African American College Presidents in Decline

Article excerpt

Yet the pipeline of Black scholars poised to assume presidential status is growing

While higher education continues to be at odds over the toll the affirmative action backlash is exacting on African American student enrollment, the declining ranks of African American college and university presidents have, barely been noticed.

According to research by Black Issues In Higher Education, there are currently 105 African American presidents at traditionally White institutions, four of whom are about to retire. In 1996, there were 113. The majority of Black presidents head two-year institutions, with only thirty-six leading four-year schools. In addition to the chief executives of the 102 historically Black institutions (most of whom are Black), that means approximately 200 institutions out of the roughly 3,800 colleges and universities in the nation -- both two-year and four-year -- are headed by African Americans.

"I'm disappointed in the numbers," says Dr. James C. Renick, chancellor of the University of Michigan-Dearborn. "You would think that in 1998 there would be more people of color assuming roles of leadership in education, because education has been so important to our community."

Dr. Gladys Styles Johnston, chancellor of the University of Nebraska-Kearney, says, "There are fewer today than when I started five years ago. The presidency is a high-turnover job and people are moving on."

Johnston is one of those who attribute the loss of numbers to the "entire affirmative action debate." At one time, she says "many employers would make [race] one of the factors, along with qualifications.... [Now] there is a certain segment of society where the trends of the last fifteen years are being reversed."

Dr. Albert C. Yates, president of Colorado State University, agrees, adding, "When you combine what's happening with the complexion of the student body with Proposition 209 in California and what has happened in Texas,... you have to believe that there is some relationship to what we are beginning to see in terms of the strength of the level of commitment to hiring presidents. It shouldn't come as too much of a surprise."

Proposition 209 is the referendum passed in California in 1996 banning the use of any affirmative action by the state government. In Texas, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals banned the use of affirmative action in university admissions in a case known as Hopwood.

Hope for the Future

However, Yates said the recent appointments of Dr. Adam W. Herbert as chancellor of the State University System of Florida and Dr. Irvin D. Reid as president of Wayne State University were "particularly gratifying, which leads some of us to think that affirmative action is not taking the toll that some of us had feared."

Wayne State now joins the University of Michigan-Dearborn and the University of Michigan-Flint as major four-year institutions being headed by African Americans in the state of Michigan, which also has a large Black population (see Black issues, November 27, 1997). This summer, those ranks will increase again when Dr. Elson Floyd takes over the reins at Western Michigan University.

Despite the significant Black populations in states like Mississippi and Louisiana, these states are not represented on the national list of African American presidents of traditionally White institutions (see BI The Numbers, pg. 18). In other states, such as Georgia and Florida, no African Americans head traditionally White four-year institutions -- although several two-year colleges, including the large and growing DeKalb College in Atlanta, are headed by African Americans.

Perhaps most startling is that of the almost 1,600 private, traditionally White colleges, only two -- Smith College in Massachusetts and Occidental College in California -- are currently headed by African Americans. Those ranks will grow this summer -- although only by one -- when Dr. …