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Strong Networks Help Turn Black Faculty into University Presidents

The 2023 American College Presidents Study (ACPS) was released with sadly predictable results. The ACPS, conducted by the American Council on Education and the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America (TIAA) Institute, found that 61% of college presidents surveyed were men, and 46% were white men. Only 15% were men of color, and 13% were women of color. Despite all the talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion, the highest echelons in the Academy remain white and male.

These findings remain consistent across several studies. For example, in 2020, the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (CUPA-HR) found that Black/African American employees comprise less than 10% of higher education professionals. Whites make up more than 75% of all professionals in higher education. The same report found that Black/African American administrators in higher education were just 8% of all senior leaders. More than 80% were white.

How did this small percentage of Black administrators facilitate their success against the odds? How did they attain their positions, and what can we learn from them about the qualities and characteristics of this elite few?Dr. Ebony McGeeDr. Ebony McGee

To explore these questions, we published, Factors Contributing to Black Engineering and Computing Faculty’sPathways Toward University Administration and Leadership, where we interviewed 21 Black engineering and computing faculty members who transitioned into administrative leadership roles in their colleges and universities. The study was a piece in a three-year research project investigating the institutional, technical, social, and cultural factors that affect the career decision-making and career satisfaction of Black engineering and computing students, faculty, staff, and administrators who have been marginalized by race or race-gender dynamics and yet persisted in their fields.

As the study progressed, we wanted to explore these STEM faculty members’ transition to senior leadership administrative positions at universities nationwide. We found that some of the participants in our research had risen to leadership positions in their institutions, and we followed up with them to understand better how they climbed the academic ladder.

First, we found that most of the leaders we interviewed came to an administrative role in their institution through the usual path of serving on faculty and then rising from the ranks of administrative middle management to leadership positions. But we noticed two remarkable things about our interviewees. First, they were fiercely committed to representing Black people in the Academy. Second, they leveraged their networks, especially race-conscious networks, dedicated to uplifting Black people.

We observed how Black faculty immersed themselves in networks outside the academic world, such as churches, community organizations, sororities, or fraternities. They also participated in networks dedicated to Black professionals in their discipline, such as the National Society of Black Engineers. One of the participants in our study belonged to a group that welcomed all the Black employees of the university in question, from a janitor to the president. Where some of our respondents found no racially conscious professional networks available in their institution, they founded them.

One of the people we interviewed noted that involvement in these networks eased the burden of a common situation for Black faculty and administrators – that they are the only one who looks like them in many of the rooms in which they work. Black university leaders drew on deep roots in their community to help and sustain them, especially in predominantly white university settings where there is often a hostile culture – one that has high expectations of the Black professors’ potential service in diversity-related efforts but low expectations of their academic work.

The involvement of university leaders in racially aware professional, educational, and community networks spoke to their desire to give back to their communities. This motivation we have termed an equity ethic, a principled concern for racial and social justice that becomes a chief motivator throughout one’s career. Black university leaders had a deep desire to serve as the mentors and role models that many of them never had.

How can institutions of higher learning make the results of our research actionable to address the underrepresentation of Black administrators in leadership roles in higher education? First, universities and other institutions must find the means to support Black faculty members in creating professional networks. Educational institutions should also encourage Black faculty to take leadership training programs that increase their potential to network and gain valuable leadership skills.

Since we found that Black faculty members attain leadership positions through the traditional route, rising through the middle management ranks, institutional leaders should ensure that hiring and professional development opportunities are extended to Black faculty members who have reached the middle administrative levels.

Finally, institutions of higher education simply need to hire more Black people into senior leadership roles to make their administrative teams more diverse. We found that when Black faculty members take midlevel administrative positions, they remain in administration and have a better chance of climbing the leadership ladder. Black leaders may then serve as role models and inspirations to other Black faculty members.

Representation in the ranks of faculty and administration and networking with other professionals in the Black community: our research suggests that these are two of the common threads weaving together the career trajectories of Black leaders in the Academy. May many more be inspired to walk in their footsteps.

Dr. Ebony O. McGee is a professor in the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University.

Dr. Christopher C. Jett is an associate professor of mathematics education in the Department of Middle and Secondary Education at Georgia State University.

Devin T. White is a doctoral candidate in the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University.

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