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Stepping Forward

Stepping Forward

Historically not viewed as leaders, Asian Americans say, they are taking steps to create a leadership pipeline in the academy.

By Lydia Lum

As Butler University President Bobby Fong was reviewing applications a few years ago for a national fellows program that grooms future leaders of higher education, he casually asked how many Asian Pacific Americans were under consideration.  


The reason? None had applied. 

A disappointed Fong urged the American Council on Education, which operated the program, to send letters, with his signature, asking university presidents to have APAs apply. Without such efforts, APA presidents such as himself will remain rarities at U.S. colleges, Fong says.

According to ACE, there were only 57 colleges or universities with Asian Pacific American presidents in 2004. Most of the presidents were men. Fong and his peers say that among those 57, the majority preside at community colleges, campuses in the University of Hawaii system and at for-profit, regionally accredited degree-granting institutions.

“Black Americans worry their leadership pipeline will dry up,” says Fong, who has led Butler since 2001. “We, as Asian Americans, worry about even having a pipeline.”  

The dearth of APA presidents, vice presidents and high-ranking administrators in academia has multiple causes, Fong and others say. APAs have been stereotyped as hard workers and good managers, but they don’t make it through the so-called bamboo ceiling because they aren’t historically viewed as leaders, even in the business sector and in politics. Traditionally, APAs have been less likely to seek positions in the upper echelon in large part due to cultural values that emphasize modesty over self-promotion and silent acceptance of the status quo over aggressive calls for change. APAs also have lacked role models and mentors.

Several APAs in the senior ranks recall their astonishment when Dr. Chang-Lin Tien was named chancellor of the University of California-Berkeley in 1990. Tien, who stepped down after seven years to return to teaching, died in 2002.        

“Before he became chancellor, it never dawned on me that one of us would hold such a title,” says Yale University law dean Harold Hongju Koh, who served as Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor from 1998 to 2001.

For a few APAs like Koh, the path to leadership is perhaps natural. His father once served as a diplomat in the South Korean government. Both his parents were Yale law professors.

But for other APAs, the road to the top is less straightforward. Many veered from parental expectations of becoming doctors and scientists in order to pursue their passions in the humanities and in fighting for civil rights, whether it was for APAs or other people of color. And they became leaders when they realized their voices and skills could impact institutional policy.  

“I used to be a dutiful Asian daughter teaching math,” says Coastline Community College President Ding-Jo H. Currie. “But in my position now, as I meet Asian American women faculty at different schools, I can see in their eyes and hear in their voices how proud they are that we — slowly — are rising to the top.”  

Overcoming History
There’s little question that APAs are highly visible on college campuses. The “model minority” stereotype plays out especially on the West Coast with vast numbers of APA undergraduates. For example, APAs comprise about 50 percent of the University of California-Irvine,  and other UC campuses aren’t far behind. San Francisco State University records demographics by nationality, such as Chinese at 15 percent, Filipino at 10 percent and so on. 

Meanwhile nationally, APA faculty easily outnumber their counterparts in other racial groups, according to ACE. In 2001, there were 38,026 APA faculty, compared to 31,681 Blacks, 18,514 Hispanics and 2,775 American Indians.

But the APA vacuum in senior administration is illustrated by Teresa Graham Brett, who believes that as the University of Michigan’s associate dean of students, she was the highest-ranking APA during her 1998-2002 tenure. During that time, APA faculty there had trouble finding common ground, she says. Efforts to start a faculty-staff group for APAs failed amid problems reconciling the different priorities between immigrant employees and those who were second- and third generation. “Some of the immigrants were reluctant to join an activist organization,” says Brett, who’s now the University of Texas’s associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students. “They perceived activism as a barrier to assimilation.”

The scarcity of middle managers heading toward senior-level jobs also has broader implications.

“Asian Americans are thought of as very successful,” says Wayne State University law dean Frank H. Wu. “But the path to leadership is important to all Americans. We should care as a society because this is a nation where anyone can rise up, even to the White House.”

With similar thoughts, a handful of top-tier APAs have spent years trying to bring others into the fold. St. Cloud State University President Roy Saigo has published numerous op-ed pieces urging APAs to aim  for higher positions in education. And even in retirement, Dr. Bob H. Suzuki continues nudging along upwardly mobile APAs. Suzuki is president emeritus of California State Polytechnic University-Pomona, which he led for 12 years until 2003. One of his protégés, Dr. Kenyon Chan, has been named interim president of Occidental College effective Sept. 1. Suzuki convinced Chan, a child psychologist, to leave his private practice in 1990 and return to academia full-time. “He was right. It was time for me to help more than just one person at a time,” Chan says.

Since then, Chan has held several administrative posts, most recently as Occidental’s dean and vice president for academic affairs. “This is community service. I can make a difference. Who else is going to do it?”
Fong and others who have already reached the summit of academic leadership hope more APAs aren’t far behind Chan. Since Fong began lobbying for more APA applicants to the ACE fellows program, four APAs have been among the 80 individuals most recently accepted. Under the program, faculty and administrators take sabbaticals to move to another institution and “shadow” someone higher on the career ladder. The program, which has produced more than 200 chief executives in 40 years, is intended to encourage colleges to promote their own


“The four [APAs] in the fellows program are a start,” says Fong, who credits an APA mentor from another leadership program with his own introduction to the upper ranks. “I wish there was more mentoring on campuses, though, because there’s a perception that Asians are doing ‘well enough.’ But we aren’t.”   

Some minority-oriented leadership development programs are gaining popularity among APAs. The Kaleidoscope Institute, for example, targets women of color. Currie, who works with the program, says a “great year” for APAs is when five or more women attend. Most years, though, only two or three APAs are in the class of 40. “They’re more timid about

asking their institutions for support for a leadership conference than for a standard professional conference.”

And over the last decade, more than 230 APAs have participated in a four-day higher education seminar sponsored by Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics, a national nonprofit that aims to increase empowerment in general. About 40 percent of LEAPs participants are college administrators, managers and directors. The rest are faculty and staff, says Dr. Audrey Yamagata-Noji, who helped design the seminar’s curriculum. Over the years, she and other LEAP facilitators have devoted longer amounts of time on mock interviews for the participants. “Many of us were taught humility at home,” says Yamagata-Noji, who’s also vice president of student services at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, Calif. “It’s hard to talk about ourselves comfortably during job interviews.

What often happens is that we speak in third person, saying things like ‘There was this project’ and ‘The group did this.’ At LEAP, we encourage participants to practice phrases like ‘I was part of a team that did this project,’ and ‘My role in the department was this.’” 

Saigo is an annual advisor for LEAP participants. He urges them to persevere and be cognizant of the geopolitical biases of non-Asians stemming from World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

Because most seminar participants are younger than Saigo — who is 65 — it’s a topic they typically haven’t considered previously. “We need to overcome history,” he says.

Suzuki, who’s also a LEAP board member, is encouraged by participants’ feedback, calling the seminar a life-changing experience. Many participants have since gained tenure or been promoted at their colleges. “We don’t have to give up our culture to be good leaders. For so many years, Asian-Americans haven’t been willing to take the risk and try. At least, now, there’s widespread recognition that there are too few leaders and that it’s a problem.”

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