When Ralph Hexter assumed the presidency of Hampshire College in western Massachusetts in 2005, his partner of 25 years, Manfred Kollmeir, was officially welcomed with all the trappings of a presidential spouse. Over Labor Day weekend, the couple made it official, exchanging vows in a private ceremony (Massachusetts is the only state allowing gay marriage) and breaking the news last week to the campus community.
Earlier this month, the Chronicle of Higher Education identified 11 openly gay college leaders, a number that is growing but remains tiny. There are more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States.
The Associated Press chatted with Hexter earlier this month about some of the issues facing gay college presidents. His responses are excerpted below.
AP: Overall, academia is viewed as a welcoming profession for gays and lesbians. So why do you think so few have become presidents?
Hexter: In many parts of academia, whether it’s religious-based schools, many community colleges, it isn’t as welcoming, but you’re right, overall as an `industry,’ higher education is comparatively welcoming. There is a glass ceiling in most places. I think it has to do with the fact that the president is the chief fundraiser. In the older institutions there’s a fear that some of the alumni who provide the greatest support and who are more conservative may be put off by this.
AP: Is there any legitimacy to those concerns? After all, a president can’t lead a college effectively if he or she can’t raise money.
Hexter: I would say to an institution you have to decide whether you believe in your own values, if they extend to not discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. If you believe this is the best individual to lead your college, it may or may not have that impact, but wouldn’t it be a shame if out of your own fears you shied away from choosing this person? If you appoint the person you may have a chance to discover that your fears were not well-founded.
AP: Hampshire is a small school with a reputation of being quite liberal and open. But do you expect anytime soon to see an openly gay president at, say, a Big Ten school or a large, prominent state university in the South?
Hexter: It would surprise me if this development occurred first in the South, at least for an out gay president. State universities on the one hand have to be concerned about their legislatures, so they might be behind. On the other hand, they may might rely less on donors. The University of California has appointed an openly gay chancellor. If we could fast forward 10 years, I’m certainly hopeful that the senior executives at leading universities of whatever size will reflect the diversity that exists at lower ranks.
AP: Do you believe there are really only a dozen or so gay presidents? Or are there others who remain in the closet?
Hexter: There’s an intermediate stage, where it’s widely known but you would not, say, have your partner co-hosting events. Our Christmas cards say President Hexter and Mr. Kollmeir. But I know that there are many in the closet. After I wrote a piece in January for Inside Higher Ed (a Web publication), I got e-mails from community college presidents saying, “I salute you, you’re very fortunate, but if we were out we would lose our jobs.”
AP: Is the job of a same-sex presidential spouse any different from that of an opposite-sex one?
Hexter: Part of my and our sense of the great fit of Hampshire was the way the search committee and the board wanted to get to know (Kollmeir), to get to know us as a couple. I could not do the job without him. It’s important the role he plays in the social arena, but also just helping me remain sane in such a taxing job. He’s co-host with me at our home, he has represented me at our home when I have been unable to be there, and he is much loved by the board, students, and faculty. He’s just great.
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