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Lonely at the Top?

Being president is arguably the toughest job on campus. But do women leadershave to overcome unique challenges?

By Patricia Valdata

That a college or university president has a challenging position is a no-brainer. Presidents (or chancellors, depending on the institution) get paid the big bucks to worry about the big picture: capital campaigns, attracting and retaining students, creating and sustaining quality academic programs, shared governance. It’s a demanding job even when everything goes well. And when problems arise, challenges can turn into controversies that make the job a lot less rewarding. When the controversies coincide with physical or mental illness, the outcome can be disastrous. Such was the case this summer, when University of California, Santa Cruz Chancellor Denice D. Denton, apparently suffering from depression, committed suicide.

For a university president to take such a drastic step is extremely rare. The vast majority of higher education leaders meet their challenges with energy and enthusiasm. But stress and controversy are an inescapable part of the job. And for womenor minority presidents, the inevitable skirmishes can take on a whole new dimension.

According to a survey published in 2002 by the American Council on Education, the number of female college presidents has more than doubled since the mid-1980s, from 9.5 percent to 21.1 percent. The percentage of minority presidents increased from 8.1 percent to 12.8 percent in the same period. Women were in the president’s office at 27 percent of two-year colleges and 18 percent of four-year schools. Of minority presidents, 6.3 percent were Black, 3.7 percent were Hispanic, 1.2 percent were Asian American and 1.1 percent were American Indian.

Are there challenges unique to women presidents? And are those challenges multiplied when those women also happen to be minorities? Diverse asked six minority women presidents these questions. While they have much in common, these women also bring unique experiences and skills to a very demanding and often lonely job.

Leadership Training: Dr. Ding-Jo Hsia Currie, Coastline Community College

B.S., Mathematics and Psychology, Manchester College M.S., Counseling, Wright State Univ. Ph.D., International/Intercultural Education, Univ. of Southern California

Coastline Community College, which serves more than 11,000 students in Southern California, does not have a traditional campus. Instead, it offers instruction in nine cities and online. With about 80 percent of its students older than 25, Coastline offers a wide range of distance learning, evening and weekend courses. The college’s nontraditional approach comes naturally to Dr. Ding-Jo Hsia Currie, who is one of only 13 Asian American college presidents in the United States. In 1987, she attended the National Institute of Leadership Development, which offers conferences and networking opportunities for female community college leaders. Currie considers that experience “a turning point in my career, in terms of coming to some understanding, appreciation and validation as a woman and woman leader.”

Now a member of NILD’s board of directors, Currie says leadership training can provide role models for women across the academic spectrum, whether faculty, staff or students. That’s one reason why Coastline now hosts the Kaleidoscope Leadership Development Institute for young minority women. Currie says she strongly believes that female leaders need to form their own networks.

“We are now being accepted much more than before,” she says, “but we are still not part of the ‘boys’ network.’ So we have created our own networks. The American Association of Women in Community Colleges is a clear example,” she says.

Currie acknowledges that women-only support organizations don’t necessarily make it easier to navigate a male-dominated field. When she interacts with local CEOs, who are primarily male, she says she often finds herself the only woman — or the only Asian American — in the boardroom.

“The advice I always give other leaders is to know yourself,” she says. “I don’t talk sports, so when that conversation comes up, I don’t participate. I bring in other examples that I can relate to. Sometimes I say, ‘I don’t know anything about football, but in tai chi …’ I try to divert the conversation and bring an awareness.”

Currie values the importance of mentors whether they are male or female. “Men and women are two wings of the bird,” she says. “You can’t put the right wing on the left wing; we’re different. But if you have one wing not as strong, think how that bird will fly. The bird is not going to achieve its highest flight until the two wings are equally strong.”

Infectious Enthusiasm: Dr. Juliet Garcia, University of Texas at Brownsville

B.A., M.A., Speech and English, University of Houston Ph.D., Communication and Linguistics, University of Texas at Austin

The University of Texas at Brownsville is a partnership between the University of Texas system and Texas Southernmost College, where Dr. Juliet V. Garcia was president for six years. The campus is located in Cameron County, one of the nation’s poorest counties, in a border area where Mexican and American cultures coexist.

Garcia is the first Mexican-American woman to become president of an American college or university. Under her leadership, the campus has doubled its classroom space and acquired a $3 million endowment for scholarships. She credits her success to an ability to “infect” people with enthusiasm and build teams that tackle big projects successfully.

“It requires everybody buying into this kind of intense and very rewarding life’s mission,” she says. “At the university, when we hire someone new, it’s really interesting because after a couple of weeks someone will say ‘they’re in,’ and that means they’ve been smitten by this virus of commitment. People want to be part of important work.”

Garcia believes the intellectual advantages of living in a bicultural area outweigh any economic disadvantages. She proudly cites Brownsville as “one of the top five cities in the nation that sends the most kids to the national chess tournament — against all odds.”

