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Being presidential in dixie – African-Americans as presidents at traditionally white colleges

Black Academics Finding Fewer Barriers At Traditionally White Colleges

It “shattered stereotypes in powerful ways,” said Dr. Ruth Simmons of her appointment as the first African-American president of New England’s Smith College a year ago.

It was also a cause for celebration by many in the academy and much heralding by the national media. But Simmons’ appointment occurred north of the Mason-Dixon line.

The real testament to the changing face of the college presidency, some say, is occurring slowly in the South. For example, in 1994, Dr. Lloyd Hackley, a former chancellor of Fayetteville State University, assumed the presidency of the North Carolina Community College System. While a handful of Black presidential appointments were made at traditionally white institutions in the 1980s and early 1990s, they garnered regional publicity but little national attention, according to some of those tapped for the positions.

According to informal estimates, about 50 African Americans now head four-year colleges and universities that are not historically Black. Still more are at the helm of the nation’s community colleges and other higher education systems.

But when it comes to tallying the numbers of African-American presidents serving at traditionally white four-year institutions in the South, the numbers dwindle in comparison. When asked recently, Dr. James Walker, president of Middle Tennessee State, was hard pressed to name more than two of his contemporaries “in the Deep South.”

`First Wave’

Although their ranks are small, this is just the beginning of the process of more cross-racial appointments to the nation’s Southern colleges and universities, said Dr. Franklyn Jenifer, president of the University of Texas-Dallas and the first African American to head a campus in the state’s system.

“The pipeline is pregnant with people who are ready to take over these positions,” said Jenifer.

“Surles [Carol Surles, president of Texas Woman’s University] and myself are just part of the first wave. There are others. Those of us who are doing exceptional jobs in the South have opened doors.”

Appointments of African Americans to predominantly white institutions are becoming less of a phenomenon and more of a common practice as “a qualified pool of African Americans and women candidates for presidencies are being taken more seriously than ever before,” said Radford University President Douglas Covington.

Covington is not only Radford’s first African-American president, but the first African American to head a predominantly white four-year institution — public or private — in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

African-American candidates are no longer viewed as “tokens or statistics to include in an affirmative-action applicant pool,” adds Covington, who was appointed in June 1995 after serving three years as president of Cheyney State University.

The awesome blend of confidence, personality, professional experience and — most of all — credentials now being brought to the table has helped pry open doors to presidencies that have long been closed to African-Americans educators, say many of those who currently hold those positions.

But Covington said he knows from personal experience that being “qualified” doesn’t shield an African-American candidate from being tagged “the wrong match” for the top job.

“I think that, in many cases, there are questions in the minds of search committees and governing boards…that an African American heading a predominantly white institution would be a mismatch and that this individual would not bring to the table the kind of experience or attributes that would allow him or her to head such an institution…[in addition] the constituents of such an institution would withdraw their support,” said Covington.

College and university presidencies are “situational,” said Dr. Mary E. Coleman, chairwoman of the political science department at Jackson State University. Factored into selecting the right candidate, said Coleman, are the goals an institution has set for itself and an understanding of how quickly they can be accomplished.

“An institution hires on the basis of [its] goals, not just on a person’s vitae,” she added.

Downplaying Race

But as the lingering image of the college presidential prototype slowly fades from white male to a person of color, some say it’s more important to emphasize qualifications, rather than race.

When Jenifer was being considered for the post at UT-Dallas, he discouraged support from African-American community leaders in Dallas who were eager to see one of their own in the top university post. “I didn’t want them to be supportive of my case because I was Black. I wanted the [university] to make a judgment on my credentials,” recalled Jenifer of his 1994 selection.

Middle Tennessee State’s Walker, in an address following his appointment, congratulated the university community for “standing up” and disregarding “race, creed and gender” in the selection process. “You’re sending a very positive message to this state and this nation,” said Walker, who, by his appointment almost five years ago, became the first African American to head a predominantly white four-year institution in Tennessee.

Walker then told reporters, who asked relentlessly, “How does it feel to be the first African-American president?” this: “I am not coming here to be the African-American president. I am a president who happens to be African American. I’m the university president.”

Many of Walker’s colleagues in the North often urge him to leave the South, a region known more for its racial hostility than the “hospitality” that Walker said he has come to know in Tennessee.

