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Cracking the ‘Cement Wall’ To the College Presidency

Cracking the ‘Cement Wall’ To the College PresidencyBy Kendra Hamilton

Millennium Leadership Initiative prepares minority higher education professionals for the administrative ranks






Dr. Livingston Alexander is finishing an “exhilarating” first year as president of the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford. He thanks the Millennium Leadership Institute. Dr. Gregory Williams, in his third year at the helm of City College of New York, finds himself with a budding national reputation as a fund-raiser. He, too, thanks the Millennium Leadership Institute.
And Dr. Mae Reck, in her second year as chancellor of Indiana University at South Bend, says she’s having the time of her life.
“You’re doing so many different things you’ve never done before,” she says. “You’re meeting so many people — CEOs, leaders of boards, hospital executives, you name it. You’re learning so much about different companies and organizations in your community. You get to know mayors and legislators. And to be so involved and so informed, well, it could be scary, but it’s exciting to me. Exciting and fun.”
Reck adds that she also owes a debt of gratitude to the Millennium Leadership Institute.
Indeed, only five years after it was founded to tackle the issue of the shrinking numbers of people of color in the college presidential pipeline, MLI has helped 20 men and women — 19 from underrepresented minorities — rise to the presidency. Another 26 “MLI protégés” have attained the rank of provost or vice president. And 18 others have reached the rank of associate provost, assistant vice president, dean — or left academia entirely to take senior leadership posts in the private sector, says Dr. Marvalene Hughes, president of California State University-Stanislaus and one of the founders of MLI. In short, fully 35 percent of the 181 total participants have stepped up in rank through participation in MLI.
Hughes says she vividly recalls the group that gathered for the earliest brainstorming session at the 1998 convention of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities — “mavericks,” she says, from the AASCU’s African American Presidents Affinity Group.
“There were six of us (presidents and chancellors): Gladys Styles Johnston from Nebraska-Kearney; Ed Fort from N.C. A&T; David Carter from Eastern Connecticut State University; F.C. Richardson from Indiana University, Southeast; Charlie Nelms, who had completed two presidencies by that time and was moving into his new role at Indiana University; and myself,” Hughes says.
“It wasn’t easy to convince the ‘powers that be’ that we were going to be successful,” she adds, “but within the year, the program was founded at AASCU and AASCU has supported it heavily ever since by staffing it and devoting serious resources to it.”
The “serious resources” allow around 30 MLI protégés, who are selected through an application process, to experience an intensive four-day workshop held each summer in Washington, D.C., along with a year’s worth of one-on-one mentoring by a sitting college president.
“That was the thing that helped me the most: the opportunity to have face-to-face conversations with sitting and former presidents. I’d have to say nothing can substitute for the chance to be able to ask, ‘What were your challenges? How did you face them?'” says Williams, who had risen to the positions of associate vice president, then dean of the law school at Ohio State University, but found the presidency elusive.
Reck, who was vice president for academic affairs at SUNY-Fredonia when she won admission to MLI, says she most appreciated the training in media relations. “It was really hands-on — a very good experience,” she says, explaining that the protégés were given a problem, taped in an interview situation, then critiqued on their performance. “I was so impressed with the realistic touch.”
Alexander, a provost when he entered MLI, says he most appreciated learning from executive search firms how to navigate the grueling presidential search process.
“There are so many layers before you ever get to the stage of the on-campus interview,” he explains. “First, you have to present yourself on paper in such an attractive and appealing way that they’ll want to have you come for a closer look. Then there’s an ‘airport interview’ — usually in a hotel close to the airport — that lasts for one to two hours. After that, if they decide whether you’re impressive enough to be brought to campus, you come for a two-day interview. And every stage is fraught with potential land mines.
“There are so many ways in which if you’re not prepared or don’t know what to look for, you can make a misstep and be ruled out,” Alexander adds.
Now, of course, Williams, Reck and Alexander are living the dream. And MLI —by soliciting their participation as mentors and by introducing them to the small, yet powerful network of African American college presidents — remains interwoven through their professional lives.
“I still speak to my mentors, though probably not as much as I should,” Alexander says. “But what was so important was the encouragement that I got. I heard from people who were in a position to know that I was not defeating myself in thinking that I could advance. They zero in on qualities that they thought would serve me well in my search. And it turned out they were absolutely correct.”
Such words are music to the ears of Hughes, who is retiring after 10 years at the helm of CSU-Stanislaus. She says she got involved in MLI because she felt a “moral imperative,” having cracked the “cement wall” that seems to stand between candidates of color and the college presidency, to share the secrets of her success with others.
“The accolades that have come to this program and to me because of my participation in this program,” she adds, “have been the highlight of my life.”
Dr. Constantine “Deno” Curris, president of AASCU, says that he, too, is very proud of his organization’s participation in MLI. “I think the African American presidents asked for our support — and I know we accepted — because AASCU has always been committed to access. Our 400 institutions embrace opening the doors of opportunity as a key value.”
Of course, there are rumors afloat that other institutions are interested in picking the MLI plum off of AASCU’s tree. “Well, we are a capitalistic society. Wall Street has its takeover efforts, and we have some of that in higher education, too,” Curris says.
“Our hope and anticipation is that MLI will continue for years to come and that it will continue to have the same success.” 

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