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Climbing to the top – African American community college presidents

Rising to the helm of two-year institutions continues to be a challenge for aspiring African American college presidents

During the late 1960s, Dr. Raymond Bowen was fresh out of graduate
school and teaching biology at Cleveland State University in Ohio. His
goals at the time were to achieve tenure, conduct research, and
eventually win a Nobel Prize.

He thought it was an ambitious but attainable career plan. Then, fate intervened.

Disgruntled over the slow pace of change on their campus, Cleveland
State minority students demanded that the president appoint a new Black
administrator. As the youngest Black faculty member and someone thought
to be sensitive to student concerns, Bowen was the logical choice. He
became Cleveland State’s first assistant to the president for minority
affairs in 1968.

“Administration was the furthest thing from my mind,” Bowen says now, recalling the vents that change his life.

After several promotions, he left the four-year institution for an
associate deanship at La Guardia Community College in New York. That
post lead to appointments at other community colleges before he landed
his first presidency at Shelby Community College in Memphis, Tennessee,
in 1982. Bowen returned to La Guardia to become its president in 1989.

Three decades have passed since Bowen’s career took its fortuitous
turn. While the climb to the top may be less subject to the whims of
fate for today’s African American scholars, those who sit at the helm
of community colleges are still scant in numbers.

Research by the Black Issues in Higher Education and Community
College Week editorial staffs reveals that among the nation’s 1,200
two-year institutions, only sixty-four have African American
presidents, constituting slightly more than 5 percent of the national
two-year president pool — and that includes the eleven presidents who
work at historically Black institutions.

Several other studies and surveys buttress those findings,
indicating that community colleges — the very institutions that tout
themselves as paragons of openness and inclusion — have failed, so
far, to adequately diversify their upper echelons.

According to a study by Drs. George Vaughan and Iris Weisman of
North Carolina State University, African Americans constituted a meager
5.2 percent of all public community college presidents in 1996. That
figure increased only slightly from 191, when it was 4.5 percent.

Another report, by the American Council on Education, notes that
between 1986 and 1995 the number of minority presidents at two-year
private institutions actually dropped from 11 percent to 8 percent.

Vaughan says the low figures are unfortunate, considering that
minority students constitute more than 25 percent of community college
enrollments nationwide.

“It’s just logical that if you’re going to be an effective leader,
you’ve got to have some understanding of the people you’re leading,” he
says. “If a large percent of your student body is Hispanic, and you are
Caucasian and have no understanding of Hispanic culture, then it would
seem to me that you wouldn’t be the best person suited to make
decisions which are in their best interest.”

Minority representation among community college leadership has
remained low despite efforts by several national organizations to
augment their presence at top posts. Yet, leaders of the administrative
diversity movement are not alarmed by the current figures.

“It’s going to be a long-term challenge,” says Dr. David Pierce,
president of the American Association of Community Colleges. “Within
the next four to five years, the leadership efforts should have some
payoff. As long as we continue to invest in the leadership programs, we
will continue to see more and more diversity in those positions.”

Dr. Freddie Sandipher president of the National Council of Black American Affairs, is equally hopeful.

“I think the numbers are going to pick up,” she says. “We have a
lot of African Americans who are prepared for the presidency, who are
learning how to apply and reach out to the support networks.”

Sandipher adds that minority candidates may have more opportunities
as they inherit troubled institutions that White candidates don’t

“As institutions have more and more problems, minorities will be able to move into those spots,” she says.

And Vaughan notes that as low as the numbers are, the majority of
African American college presidents — if you exclude historically
Black colleges and universities — head two-year institutions.

“Community colleges are more pragmatic. They’re more accepting of
people not coming from affluent backgrounds,” he says. “Community
colleges also grew awfully fast and so the opportunities were there. In
the seventies, we had some very aggressive African American leaders who
pushed hard and have been very effective.”