When Dr. Adam W. Herbert was named president of the University of North Florida in Jacksonville in 1989, the local higher education community was accustomed to seeing an African American in a top academic post, said Herbert, whose ascent began as vice president of the North Miami campus of Florida International University.

Discussions of race, the African-American presidents interviewed agreed, is counterproductive. According to Herbert, making race an issue can bottleneck social and academic progress. But, at the same time, the presidents said they have made increasing the recruitment and retention of students of color on their campuses a priority.

“When I came here there was a perception in the African-American community that there wasn’t a great deal of interest in students of color,” recalled Herbert, who has since deployed students in the university’s school of education into inner-city schools for training. Herbert said he is also using Black church pulpits to recruit underrepresented students.

Early in his presidency, Tennessee’s Walker made a public pitch for more African-American male teachers for the state’s public schools. “African-American males will have to work on stepping up to bat,” Walker said.

With Surles’s appointment to Texas Woman’s University came the unofficial, but demanding, duty of fulfilling a host of speaking requests. Many engagements have taken her off the traditional circuit and into rural Black and Hispanic communities where she has visited out-of-the-way churches with small congregations. She, in fact, became the university’s first president to host members of Dallas’s Latino community in her official quarters.

“The relationship between the university and the minority community has not been a strong one,” Surles says.

Slow to Change

Despite some successes in the South, the winds of change in Southern higher education aren’t blowing as vigorously as they should be, said Dr. James E. Blackwell, an expert on college desegregation.

“It’s been slow and tedious,” said Blackwell, describing change there.

“There is still resistance at Southern institutions to put[ting] Blacks in top positions of leadership — such as those of dean [and] assistant department heads …. “Even rarer are appointments of African Americans to presidencies at predominantly white colleges and universities, said Blackwell, a sociologist and professor emeritus of the University of Massachusetts-Boston.

In the 1980s, a tide was turning in Florida, recalled Herbert. The stage was set and the time was right for him to become president of the University of North Florida.

“My appointment was more likely to occur here [the Southeast] than in the Deep South — especially during the 1980s,” said Herbert. “I don’t think places like Mississippi or Alabama [at that time] would have been able to place an African American in a top leadership position.”

More than a decade later, Louis Westerfield snared his slot as the first African-American dean of the University of Mississippi Law School.


The following is a list of colleges led by African-American presidents at institutions that are not historically Black:

