences. It creates a community in which everyone knows everyone else, which is very similar to Indian communities. Haskell is not in competition with other tribal colleges for students. Those who wish to remain in their communities attend local tribal colleges; those students who wish to leave home come to Haskell.

DI: What are the personal and professional characteristics you think have helped you ascend to executive level positions in the academy? LW: Persistence! I’ve always believed that I have the power to do what I wanted to do. As I get older, I notice that I am also more driven; I have a sense of urgency to get things done.

DI: What are your words to live by?
YAMSS! You Are My Success Story! As I made the decision to return to Haskell, I started thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great if everyone on campus thought of each other in this way?” So, I started encouraging students and staff to say to others, “You are my success story!” That is what Indian country is all about. It’s not about competition and ego; it’s about community.

DI: As one of only a handful of Native American women in executive academia, how has your heritage helped and/or hindered your career? LW: That’s interesting you should ask me that because my dissertation was on the stereotyping of Native American women as managers! Being Comanche has never hurt me! I’ve had opportunities [that] I had never imagined. My Comanche elders have taught me to be patient with young people; this has helped me in my work.

 — By Patricia Valdata


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