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Minorities in Massachusetts find path to university presidential ranks difficult to tread

As the new vice chancellor for student affairs at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1971, Dr. Randolph W. Bromery had not given any thought to moving up to chancellor. But the president of the UMass system, Dr. Robert C. Wood, had contemplated the possibility. Then he made it happen.

When the chancellor of the state flagship university resigned that year, Wood asked Bromery to serve as interim chancellor and to apply for the permanent job, which the trustees gave him six months later. His elevation made Bromery the first African-American to lead a college in Massachusetts and only the second at a predominantly White campus, after Dr. Clifton R. Wharton Jr. at Michigan State University.

“I had no previous experience running a public college or university, especially one with 25,000 students,” recalls Bromery, 83. “It takes a person like Bob Wood to take that risk. A lot of people wouldn’t take that risk.”

Indisputably, Wood’s gamble worked out. For eight years, Bromery led UMass Amherst so capably that other colleges in the state kept summoning him to straighten out their management problems. He was acting president of Westfield State College in the 1980s, acting and then permanent president of Springfield College in the 1990s and then acting president of Roxbury Community College earlier this decade.

“He’s the godfather in Massachusetts,” says Dr. Charles Desmond, an African-American who chairs the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education.

After that groundbreaking start four decades ago, the history of college presidents of color in Massachusetts, a state known for its liberal politics and elite private colleges, has unfolded at about the same halting pace as it has in the rest of the country.

With the exception of Dr. Ruth J. Simmons, who was president of Smith College before becoming the first Black president of an Ivy League school at Brown University, no minority has led on a permanent basis any of the elite schools that give Massachusetts its reputation for quality higher education.

Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, now president of Spelman College, served as acting president of Mount Holyoke College for a semester. Other minority administrators have led small, lesser-known colleges, but no private university in the state appears to have ever had a president of color.

Since Bromery in the 1970s, the state flagship university in Amherst has not tapped a minority as a chancellor, although two African-Americans have filled in temporarily.

“The tragedy of these things is you end up being the first and the last,” Bromery says. “The institution has this sense we have done our diversity thing, and we don’t have to do anymore.”

Currently, the presence of presidents or chancellors of color in Massachusetts falls slightly below that in the entire nation. They make up 9 percent of the state’s leaders at degree-granting institutions accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, compared with the 14 percent for the nation that the American Council on Education calculated in 2006.

Both public and private institutions fall short of minority representation at comparable institutions. At state schools, four of 30 institutions have leaders of color, for 13 percent of the total, versus 17 percent in the country. Six minorities make up about 8 percent of presidents at 80 private schools, compared with 9 percent nationwide.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” Bromery says. “Massachusetts has prided itself on being so liberal and free. It’s not. It just hasn’t had to deal with us that much.”

The minority pipeline

African-Americans predominate on the list of about 40 minorities who have led campuses in Massachusetts. Of the 10 currently in place, eight are Black, one is Hispanic and one is Asian.

The prevalence of private schools distinguishes higher education in Massachusetts. According to the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Massachusetts (AICUM), a larger percentage of students are enrolled in private institutions than in any other state.

They educate 56 percent of college students in Massachusetts and award 70 percent of bachelor’s degrees and 80 percent of graduate degrees, according to Richard Doherty, the association’s president. “Collectively, as a sector, we’re so much bigger,” he says.

Currently, private institutions boast 50 percent more presidents of color than public schools in the state. But there are almost three times as many private ones.

Most private college presidents of color lead specialty schools, such as Boston Architectural College, New England College of Optometry and Wheelock College, which focuses on education. The Urban College of Boston, a Hispanic-serving institution, was founded by the city’s anti-poverty agency.

Wheaton College, a former women’s college near Boston, is probably the private school with a minority president best known outside the state.

Dr. Ronald A. Crutcher was hired in 2004 from Miami University in Ohio, where he was provost, a traditional stop on the route to the top. In Massachusetts, he finally found the opportunity he had pursued for more than a decade at eight colleges around the country. Crutcher, 61, is settling in at Wheaton, where he has led the development of a long-range strategic plan. “Right now, my plans are to retire from Wheaton,” he says.

Doherty of AICUM sees a trend: All but one of the presidents of color has arrived since 2003. The most recent, Dr. Tito Guerrero, who is Hispanic, was hired by Cambridge College in January.

The number of minority presidents at the state’s private colleges, he predicts, will continue to grow. One reason is demographic, he believes: The increasing presence of minorities in the pool of college-age students means a president of color can make an institution more attractive. Selective colleges, however, are insulated from that market pressure.

Isaacson, Miller, an executive search firm based in Boston, was involved in the hiring of Crutcher at Wheaton, Guerrero at Cambridge, Jackie Jenkins-Scott at Wheelock and Elizabeth Chen at the New England College of Optometry.

John Isaacson, a principal in the firm, says colleges’ interest in diversity in presidential searches has remained about the same for a decade. “I wouldn’t say it’s a trend,” he says. “It’s a plateau.”

At public institutions in Massachusetts, community colleges have been more likely to hire a president of color. Currently, two of the four presidents of color at public schools are Dr. Terrence A. Gomes at Roxbury Community College and Dr. Carole Berotte Joseph at Massachusetts Bay Community College. Roxbury’s enrollment is predominantly Black.

Dr. J. Keith Motley, chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Boston since 2007, is currently the only minority to lead a university in the state. In 2005, he was acting chancellor but was passed over for the permanent position, prompting protests. The Black administrator landed the top job after a shuffling of chancellors in the UMass system.

The senior president at public colleges, Dr. Dana Mohler-Faria, has been at Bridgewater State College since 2002. The first Cape Verdean president of a four-year college grew up just 20 miles from the campus south of Boston.

Both Mohler-Faria and Motley participated in the Millennium Leadership Initiative, which each year holds an intensive training institute for minority and female administrators who want to become presidents. The institute, begun in 1998, is affiliated with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

Mohler-Faria and Crutcher, though they work in different sectors, recount similar stories about being encouraged and mentored.

When he was just out of graduate school, Mohler-Faria was urged to pursue a career in higher education and to set a presidency as his goal. That counsel came from Dr. James F. Hall, then-president of Cape Cod Community College. Mohler-Faria gradually worked his way up the administrative ladder.

Crutcher says a mentor planted the seed for his ultimate career goal, back in 1996. Dr. Bryce Jordan, a former president of The Pennsylvania State University, “coached me through my first few interviews,” Crutcher explains.

The biggest question about the future of higher education leadership in Massachusetts is when will an administrator of color take the reins of an elite private university like Harvard University or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or even a Tufts University or Boston University?

Doherty of the AICUM suggests that time may not be too far off. He says Dr. Shirley Jackson, the African-American president of Rensselaer Institute of Technology, was a candidate for MIT’s top post and the subject of public speculation about Harvard’s during each institution’s last search.

Both private universities hired a woman for the first time. Harvard was under pressure to break the gender barrier because of widely publicized controversial statements that former president Lawrence Summers had made.

Isaacson, the search firm executive, suggests two trends may finally catapult a minority into the top job at an elite university in Massachusetts. For one, he has observed an increasing number of “prominent scholars” of color who are in their 30s and 40s. At the same time, he has detected an increased institutional emphasis on the “scholarly productivity” of prospective presidents.

“That’s the ticket to get the selectives to play,” Isaacson says. “Presidents get recruited in their 50s. We are seeing a cadre from whom we’ll see some presidents.”

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