3 Ways to See More Diversity in College Presidents

College presidents must be able to multitask. Though not in the official job descriptions, these administrative leaders must be figureheads, court the general public, delegate effectively and always keep an eye on the horizon to guide their ships to bigger, better waters. It is a tough job and like many high-profile ones, comes with its share of scrutiny in the public eye.

As the latest wave of college presidents looks towards retirement, the higher education community has the opportunity to promote a more diverse presidential core. The next five years will set the tone for college leadership at the highest level for the coming decades and really for the entire student population too.

Here are some interesting facts about college presidents:

  • 61. Average age of college presidents in 2011.
    • 92. Percentage of college presidents aged in the mid-50s to mid-70s.
    • 14. Average number of years retiring college presidents first serve in the role.
    • 40. Normal number of new college presidents in the American Association of State Colleges and Universities every year.
    • 109. Actual number of new college presidents from April 2011 to August 2012.
    • 6. Number of new college presidents this school year in the California State system alone.
    • 13. Percentage of college presidents who are racial or ethnic minorities, as of 2012.
    • 14. Percentage of college presidents who were racial or ethnic minorities in 2006.
    • 26. Percentage of women college presidents.

So how do you introduce diversity at the college president level? Here are a few steps.

  1. Take advantage of the new way to find college presidents. In the past, college presidents from other schools and college vice presidents have most often ascended the ranks to fill empty presidential seats. While this still happens about 19 and 25 percent of the time, respectively, other leaders like provosts and deans are increasingly being considered to fill the college president vacancies. Some schools even search outside the college community to find leaders from other industries that fit the bill. There is really no hiring formula that applies to all college president spots and a “qualified” candidate could feasibly jump several levels of hierarchy to claim the spot.
  2. Recognize the opportunity at hand. American institutions of higher education often consider how a diverse student, and even faculty, population should look but do not extend that to top-tier leadership roles. Colleges need to rethink that strategy. I believe the trickle-down diversity effect works well in college settings. Instead of starting with the largest group (students), start cultural change at the top of the pyramid. If a school has a well-balanced student population already in place, chances are that the faculty and administration reflect that fact too.
  3. Include diversity in the search process. I’m not saying that white men with the right qualifications should be excluded from the running; I just mean that colleges with open president seats should make sure the short list of candidates has some variety in experience, ethnicity, sex and race. The Rooney Rule, established in 2003 by the NFL, mandates that at least one minority candidate be interviewed for all head coaching spots. I think colleges need to do that same with their academic leaders.

Those in lower to middle-level leadership roles in colleges that have presidential aspirations should get ready now. Make sure your name is associated with talks about the future of the college by getting yourself involved in the action. Get published. Envision yourself on the same plane as the college presidents that went before you but realize that you have a unique voice to lend to the college community you want to lead. Embrace the turning tides. Be an active part of the changes in college administration and you will in turn be part of the progress.

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