The Selection Process

When it comes to hiring a community college president, college
oversight boards make the ultimate decision. While trustee boards
themselves are beginning to diversify, the predominance of White males
who sit eon the boards is perceived as a major barrier for African
American candidates.

“Boards of trustees have the power to approve the president and you
can push for diversity. But you can’t get away from the fact that when
they think of who’s qualified, they tend to look at the first person
who is White,” says Dr. Reginald Wilson, a senior scholar for the
American Council on Education and a former community college president.
“Black candidates have practically got to walk on water.”

Dr. Jerry Sue Thornton, president of Cuyahoga Community College in
Cleveland, says that sometimes even well-intentioned boards may feel
uncomfortable because they’ve never considered an African American

“So often we may not get into these positions because, often for
boards, it may be the first time they had interviewed an African
American,” she says.

Dr. Liz Rocklin is the director of board services for the
Association of Community College Trustees. She says that while the
association is hearing from college boards that are seeking a diverse
pool, she still hears some disturbing things.

“I hear people say, `We want diversity but we want quality,'” she
says. “Many people just don’t stop to think that they are mutually

In the 120 presidential searches in which she has participated,
Rocklin has noticed that boards have more of a problem with women and
minorities with imperfect records than they do with Whites with similar

“Unless a minority candidate has an unblemished record — no
faculty votes-of-no-confidence, no early departures — boards see it as
taking a chance. They don’t seem to see that with White males,” she
says, adding, “There’s no such thing as a perfect candidate.”

Vaughan has been conducting surveys on community college presidents
for fourteen years. He says that the women and minorities with whom
he’s spoken have informed him that even their job interviews are
slightly different.

“Women and minorities are asked questions White men are not asked
— like, `Will your family be willing to relocate? Will you be able to
adjust to being in a predominantly White environment?'” he says.
“Anything that does not relate to how well they can do the job is

However, Dr. Belle Wheelan, the newly appointed president of
Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), contends that boards know
better these days.

“Boards have gotten much more sophisticated, and even if I can tell
they want to, they don’t ask those kinds of questions anymore,” she
says. “I’ve actually said, `I know you can’t ask me this, but my son is
looking forward to moving.'”

Trials on the Job

“African Americans, women, and other minorities may face some
obstacles on the pathway, but once they get into office, they’re all
judged by performance,” says Vaughan, who served as a Virginia college
president for seventeen years.

However, his study on presidents of public two-year institutions
reveals that, more often than their White counterparts, minority
presidents perceive their job to be one of high stress and high risk.

While 50 percent of White presidents linked holding the presidency
with high stress, 67 percent of minority female presidents made that
connection, as did 52 percent of minority male presidents.

Thirty-six percent of White presidents reported theirs to be a
high-risk job while 52 percent of minority males and 56 percent of
minority females described the presidency as a high-risk occupation.

Dr. Ronald Temple, former chancellor of City Colleges in Chicago, said he felt like his every move was being watched.

“I felt like I was in a goldfish bowl,” he says. “It made me feel
as if I had certain responsibilities because I was breaking barriers
for someone else. I was frequently at meetings where I was the only
Black person there.”

Temple, who had run large urban community college systems in
Detroit and Philadelphia before returning to his hometown of Chicago,
was booted from his chancellor’s chair in March when the board declared
that he was too slow in making critical reforms.

He fought back, accusing his superiors of waging a political war to
get rid of the city’s Black leaders. But lie concedes that race was not
the key issue in his firing.

“Race plays a factor in everything in Chicago to one extent or
another, but I don’t think it was ,t predominant issue,” he says.

Temple does concede, however, that being African American has certain impacts on a president’s job.

“As African American presidents, we feel undetermined all the
time,” he says. “Finance is a critical area. Some people just believe
Blacks can’t manage money. I always feel I have to prove myself fully
capable. I think every African American president feels that.”

“We’re still in America,” Dr. Raphael Cortada, president of Central
Ohio Technical College in Newark, Ohio, adds. “Just because you have a
nice title, Black men don’t automatically get respect.”

