The just-released American Council on Education report, The
American College President, found that there were no gains in the
number of presidencies for African Americans. Research that I conducted
in the spring of 1996 on data collected from African American and White
women who were college presidents demonstrate, to some degree, why this
is particularly true for African American women while women in general
— clearly, White women — are experiencing progress.
I specifically looked at the kinds of jobs women had on the way to
the presidency to see if I could tell African American women exactly
what jobs were needed to gain access to the highest rank in higher
education administration. My findings suggest that the situation we are
dealing with is very complicated and not achievable merely by getting
the right jobs. There are some answers, but still more questions.
In examining the careers of African American and White women
college presidents, the good news is that I found that they had similar
jobs on the way to the presidency. Both groups followed not one career
track, but several. Actually the tracks were too diverse and complex to
enumerate. However, most women came to the presidency directly from an
appointment in academic affairs — including chief academic officer,
school dean, dean of instruction, and related positions.
Women can come to the presidency from just about any series of
positions — including various positions in student, business, and
development affairs. There are even instances where a woman can become
a college president without ever having held a position in higher
education. While this usually happened with women who were members of
religious orders, none of them were African American. No African.
American women became president directly from the faculty while several
White women were able to do so.
However, it sometimes depends on where women have these positions
whether or not women can leave them to become president. For example, a
woman can go from the position of dean of students to a presidency if
she is employed at a two-year institution. But no woman with that
position at a four-year school rose immediately to the presidency.
I found that African American women had more jobs before becoming
president than White women. This was particularly true for African
American women in the private sector, even though the amount of time
all the women presidents spent in higher education was about the same.
It is apparent that African American women have had to risk taking on
more jobs to showcase their talents, make connections, and get ready
for when the opportunity presented itself.
African American women shared more than similar career lines with
White women. They also shared similar experiences with tenure, rank,
age, number of children, and marital status. Although a majority of the
women had held rank or tenure at some time during their careers, there
are enough women who had not held rank or tenure who became college
presidents to suggest that neither is a necessary condition to becoming
However, African American women were more often married to faculty
than White women. I think this was possibly an advantage to African
American women who place a high value on maintaining intact families.
Having a faculty spouse would make it easier to move from one higher
education institution to another since it is possible that the trailing
spouse can get a job more easily than if the spouse had some other
occupation or business. But if African American women have similar
marital status as White women and have, perhaps, the advantage of being
married more often to faculty, why aren’t there more African American
women presidents? Is it possible that having a faculty spouse
compensates for some other barrier African American women confront?
Is the fact that African American women higher education
administrators are concentrated in two-year institutions a major
barrier or benefit to reaching any college presidency? It is clear that
women are not able to move immediately from administrative positions at
two-year institutions to the presidency at four-year institutions.
However, African American women have been able to move from
administrative positions at four-year institutions to become presidents
of two-year institutions.
Is working at a public institution advantageous to African American
women? It does seem that African American women experience more success
in becoming a college president when they are employed at institutions
in the public sector than in the private sector, However at private
institutions, despite having to have more jobs than their sisters in
the public sector, African American women seem to spend less time in
higher education before becoming presidents of those institutions.
White women do not share this experience.
Becoming a college president is not a simple task, and clearly,
there is no specific blueprint of jobs to do so. There were no
significant differences between the careers of African American and
White women, but is it possible that each of these not so significant
differences can add up to make one big difference.
So far, I can say that an African American woman who wants to
become a college president apparently needs to consider not only the
jobs she has previously had, but where she has had them — two- or
four-year institution, and public or private institution.
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