Many efforts have helped increase the number of women and ethnic minorities in college presidencies, but Asian Americans have not kept pace.
Dr. Rajib Sanyal carefully studied college presidents serving as panelists and speakers at the annual American Council on Education (ACE) conference earlier this semester. He paid attention not only to their words, but also their comportment. “Not a hair out of place; no clothing soiled,” recalls Sanyal, dean of Northern Michigan University’s College of Business. “A president has to appear positive in public and can’t get angry.”
The handful of Asian American university presidents around the country hope such observations and interest — along with increased mentoring — will help propel Sanyal and others in administrative ranks to the top jobs in academia.
Many efforts have helped increase the number of women and ethnic minorities in college presidencies the past two decades, but Asian Americans have not kept pace with other historically underrepresented demographics. In fact, Asian American presidents are barely replacing themselves on the national landscape as they retire. This fact appears even more stark when considering that Asian American faculty outnumber other minority instructors; meaning they clearly have an ample pool to produce executive leadership.
“It’s a main source of our pessimism,” says Dr. Leslie Wong, president of Northern Michigan, referring to sentiments among his counterparts of Asian descent. Wong was one of only five Asian Americans heading U.S. public universities in 2005, according to ACE. Wong and his counterparts continue to reach out to mentor Asian American faculty and mid-level administrators, hoping to form some semblance of a pipeline into the presidency, especially with early waves of baby boomers poised to retire in 2010.
The task of grooming is daunting, given that some of the most vocal advocates are no longer sitting presidents themselves. Dr. Roy Saigo and Dr. Bob Suzuki, who remain active as mentors, have retired from St. Cloud State University and California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, respectively. Others are in advanced stages of their careers and could conceivably retire in a few years. Wong, for instance, has worked in higher education for more than 34 years.
A glance at the rèsumès of some other Asian American presidents shows similar career and life stages:
* Dr. Rose Tseng, chancellor of the University of Hawaii at Hilo; 37 years in higher education * Dr. Mohammad Qayoumi, president of California State University, East Bay; 33 years in higher education
* Dr. Hamid Shirvani, president of California State University, Stanislaus; 29 years in higher education
* Dr. Kenyon Chan, chancellor of the University of Washington, Bothell; 35 years in higher education Nationally, Asian Americans composed only 0.9 percent of all presidents running four-year public, private and two-year community colleges in 2006, according to ACE’s 2007 edition of “The American College President,” compared to 1986, when they made up 0.4 percent.
Meanwhile, Hispanics doubled their ranks from 2.2 percent to 4.6 percent during that 20-year period, while Blacks inched from 5 to 5.9 percent. The ACE study suggested “a small but significant pool” of Asians could be tapped for presidencies from doctoral-granting institutions, where Asians made up 5 percent of provosts and deans, positions that are often precursors to presidencies.
In 2006, tenured faculty was 6.2 percent Asian American, compared with 4.5 percent Black and 2.9 percent Hispanic. In fact, between 1993 and 2003, Asian Americans saw the largest numerical growth among minorities in faculty positions, with an additional 15,864 positions, according to ACE, and their tenured ranks rose by more than 49 percent.
The dearth of Asian American presidents has multiple causes. They have been stereotyped as hard workers and good managers, but they don’t make it through the so-called bamboo ceiling because they aren’t historically viewed as leaders. Traditionally, they have been less likely to seek positions in the upper echelons because their cultural values emphasize modesty over self-promotion and silent acceptance of the status quo over aggressive calls for change. Wong, who gives frequent speeches within and outside academia calling for increased mentoring of Asian American faculty, rattles off examples of highachieving Asians content to stay put in one job.
“A good friend was provost of Saginaw Valley State for more than 25 years,” he says. “And when I met the chief of engineering for Ford Motor Company, he’d been there more than 30 years. He went down his list of Asian colleagues and employees. Same thing. Asians are very committed, very loyal to their jobs as long as they’re treated well.”
