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Asian-Americans Hope To Build Pipelines to College Presidencies

Dr. Ding-Jo Currie has long been aware that she is one of only a handful of Asian American college presidents in the U.S. today. What she did not know until recently, however, is how few mid- and senior-level Asian administrators are groomed into becoming presidents.


That fact, along with myriad hiring trend data, social stereotypes, and first-person experiences were among the topics shared at a historic roundtable meeting convened by the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C., last week.  


In 2006, Asians made up 0.9 percent of all college presidents nationally, according to ACE. Meanwhile, 5.8 percent of presidents that year were Black and 4.6 percent were Hispanic. Among more than 283,000 tenured faculty the previous year, 4.5 percent were Black and 3.1 percent were Hispanic. However, the fact that more than 6 percent were of Asian descent suggests that a viable pool of university presidents is available.


The latter statistic convinced ACE officials of the urgency in making a concerted effort to form a pipeline of Asian Americans into the presidency, says Dr. Diana Córdova, director of the Center for Advancement of Racial and Ethnic Equity. Historically, such efforts have been largely confined to individual college presidents or ethnic-focused entities such as Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics (LEAP).


“Asian-Americans are the only ethnic group not equally represented in the presidency,” Córdova says. “We wanted to get at the reasons of why this is happening.”


Dr. Leslie Wong, president of Northern Michigan University, observes that the ACE roundtable might have been “a first of its kind event” among higher education institutions. Wong has mentored several mid-career Asian educators.


More than 20 sitting and retired Asian American presidents, senior administrators and tenured faculty from around the country attended the daylong meeting. Among the reasons for the dearth of Asian presidents is the longstanding stereotype of Asians as being hard workers but too quiet to be charismatic, effective leaders, says Dr. Frank Chong, Laney College president. Meanwhile, Asian faculty historically have not sought out presidencies due to humility, a cultural norm, Chong and others say.


Córdova says a recent ACE survey of provosts and chief academic officers showed that only 15 percent of Asians in those positions have participated in leadership programs, compared with more than 50 percent of their counterparts among Blacks and 30 percent among Hispanics. “When talent is identified, it must be better developed,” Córdova says.


Currie, who is president of Coastline Community College and interim chancellor of the Coast Community College District, calls such disparities “dismal and alarming.”


“The fact that many of us are viewed as modest, reserved and nonconfrontational does not mean we are not leadership material,” Currie says. “In fact, these can be wonderful characteristics for great leaders, because, when an institution achieves, such a president is quick to give credit to others. No one singularly achieves.”


Chong says he felt heartened by “a unified vision” among the individuals attending the roundtable. He added that efforts need to be stepped up in informing college governing boards and search consultants everywhere about well-qualified Asian American presidential candidates.


Others attending the meeting included but were not limited to Dr. Judy Sakaki, University of California vice president of student affairs; Dr. Bobby Fong, Butler University president; Dr. Rose Tseng, University of Hawaii at Hilo chancellor; Dr. Renu Khator, University of Houston president; and Dr. Rajib Sanyal, Ball State University business school dean.


Wong notes that this year’s Dartmouth College hiring of Dr. Jim Yong Kim as president offers hope that the Asian American ranks can increase rather than merely replace those who retire. Kim was hired at age 49. A Harvard University professor, Kim is former director of the Department of HIV/AIDS for the World Health Organization. That credential, Wong says, gives him hope that college governing boards might consider other Asian candidates for presidencies even if they are not the No. 2 or No. 3 official in a college administration.


Córdova says ACE, in cooperation with the roundtable participants, plans to compile a short booklet or other publication summarizing much of the hiring and professional development data as well as cultural norms among Asians. That booklet will be distributed to all sitting presidents, regardless of ethnicity, to increase awareness about the pipeline paucity.


Córdova also expects the roundtable participants to meet again during the next annual ACE convention in the spring to discuss additional efforts.


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