The Best Is Yet to Come: Women of Color Have Risen to the Top Ranks in Higher Education, and Observers Agree That More Leadership Opportunities Are on the Horizon

Article excerpt

In some ways the picture for women of color in higher education leadership has never looked blighter. "We have Ruth Simmons, a woman of amazing grace and grit, (leading) Brown University. And that Shirley Jackson," president of Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute, "is off the charts!" enthuses Dr. Johnnetta Cole. But for Cole, the beloved president emerita of Spelman College, who has the helm at both Bennett College and the board of United Way of America, the enthusiasm has to be tempered. "We can't think that because we have these two, we have won the race," she says.

Other women who have risen to the top ranks agree. "Clearly there are more provosts and presidents--and more women ready to take on these jobs," says Dr. Yolanda Moses, whose resume includes stints both as president of City College of New York and the American Association for Higher Education. "More importantly, you have senior administrators and boards who are more willing to pick (women of color to lead).

"So the novelty has worn off--it's not such a big deal any more to have a woman president of a Big Ten school, an Ivy, a research institution. And when those first records are broken, it creates space for other women to come in and not have such a brouhaha made," says Moses, who left AAHE for family reasons in 2003 and now holds a dual appointment as special assistant to the chancellor of University of California-Riverside and member of the faculty at the Claremont Graduate Schools.

"But the question for institutions is the same as it's always been," she adds. "Will they support the changes needed to make these women successful? Are they willing to give women the authority they need to lead, or will they put up roadblocks and stumbling blocks to transformation?"

Judging by the numbers, the answers are inconclusive. Since 1986, the percentage of women college presidents has more than doubled--from 9.5 percent to 21.1 percent--and the percentage of minority presidents has increased from 8.1 percent to 12.8 percent, according to "The American College President: 2002 Edition," produced by the American Council on Education (ACE).

So women and minorities now hold a greater share of the top positions at colleges and universities than they've ever held before. Still, in comparison to their share of all faculty and senior staff positions, both groups remain underrepresented.

Women held 21.1 percent of the presidencies compared with 40 percent of all faculty and senior staff positions. Similarly, minority presidents led 12.8 percent of colleges and universities, while comprising 15 percent of all faculty and senior staff positions.

And the rate at which women and minorities are rising to the presidency is beginning to slow. Since 1998--a year when White women held 391 presidencies, compared with 38 for Black women and 18 for Latinas--there has been only a 1.8-percentage-point increase for women. The increase for minorities was slightly smaller: 1.5 percentage points, according to the ACE study. As to whether the slowdown represents a temporary blip or the beginning of a rollback of previous gains, it's impossible to say.

But one thing is assured. American campuses--like American workplaces generally--are in the midst of a historic transformation.

"The contemporary work force is at a different place in terms of how they want to be led," notes Dr. Toy Caldwell-Colbert, a former provost at Howard University who's currently spending a year as a senior research associate with ACE's leadership development initiative.

"A lot of what you hear (workers) expressing draws upon ideas of team building, of collaboration, of individuals working together. The work force appears to be moving away from (being comfortable with) a patriarchal, autocratic form of leadership to one that offers more opportunities for shared decision-making," she says.

The shift is a slow one, and it's proceeding more rapidly in some institutional types than others. …