Responding to the Voice of Black Women: Black Women's Unique Style of Leadership Enables Them to Meet the Challenges of Academe, Scholar Say. (Special Report: Women in Higher Education)

Article excerpt

When Black Women in the Academy: Promises and Perils was published in 1997, the difficulties facing African American women in academe were so numerous and profound that 33 scholars addressed the issues with little redundancy. Dr. Lois Benjamin, endowed professor of sociology at Hampton University, edited the tome described by its publisher, the University of Florida Press, as "a call to the nation's academies to respond to the voice of Black women."

Five years later, Benjamin believes the academies heard the call and responded, definitively if not resoundingly, by selecting more Black women as presidents and upper echelon administrators. "There has also been greater pressure to have more people of color in the academy," she explains, adding that "people see the value of African American women's perspectives and their vision for knowing and understanding the world." These perspectives include spirituality, intuition, and the view that decision-making "is a process attached, rather than detached from normal human affairs."

In the intervening years since the publication of Promises and Perils, Dr. Ruth Simmons was appointed to the presidency of Brown University, becoming the first African American and the first woman at the helm of an Ivy League institution; and by 2001, a total of 27 African American women led four-year institutions. A decade earlier, it had been fewer than half that number.

Whether the literature influenced the academy or pressure from students and alumni led to change -- or both -- nearly half the Black women presidents were appointed in 1997 or after. Many of them were the first women and/or first African Americans in the positions, according to a survey in the March/April 2001 issue of the NAACP publication The Crisis.

They include Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, who was appointed president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1999, becoming the first African American woman to head a national research university; Dr. Made V. McDemmond, appointed president of Norfolk State University in 1999, the first woman to head that historically Black university; Dr. Joyce Brown, named president of the State University of New York's Fashion Institute of Technology in 1998, the first African American to hold the position; and Dr. Dolores E. Cross, appointed president of Morris Brown College in 1999, becoming the first woman president there.

And the list goes on: Dr. Marguerite Archie-Hudson, first woman president of Talladega College (Ala.), appointed in 1998; Dr. Trudie Kibbe Reed, the first woman president of Philander Smith College (Ark.), named in 1999, were among the others who became firsts in academe in the last five years.

The burgeoning roster is likely to grow, according to authorities like Dr. Elnora Daniel, president of Chicago State University, who sees serious hurdles still facing even the most determined prospects. Yet she says, "I believe that more African American women will become presidents in the near future ... women tend to be greater risk-takers when it comes to their career trajectory in the academy. Thus, women will not necessarily refuse a post that is not Ivy League, exceptionally well endowed, etc."

Dr. Yolanda T Moses, former president of City College of New York and current president of the American Association for Higher Education, concurs. "I am very hopeful because so many Black women are in the pipeline and in leadership positions now." Moses notes that there are also more avenues to the top. "Today there are more multiple tracks -- development and fund raising, student services."

But both academic leaders see impediments that may thwart the progress of Black women administrators. "There are still deep-held beliefs that keep Black women from being selected by boards (of trustees) and search committees. It's more subtle than it used to be, but it still exists on many campuses, Black and White," Moses contends. "We still have a long way to go. …