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UW Bothell Chancellor Champions For Diversity Among College Leadership

The under-representation of minorities, particularly Asian-Americans, in U.S. college presidencies can be due to the fact that many potential minority leaders in the faculty ranks are “ignored” and “overlooked,” said University of Washington Bothell Chancellor Dr. Kenyon S. Chan, who encourages chancellors to think hard about how they develop leadership on their campuses.

“There’s a lack of real mentorship” for minority faculty who want to move up in the ranks, Chan said during a meeting Tuesday with the editorial board of Diverse. “People of color are overlooked.”

For Asian-Americans, particularly, “I think a lot of it has to do with being ignored and being invisible as a potential leader for an institution,” he said. “Many institutions have never had a person of color as a leader.  … Asian-Americans are still quite rare, and quite unique.” 

Chan is among the few Asian-Americans leading a U.S. college campus. The acute shortage prompted the American Council on Education earlier this month to host a meeting to address the dearth of Asians in leadership positions.

As a first-generation student, Chan earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate from the University of California, Los Angeles. However, the sociologist didn’t want to just teach and research. 

“I had a desire to change the system at a high level, not just the courses I taught,” he said. The founding chair of the Asian American Studies Department at California State University, Northridge, Chan later became dean at the Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts at Loyola Marymount University and interim president of Occidental College in Los Angeles.

In the two years since Chan became chancellor of UW Bothell, the 19-year-old institution has become one of the fastest-growing universities in the country with a deliberate expansion strategy that increased enrollment from 1,900 to 2,800. The student body is about 33 percent minority, and Chan hopes to continue to increase this number with outreach to local Native American communities and the growing Latino community.

His university actively promotes the Husky Promise program, which guarantees low-income students’ tuition and standard fees will be covered by grant or scholarship  support. In addition, the university promotes its Dream Project, in which college students partner with high school juniors to help them navigate the admissions, financial aid and enrollment processes. 

UW Bothell has shaped its curriculum to help students move on to careers in local industries like engineering and technology.

“Our job is to engage in the local industries around us, related to the Puget Sound,” Chan said. Though this pre-professional approach at a liberal arts university has drawn some criticism, he said, drawing upon his own experiences, it was a practical thing to do.

“We were so poor, I didn’t go to college to sit in a tree and read poetry,” he said. He wanted to have a career and make a better life for himself and his family, a goal shared by many minority students. That goal does not have to clash with a liberal arts ideal, he added. The liberal education UW Bothell students receive allows them to be flexible and thrive in many jobs, he said.

Chan’s rise has been unusual for an educator of color. According to a 2007 report from the American Council on Education, just 0.9 percent of presidents were Asian-American; 5.8 percent were African-American and 4.6 percent were Hispanic.

“There’s a lot of work to do to open those doors,” he said.

Though his ascension to the chancellorship is an encouraging sign, Chan said “I don’t think my being there means the work is done.”

Even as the student body becomes more diverse, UW Bothell faculty lags behind, he said. There are 189 faculty, and of the 125 who took the University of Washington, Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action survey in 2008, just 20 self-reported as minorities.

“It’s not very diverse,” he said. “It’s one of our most important goals that we have in hiring.”

To aggressively recruit minority faculty, he wants departments to give him diversity-recruitment plans, “not just advertisement plans,” he said. “I find that setting up diversity goals means nothing unless they recruit … . They need to call people. They need to identify candidates. They need to call chairs and departments looking for [recommendations for] candidates.”

Chan is encouraged by the UW Bothell faculty’s eagerness and commitment to this cause, but added, “We have a long way to go.” 

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