Another issue that plagues African American presidents more than others is their tenure in office.

The Vaughan and Weismann report indicates that minority presidents
tend not to stay in office as long as White males — who, on the
average, remained in their position nearly twice as long as all other
presidents. White male presidents enjoyed an average presidential
tenure of 11.2 years, while minority males and minority females stayed
in office in average of 8.7 and 4.0 years respectively.

Many African American presidents say they feel a weighty
responsibility to the community they serve. They often spend countless
off-the-clock hours at speaking engagements and other community-related
events. Many say it’s an integral part of the job — especially,
according to NOVA’s Wheelan, for African Americans. Phelps calls this
phenomenon the “Superminority Syndrome.”

“The role of community college presidents is different than
four-year presidents in that the level of involvement in the community
is different,” says Wheelan, who will move to her new college community
in August. “The challenge that African American CEOs have is being
accepted in the community.”

“I don’t think you can be successful as an African American
president without becoming involved in the community,” adds Thornton.
“The linkage between the college and the community in which it lives
should be strong. We ask the community to support us, so we have to
support them. As African American presidents that’s especially
important in an Urban environment.”

To that, Dr. Edison Jackson, president Of Medgar Evers College, adds, “to whom much is given, much is required.”

Jackson says that in his years as a community college president in
Compton and New York, he was asked to participate on several boards and
committees and give speeches.

“I often feel like I can’t say no,” he says, emphasizing that, for him, it’s not a burden.

Rocklin says that board chairs also share part of the
responsibility. She contends it’s the chair’s job to help presidents
Who are new to an area form relationships with the community leaders
with whom they need to work to do their job.

She also says that board chairs have a responsibility to make presidents feel comfortable in their new environment.

“When one woman president came, her board’s chairman said, `When so
and so was president, it was easy to get to know each other because we
had beers after work,'” she says, “it takes a sophisticated board chair
to know that they might want to do that differently with a woman or a
person of color.”

It’s more often the exception, but some Black presidents find themselves immersed in a predominantly White community.

While in Lynchburg, Virginia, Wheelan presided in a conservative
community that’s home to the likes of Christian Right leader Jerry
Falwell, Nevertheless, she says she had no problems being accepted.

“I give the community credit for respecting me as an African American and as a woman,” she says.

However, predominantly White communities do have their drawbacks, according to Cortada.

“You may serve with a board that doesn’t comprehend your needs,” he says.

Jackson also has found different challenges serving at traditionally White institutions.

“It’s much more difficult,” he says. “In some cases you have to be [perfect] in order to succeed.”

Despite the obstacles, the long hours, the stress, and the
bureaucratic idiosyncracies many presidents say they’d rather do
without, there are positive aspects to the job that outweigh the
drawbacks — “like seeing the decisions I make have a direct impact on
the students at the institution, [and] knowing that because I was
there, I made a difference,” says Temple.

And, like graduation clay.

“I see many students who come from all different backgrounds —
people on welfare, people displaced from jobs,” says La Guardia’s
Bowen. “To see them walk across the stage when they had almost given up
hope makes it all worth it.”

RELATED ARTICLE: Climbing to the Top Presidential Routes

Experts agree that one of the biggest reasons African Americans are
underrepresented in college presidencies is that historically they have
not been exposed to the programs that lead to the pipeline. This holds
for two-year and four-year institutions.

The paltry number of African Americans holding doctoral degrees —
just 1,400 of them awarded annually to Blacks, according to the
National Library of Education — is perhaps the leading obstacle, since
possessing a Ph.D. or Ed.D. is essentially a mandate for any college
president hopeful. A vast majority — 89 percent in 1996 — of
community college presidents hold doctorates.

“It’s a major crisis,” says Dr. George Vaughan of North Carolina
State University, who has studied African American community college

Others worry that the anti-affirmative action initiatives, which
already have denied African Americans access to graduate schools on the
West Coast, will compound the scarcity.