Institution State President Atlanta Metropolitan Coll GA Harold E. Wade Bank Street Coll of Education NY Augusta Souza Kappner Bowling Green State University OH Sidney A. Ribeau Brevard Comm Coll-Titusville FL Joe Lee Smith Brookhaven Coll TX Walter G. Bumphus Bryant Coll RI William E. Truehart Bunker Hill Comm Coll MA C. Scully Stikes California Sch of Prof Psychology CA Lisa M. Porche-Burke California State University-Fullerton CA Milton A. Gordon California State University-Los Angeles CA James M. Rosser California State University-Northridge CA Blenda J. Wilson California State University-Stanislaus CA Marvalene Hughes Capital Community/ Technical-Woodland CT Conrad L. Mallet Central Virginia Comm Coll VA Belle S. Wheelan Central Washington University WA Ivory V. Nelson Chandler-Gilbert Comm Coll AZ Arnette S. Ward Chicago State University IL Dolores E. Cross Chicago Theological Seminary IL Kenneth B. Smith City College of San Francisco CA Del M. Anderson City Colleges of Chicago-Kennedy-King IL Wayne D. Watson City Colleges of Chicago-Malcolm X IL Zerrie D. Campbell City Colleges of Chicago-Olive-Harvey IL Lawrence M. Cox City Colleges of Chicago-System IL Ronald J. Temple College of Alameda CA George Herring Colorado State University CO Albert C. Yates Comm Coll of Allegheny-Allegheny PA J. David Griffin Compton Comm Coll CA Byron O. Skinner Crozer Theological Seminary NY James H. Evans CUNY-Bronx Comm Coll NY Leo A. Corbie CUNY-LaGuardia NY Raymond C. Bowen CUNY-Medgar Evers NY Edison O. Jackson CUNY-New York City Coll NY Yolanda T. Moses CUNY-New York City Technical Coll NY Charles W. Merideth CUNY-Queens Coll NY Allen L. Sessoms CUNY-York Coll NY Marcia V. Keizs Cuyahoga Comm Coll OH Jerry Sue Thornton Cypress Coll CA Christine Johnson DeKalb Coll GA Jacquelyn M. Belcher Delaware Technical-Terry Campus DE Marguerite M. Johnson Drew University of Medicine & Science CA Reed V. Tuckson Durham Technical Comm Col NC Phail Wynn Eastern Connecticut State University CT David G. Carter El Centro Coll TX Wright L. Lassiter Essex County Coll NJ A. Zachary Yamba Florida Comm Coll-Kent FL Dennis P. Gallon Florida Comm Coll-North FL Ezekiel W. Bryant George Corley Wallace State Comm Coll AL Julius R. Brown Highland Park Comm Coll MI Thomas Lloyd Houston Comm Coll System TX James Harding Houston Comm Coll-Northeast TX Elaine P. Adams Indiana University Northwest IN Hilda Richards Jefferson Comm Coll KY Richard Green Laney Coll CA Odell Johnson Lansing Comm Coll MI Abel B. Sykes Los Angeles Southwest Coll CA Carolyn G. Williams Los Angeles Trade-Technical Coll CA Thomas L. Stevens Los Angeles Valley Coll CA Tyree O Wieder Los Rios Comm Coll District CA Queen Randall Martin University IN Boniface Hardin Miami-Dade Comm Coll-Homestead FL Roy Phillips Middle Tennessee State University TN James E. Walker Montclair State University NJ Irvin D. Reid Montgomery College-Rockville MD Floyd Cumberbatch Moraine Valley Comm Coll IL Vernon O. Crawley New York Theological Seminary NY M. William Howard North Carolina Comm Coll System NC Lloyd Hackley North Seattle Comm Coll WA Constance W. Rice Northwestern Connecticut Comm Coll CT R. Eileen Baccus Occidental Coll CA John B. Slaughter Parkland Coll IL Zelema M. Harris Pasco-Hernando Comm Cell FL Robert W. Judson Passaic County Comm Coll NJ Elliott Collins Penn Valley Comm Coll MO E. Paul Williams Radford University VA H. Douglas Covington Ramirez College of Business PR Rogena Kyles Reid State Technical Coll: AL Ullysses McBride Roanoke-Chowan Comm Coll NC Harold E. Mitchell Rowan College of New Jersey NJ Herman D. James Roxbury Comm Coll MA Grace C. Brown Saddleback Coll CA Ned Doffoney Salem Comm Coll NJ Linda C. Jolly San Diego City Coll CA Jerome Hunter San Diego Mesa Coll CA Constance M. Carroll San Francisco Comm Coll District CA Del M. Anderson Seattle Central Comm Coll WA Charles H. Mitchell Shelby State Comm Coll TN Mark L. Stansbury Smith Coll MA Ruth J. Simmons Sojourner-Douglass Coll MD Charles W. Simmons Solano Comm Coll CA Stan R. Arterberry Southeastern University DC Earl M. Mitchell Springfield Coll MA Randolph W. Bromery State Comm Coll of East St. Louis IL Janet Finch St. Louis Comm Coll Center MO Gwendolyn W. Stephenson St. Louis Comm Coll-Florissant Valley MO Irving P. McPhail St. Louis Comm Coll-Forest Park MO Henry D. Shannon St. Philip's Coll TX Charles A. Taylor SUNY College at Buffalo NY F.C. Richardson SUNY-Old Westbury NY L. Eudora Pettigrew SUNY-Health Science Center-Brooklyn NY Russell L. Miller Tarrant County Junior Coll-South TX Oswell Person Texas Woman's University TX Carol D. Surles The Richard Stockton Col. of New Jersey NJ Vera King Farris Thomas A. Edison State Coll NJ George A. Pruitt Three Rivers Comm Coll CT Booker T. DeVaughn University of Maryland-Baltimore Co. MD Freeman A. Hrabowski University of Michigan-Dearborn MI James C. Renick University of Michigan-Flint MI Charlie Nelms University of Nebraska-Kearney NE Gladys Styles Johnston University of North Florida FL Adam W. Herbert University of Texas-Dallas TX Franklyn G. Jenifer University of Wisconsin-Parkside WI Eleanor J. Smith Wayne County Comm Coll MI Curtis L. Ivery Wright State University OH Harley E. Flack

SOURCE: This list was drawn from the membership lists of the American Council on Education, the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, and the American Association of Community Colleges. It may not be all-inclusive.

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COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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