Helping people beat the odds is one of her missions. When she saw that only about 18 percent of community college students go on to earn a bachelor’s degree, she moved UT-Brownsville into action.

“We proceeded to design what we call a community university,” she says, “one that has the very best characteristics of a community college combined with the very best of a university, without all the bureaucracy that traditionally divides the two and causes that abyss.”

Building a Team: Zerrie Campbell, Malcolm X College

B.A., English; M.S., Secondary Professional Education, Northern Illinois University M.A., English, Chicago State University

Zerrie D. Campbell is unusual as college presidents go. Although she does not hold a doctorate, she has been president of Malcolm X College since 1992. One of seven community colleges in the Chicago City College system, the college serves 200,000 students and specializes in health science programs.

Campbell began her career at Malcolm X as an assistant dean and then instructor of English and communications. She went on to hold other faculty and administrative positions within the City College system, but came back to Malcolm X as vice president of academic affairs when the president’s position opened up. Being a familiar face was not necessarily an advantage — “I knew where the bodies were buried,” she jokes — but she soon topped the list of candidates in a
national search.

“It was a challenge for people to take me seriously because at the time of my appointment I think I was one of the youngest individuals [42] in a presidency of a community college in the country,” she says.

Campbell met the challenges of being young, female and Black by not letting those factors get in the way of doing her job. “It takes less time to touch bases than it does to mend fences,” she says. She credits her years of experience and strong religious faith with helping her manage a major turnover in personnel, as faculty retired and administrators were reassigned to sister institutions. This year, Campbell welcomed three new vice presidents, 10 new administrators and 12 new faculty. With all the new faces, she found it imperative that everyone get on the same page as quickly as possible, so she hired a consultant to lead a one-day retreat.

“I wanted to know immediately after that retreat how those who participated planned to take what we experienced and apply it, personalize it and commit to it, so we would never find ourselves in a position of unfamiliarity again,” Campbell says. With teambuilding well in hand, she is able to focus on positioning Malcolm X College within the competitive Chicago higher education market.

“We do that with a ‘top of the mind presence’ of Malcolm X College as the college of first choice to improve the quality of your life,” she says. “We say there’s no place so close that can take you as far.

Giving Voice: Dr. Karen Gayton Swisher, Haskell Indian Nations University

B.S., Elementary Education; M.S., Elementary School Administration, Northern State University Ph.D., Educational Administration, University of North Dakota

Dr. Karen Gayton Swisher is retiring in December after seven years as president of Haskell Indian Nations University. The university, which was founded 117 years ago as a trade school, became a junior college in 1970 and a four-year university in 1993. Today, the institution serves 1,000 students from federally recognized tribes and incorporates American Indian culture into all of its academic areas.

Swisher, the first female president of Haskell, credits her accomplishments to the strong female role models she observed growing up in the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. She says the leadership she experienced there was much different from the traditional White male model that dominates the country. When she took over the presidency at Haskell, she brought her inclusiveness ideals with her.

“It’s very important for me that people who are affected by decisions have some input,” she says. “And so I set up a structure that gives people a voice.”

Before her appointment as president, Haskell’s key decision-making council had just five members; the university president and the heads of facilities, administration, academic affairs and student services. “I expanded that council to include other representative bodies,” Swisher says. “The faculty senate, the student senate, the union, the athletic director — it went from a five-member group to a 15-member group.”

In addition to ironing out day-to-day policy and budget issues, the council revised the existing strategic plan from one Swisher describes as “good but too cumbersome” into one in which “everyone sees their place in the process, their office, their role.” The strategic plan helped guide a recent successful self-study, which resulted in a 10-year renewal of the university’s accreditation.

Changing a Culture: Dr. Patricia Granados, Triton College

B.A., Hispanic Translation and Business; M.Ed., Higher Education Administration; Ph.D., Adult & Higher Education, Northern Illinois University

Dr. Patricia Granados’ 23-year career at Triton College achieved its highest success when she was appointed president in July 2001. Triton, located in an Illinois suburb of Chicago, serves 17,000 students, many of them Hispanic. Granados began her career there as an hourly summer employee at Nuevos Horizontes, the college’s Hispanic community center. She worked her way up through the administrative ranks — usually at the suggestion of a mentor — until she was a vice president. After the president suffered a heart attack, Granados moved into the role on an interim basis. It wasn’t long afterwards that the college’s board made the appointment permanent. The move wasn’t met with universal applause. Triton’s faculty, supported by a strong union, wanted to have a say in the hiring of a new president. This year, after the vice president of academic affairs — a Hispanic woman — called for the resignation of a non-Hispanic dean, the faculty association turned in a no-confidence vote against both administrators.