Dr. Raphael Cortada is the president of Central Ohio Technical
College in Newark, Ohio. A man who attained his first presidency in the
mid-seventies, he’s part of the pioneer group of minority presidents.
Twenty-four years and six presidencies later, he’s not so optimistic
about the fate of diversity in the leadership roles.

“I think things are going to be more difficult in the future with
the national climate being so adverse to affirmative action,” he says.
“There’s going to be a very limited pipeline. The classic road is
through faculty positions which are usually attained through Ph.D.

Cortada was thrown into academic administration by happenstance, but urges today’s young Black scholars to be more strategic.

“The next generation will have to structure their careers more deliberately,” he says.

Part of such a strategy should include determining early on in
which realm of higher education one wishes to pursue a presidency.

According to Vaughan, the transition from two-year to four-year institutions, for example, is rarely made.

“It’s just like going from a state school to a private institution
or a liberal arts school to a technology-oriented one. The cross-over
is very difficult,” he explains. “When boards are looking for
presidents, they want someone with knowledge and experience in the
realm that they are dealing with. Over 90 percent come from within the
same ranks.”

Learning how to market oneself effectively is another crucial
skill, says Dr. Freddie Sandipher, president of the National Council on
Black American Affairs.

“Many [African American scholars] are taking the necessary steps,
but they still need to polish up on articulating that on paper as well
as in the interviews,” she says.

Several programs exist across the country to help people of color
cultivate these skills in specific preparation for pursuing a community
college presidency.

Dr. Don Phelps, a former African American community college
president and chancellor, is now a W.K. Kellogg Regents professor at
the University of Texas-Austin, where he also chairs the department of
educational administration. Phelps teaches in the Community College
Leadership Program, where he says minorities are usually well

“There’ve never been fewer than four or five African American students in a class of twelve to fifteen,” he says.

There are approximately sixty such graduate programs in the United
States and Canada that emphasize the study of community colleges.

Several higher education associations also offer seminars,
internships, and workshops designed to improve management and
leadership skills. The American Association of Community Colleges, the
American Council on Education, the Association Community College
Trustees, and the National Council on Black American Affairs offer such
programs — which are aimed at encouraging more people of color to
consider presidential careers.

And as Phelps notes in his 1997 study with Lynn Sullivan Taber and
Cindra Smith, African Americans need the encouragement, since even
those who are already college administrators often do not perceive
seeking a presidency as an attainable goal.

“Black folks usually go to work in places where other Black folks
have jobs,” says Phelps. “And that’s not typically in college

Dr. Belle Wheelan gives testimony to this phenomenon. The newly
appointed president of Northern Virginia Community College says she was
thirty years old before she even met another Black woman with a Ph.D.,
let alone though about pursuing a college presidency. In her opinion,
the mentor programs that exist today are crucial to shaping the next
generation of leaders who will seize tomorrow’s abundance of

“Ethnic minorities are going to be the majority, so the
opportunities are going to be there,” she says. “Mentoring faculty and
upper managers is highly important. Even undergrads need to be targeted
so we can move them on up and get them prepared.”

Sharing Ideas Around The Presidents’ Table

In 1983, an affiliate organization of the Council on Black American
Affairs was established to promote the professional development Of
African American community college presidents and to provide mentoring,
networking, and internship opportunities for Blacks to have practical
administrative experiences and presidential aspirations.

That organization is the Presidents’ Roundtable, and convener Dr.
Belle Wheelan says its members are dedicated to changing the
demographics of the nation’s community college leadership.

“We [African Americans] are underrepresented when you look at fall
the] community colleges across the country,” Wheelan says.

The Roundtable not only gives presidents an opportunity to guide
others, but it allows them to share ideas and, Mien necessary, to

“All of us belong to other organizations but when we get together,
it’s our opportunity to he us,” Wheelan says. “We don’t have to worry
about who’s watching.”

“We are good for each other’s mental health,” adds Dr. Dori Phelps, another member of the group.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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