An Overview of African American College Presidents: A Game of Two Steps Forward, One Step Backward, and Standing Still

By Holmes, Sharon L. | The Journal of Negro Education, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

An Overview of African American College Presidents: A Game of Two Steps Forward, One Step Backward, and Standing Still


Holmes, Sharon L., The Journal of Negro Education


This study combined the narratives of six African American presidents with descriptive statistics from national level data in an effort to provide a snapshot of the current status of African American presidents in public and private institutions. Of particular interest was how African American presidents experienced their administrative roles within the context of race, since issues related to race are often influential in prescribing the types of experiences African Americans report in higher education. The findings from the narrative data suggest that for the presidents in this study, issues related to race were secondary to how they managed their overall administrative roles, but may have been primary considerations in their being selected for the positions by institutional hiring officials.

Over the past three decades a considerable body of literature has been amassed regarding the status of African Americans' and people of color2 in higher education. Scholars and researchers alike have investigated the experiences of faculty, administrators, and students in two- and fouryear traditionally White and historically Black colleges and universities using both qualitative and quantitative research methodologies (Davis, 1994; Fleming, 1984; Flowers & Pascarella, 1999; Gregory, 1995; Harvey, 1999; Holmes, 2003; Jackson, 2001; Sedlacek, 1989; Turner & Meyers, 2000; Watson, 2001; Williams, 1989; Wolfman, 1997; Yoder, 1994). The vast majority of the research on African Americans was directed toward improving the retention of students and faculty, with little emphasis given to professionals in senior level administrative positions (Jackson, 2002). Research regarding African American administrators often investigates various practitioners in student affairs (Holmes, 1999; Jackson & Flowers, in press; Watson, 2001), or it focuses on administrators in roles directly related to the diversity mission of the institution (Rolle, Davies, & Banning, 2000).

With the exception of reports from the U.S. Department of Education, the American Council on Education (ACE), and Black Issues in Higher Education, national indicators germane to the status of African American college and university presidents in particular are even fewer in number. Generally, what is provided in the literature is information related to "minority presidents," or "administrators of color" in academic administration (Smith, 1980; Wilson, 1989). While there is a small, but growing body of literature that explores aspects of African American administrators in two- and four-year institutions (Holmes, 1999; Miller, & Creswell, 1998; Opp, & Gosetti, 2002; Vaughan, 1989; Williams, 1989), not many studies disaggregate the minority or administrators of color groups to determine specifically how individual ethnic groups are progressing in higher education, especially to chief executive levels, such as president. Yet, for many in higher education, the college presidency is viewed as the pinnacle of academic administration and can serve as a benchmark of status for African Americans and other people of color in the academy (Wilson, 1989).

Overall, access to educational and employment opportunities for African Americans in general has increased steadily since the turbulent 1960s; however, research indicates that a disparity still exists at various levels of the academic ladder when African Americans are compared to their White counterparts (Corrigan, 2002; Fields, 1991, 1998; Lindsay, 1999; Opp & Gosetti, 2002; Thomas & Hirsch, 1989). Some of the research also provides evidence to suggest that the vestiges of the past linger such that race and gender-related issues make equity, mutual respect, and full participation in all areas of the academy difficult for African American and other administrators of color to achieve (Holmes, 1999, 2003; Turner & Myers, 2000). This is not too surprising considering the long history of "-isms" that have pervaded most social institutions in the United States including institutions of higher education (Esty, Griffin & Hirsch, 1995).

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