Wong often speaks at the annual higher education seminar sponsored by Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics, a national organization that aims to increase empowerment in general. LEAP participants vary from college administrators and mid-level managers to tenure-track faculty. “I tell my mentees, ‘You’ve got to contain your loyalty,’” he says. “You have to be loyal to yourself, too. It’s not being disloyal to your institution to think about your future.
“This is hard to drill into their heads,” Wong says. “I tell them, ‘Trust me; your non-Asian colleagues are thinking about their futures.’”
He and other Asian American presidents pin their hopes on rising administrators like Sanyal, who became a dean after spending a year as an ACE fellow at George Mason University. Under the ACE program, faculty and administrators take sabbaticals to move to another school and “shadow” the president or other high-ranking officials. The program has produced more than 200 chief executives.
“The fellowship gave me mettle,” says Sanyal, who had been a department chairman and faculty member of The College of New Jersey. “It gave me confidence. It gave me insight into how a president and other top people approach issues. I had a chance to meet state lawmakers and watch how the president worked with them.
“I had no fundraising experience before the fellowship,” he recalls. “That’s where I met with development officers. I went to foundation meetings; I learned who did what and how.”
The learning literally paid off. In three years at Northern Michigan, Sanyal estimates he has raised about $500,000. Some of those gifts underwrote a campus lab that is a small replica of a stockbroker’s office. Its computers simulate the atmosphere of buying and selling shares based on continuous data feeds. Software tracks market fluctuations of stocks, complete with ticker tape.
Sanyal’s honing of his fundraising skills has continued under Wong, who includes him whenever possible on trips throughout the state to call on donors. Both men agree that cultivation of donors has become a critical skill for today’s college president, yet something most faculty and department heads know little about.
Dr. Renu Khator credits mentors with teaching her fundraising and other skills that led to her being hired this year as president of the University of Houston and chancellor of the UH system. Previously, Khator was provost at the University of South Florida, where she brought in the school’s largest donation on record — $34.5 million from a couple for a research center that will improve quality of life in impoverished countries.
Khator’s career path is a familiar, traditional one among presidents: department chair, dean and provost. It had unlikely beginnings, though. Born and raised in India, her parents informed her she would enter an arranged marriage and follow her graduate student husband to the United States. Khator initially feared that marriage meant she wouldn’t be able to pursue graduate school herself. But with her husband’s support and encouragement, she not only learned English and earned a Ph.D., but she became a college instructor like him.
At South Florida, she gained an intimate look at the summit of academia when she spent two years in the mid-1990s as faculty assistant to then-president Dr. Betty Castor. In that role, she became involved in legislative issues and budgets. Among other things, she was the liaison between Castor and Florida’s state board of regents as well as numerous advisory committees on campus and in the community. She also accompanied Castor on fundraising trips.
“She would actually analyze her experiences with me,” Khator recalls. “I gained such a broad perspective. After all, it’s one thing to expose someone to something new. It’s quite another to have someone analyze her own work to teach someone else.”
That sort of teaching and mentoring is also valued by Dr. Ming-Tung “Mike” Lee, associate vice president and dean for academic programs at California State University, Sacramento. Like Sanyal, Lee is a former ACE fellow and department chair. After the fellowship, his confidence was shaken when he was passed over for a couple of positions he applied for. Then he was named a special assistant to Dr. Alexander Gonzalez, CSUS’s president, where he served for almost a year until April 2005 when he moved into his current job. “It took me a long time to find a middle ground between being overly cautious about career goals and being overly aggressive,” Lee says.
He continues his professional development through seminars such as those offered by LEAP, where he met Wong, who has become one of his mentors.
“When I see Les Wong, I see a very thoughtful man, yet an aggressive leader,” he says. “Yes, it’s possible for other Asian Americans to become like him.”
Khator, who’s as disappointed as Wong in the paltry number of Asian American presidents, pledges to mentor others. “I’ll do whatever I can if someone asks,” she says.
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