WASHINGTON — “For people of color, a chilly climate and working at an institution or organization with a history of exclusion all has a negative impact, wherever you are,” Gwendolyn Dungy said, speaking at a networking event for faculty and administrators of color at the Association of American Colleges & Universities’ annual meeting on Thursday.
Dungy, who served as the executive director of NASPA, went on to describe the feeling of isolation that administrators of color may experience when they are the only ones of their race or ethnicity in a committee or in a position of authority at a university or college. Dungy said that it was hard to shake the sensation that, at times, she was being looked at as a “representative” of her race.
It was not a burden that is easily assumed, Dungy noted, but one she took up in part in the hopes of being in a position to help other administrators from a diverse background attain similar leadership roles.
At a panel held later that afternoon, Dr. Mary Hinton, president of the College of Saint Benedict, echoed that sentiment while describing her own prior experiences sitting on committees and meetings. “On the one hand I could go into meetings and be the only person of color, often the only woman of color. So I became a symbol, where whatever I said held true for 12 percent of the population,” she said.
“You could fool yourself into thinking there was some power there, except it is not you, it’s not your voice, it’s not your ideas, it’s what you’re symbolizing in that room,” Hinton added. “So you actually end up with a sense of powerlessness, at the same time that you become a mirror of sorts. People project onto you what they want you to be.”
The afternoon panel, called “Best Practices: Building a Pipeline of Diverse Administrators,” hosted by Diverse and moderated by Executive Editor David Pluviose, looked at some of the reasons why there are so few administrators of color, despite prevalent rhetoric advocating for greater diversity in the field, and what can be done to change the situation.
Dr. Bjong Wolf Yeigh, chancellor of University of Washington-Bothell, described how slow and incremental change can be, by citing the numbers of Asian American presidents. In 1986, only 0.4 percent of all U.S. college and university presidents were of Asian descent. By 2006, that number had “doubled” to 0.9 percent.
The obvious solution to problems of few administrators of color is to hire more administrators of color. Such a move has popular backing from students, as demonstrated by protests against a lack of diversity on campus—those at the University of Missouri and Brandeis being examples of such. Yet there is an array of barriers to simply hiring more administrators of color.
On the one hand, the “pipeline” of diverse candidates is quite small, meaning that there are few candidates to choose from. Some institutions have also raised concerns that it is difficult to attract diverse faculty to campus, citing an environment that is not diverse enough to be attractive to people of color, a location that is remote or too rural, or, in some instances, an inability to offer a competitive salary.
Hinton questioned this line of thinking, saying that the problem was less one of recruitment and more of retention. “I think, as presidents, we have to push back on that,” she said.
“What are you really saying when you say ‘they’ won’t come here?’” she asked. “What is your assumption about ‘them’; what is your assumption about what ‘they’ need?”
To really bring about change on college campuses, administrators must be more intentional about who they hire or nominate for administrative positions, the panelists concluded. Yeigh said there is a vast array of leadership development programs, held by higher education consortiums annually.
In the end, substantive inclusion must be intentional and will not be achieved with a simple fix, Hinton said. “Substantive inclusion is: are we willing to change a shared governance structure to reflect the needs of our current faculty and administrators and students? If you’re not willing to impact substantive policy areas, you have to ask how committed you really are to making some of the changes we talk about,” Hinton said. “It’s easy around the margins. It’s when you get to the heart of the institution that it becomes very difficult.”