“Knowledge of the college and its culture wasn’t a challenge for me,” Granados says, “but stepping into the role suddenly and having to address some of the concerns of having been appointed seemed to consume a good part of my first year.” She attributes some of the problems to having a different style of leadership from her predecessor, who came from the faculty. Granados calls herself an “idea person and the implementer of the ideas” instead of “this figurehead encouraging people to keep moving toward the goals.”

Another major challenge, she says, is the need to affect “a change in our employee demographics to reflect our community and our student population. That means bringing in more diverse faculty, staff, administration into the college so our students can have role models.” Granados also says she wants to make the school more “adult friendly” since its students, many of whom have full-time jobs, have an average age of 31.

Granados admits that gender and ethnicity play a role in these conflicts. She says her current situation “would probably not have occurred under the leadership of a White male, because I can count how many times in my roles as vice president or assistant vice president that individuals were let go due to performance issues, and it never brought about the type of situation that it’s brought for me.”

She hopes a letter she sent to returning faculty will clarify her position. “I know the decisions I make are based on what I think is best for students and best for the institution and that’s what drives it,” she says. “There is no other agenda. And through communicating that and what I strongly believe in, I send the message.”

Being a Role Model: Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, Spelman College

B.A., Psychology, Wesleyan University M.A., Ph.D., Clinical Psychology, University of Michigan

Spelman College, founded in 1881, is a historically Black liberal arts college in Atlanta, serving more than 2,100 young women. Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum is only the third Black woman to be president of the college.

She acknowledges the difficulty of leading an institution for anyone, “no matter what your ethnic or gender background is, because one of the challenges when you are the person at the top of the organization is that you don’t really have peers in the organization to talk to.” She thinks this can be especially difficult for minority women. “The risk of isolation perhaps is higher,” she says, “in part because the number of us in these kinds of positions is small.”

There are also expectations put on college presidents who happen to be minorities, she says. But the experience at a historically Black college or university may be different than they would be at a non-HBCU. “My job was made easier by the fact there were other women before me,” she says. “The student community really values having someone who looks like them in a leadership role.”

Being a role model makes Tatum more aware of health issues like diabetes that disproportionately affect the African-American community. Educating the students and encouraging healthy lifestyle choices means that Tatum herself must set an example, so she carves time for exercise into her daily schedule.

She says perhaps her hardest challenge was accepting the position while her younger son was still in high school and her husband was a college professor in Massachusetts. “We made a difficult family decision collectively,” she says. “David would finish high school in Massachusetts, and my husband would continue in his position until David finished high school, and then he would take an early retirement plan and join me here in Atlanta.” They lived in separate states for two years, although they were able to be together between semesters.

Like her colleagues, Tatum works to develop the leadership skills of other minority women, especially the young women on her campus. Spelman opened its Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement in 2003 and has sponsored an annual symposium since 2004.

“I feel like we’ve accomplished a lot in a relatively short period of time,” Tatum says. “But I do think one of the things that leaders sometimes fall prey to, and something I am working on, is communicate, communicate, communicate. Working hard to be sure that we are sufficiently communicating to all our constituents our goals and objectives, and listening to all our constituents so they really feel like they’ve had a chance to have their input, is something we must continually work on — I must continually work on — and I think that’s true for every leader.”

What the Research Shows

A common thread among all six presidents interviewed for this story is an awareness of their own leadership styles and a perception that a woman’s leadership style is usually different from that of a man. But a willingness to take risks may better determine whether a college president will be successful, according to the results of a survey by Dr. James. L. Fisher and Dr. James. V. Koch, and the dissertation of Dr. Alice R. McAdory, director of admissions at Old Dominion University.

Fisher, president emeritus of Towson University, and Koch, president emeritus of Old Dominion, asked experts in higher education to designate their sample of 700 presidents as successful and effective or not. Together with McAdory, who used the data in her 2004 dissertation “Transactional and Transformational Leadership Styles: Differences Between Representative and Peer Nominated Effective Presidents and as a Function of Gender and Institution Type,” they evaluated the results.

The three researchers discovered, not surprisingly, that the most successful presidents were entrepreneurial risk-takers with a “take charge” style of management. What surprised them is that women college presidents were about 10 percent more likely to upset the status quo.

“Women are more inclined to take risks and more inclined to ‘think out of the box,’ to use a stale metaphor,” Koch says. “Women are a little more open to individuals who do not necessarily agree with them and individuals who are culturally different. That said, a lot of the differences cited in feminist literature about how women manage, we didn’t find to be true at all. Their behavior is really more like men. Women presidents who are considered by outsiders as being most successful, these women were individuals who tended to reflect stereotypical men: driven, not consensus minded.”

Koch acknowledges, however, that both male and female college presidents see themselves as consensus-building, transformational leaders. The reality, he says, is that “action is different from rhetoric. Most college presidents talk about taking risks but not so many of them actually do it. They’re fairly conservative in terms of behavior, rather transactional in approach.”

— By Patricia Valdata

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