Despite progress, it’s still white men at the top in HE

Six weeks after the headline writers at Forbes magazine gave American higher education a pat on the back with the headline, “The majority of America’s [20] top-ranked colleges will be led by a woman or person of color this fall”, a study from the American Council on Education (ACE) reported that across America’s higher education sector, only 12.5% of colleges and universities are led by women of colour.

These presidents make up under a third of the 33% of colleges and universities with women presidents – and the figure of 12.5% is far short of the 44.6% of female students of colour enrolled in American higher education.

ACE’s report, The American College President: 2023 edition, also found that 15% of colleges and universities have an African American, Hispanic, Middle Eastern or Asian president.

Taken together, the percentage of men and women college presidents of colour is 27.6%. While the percentage of college presidents of colour has grown from 8% in 1986 and 17% in 2016, as the report notes in bold, the “population of current presidents was still not representative of the students served”, some 45% of whom are not white.

The American College President study is “the longest and most comprehensive study of its kind”, said Hironao Okahana, ACE’s assistant vice president and executive director of the Education Futures Lab.

“The report is a vehicle to tell stories of college presidents – who they are, their work, and their life. It also is a reminder and call to action for the post-secondary sector to continue its strides in building the college presidency and leadership so they reflect and centre learners,” said Okahana.

Little progress in a decade

According to James Finkelstein, professor emeritus of public policy at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and one of America’s experts on college and university presidents, the key story told by The American College President report is: “Despite all the talk about diversifying the presidency or diversifying the ‘C-suite’, we have not made a great deal of progress over the last decade, especially in terms of minorities, while there has been some progress with women.

“The university presidency looks less and less like the faculty and certainly less like the student body of America’s universities.”

ACE’s study, based on a survey of 1,075 college and university presidents, approximately a quarter of America’s total higher education chief executives, is quantitatively larger than a study of 130 elite universities released last year by the American Association of University Women. Conducted in cooperation with the EOS Foundation, the report, The Women’s Power Gap at Elite Universities: Scaling the ivory tower, identified similar trends.

As Michael T Nietzel, the author of the Forbes article, showed in the second part of his article, which was ignored by Forbes’ headline writers, the EOS Foundation report found that only 22% of America’s 130 elite universities and colleges had women presidents and only 5% were led by women of colour; 18% of these higher education institutions were led by men of colour. In 45% of these universities and colleges, white men occupied the president’s office.

The American College President reports that approximately 53% of both white presidents and presidents of colour arrived at their presidency through the traditional academic pathway. Approximately 62% of all women presidents reported that they came from faculty positions. The highest percentage of those who were administrators before becoming president were Latino men at 40.7%, with the next highest being black men at 36%.

Just over half of the men presidents reported coming from faculty with about 26.6% coming from administrative positions such as dean and vice-president positions. Black men presidents made up the largest percentage, 6.3%, coming from the public sector or government. Perhaps surprisingly, Latina presidents made up the largest group coming from business (7%), with the next largest group being white men at 4.1%.

The ACE study is the first to provide information about the search process by asking such questions as:

• “Who recruited you or encouraged you to pursue your current role?” (Respondents were asked to check off answers such as: a search consultant or agency, past president or CEO at my current campus, peer or colleague or member(s) of the board or governing group); and

• “Before accepting the position, who did you seek advice from in negotiating the terms of employment?” (Respondents were asked to check off as many answers as applied: eg, an attorney, peers, governing board members, colleagues at your current institution or presidential associations).

Finkelstein and Judith A Wilde, a research professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, indicate how the search process itself contributes to the lack of diversity among college and university presidents.

Finkelstein said: “If you look at the information that the presidents provided, for the first time we see part of the reason that we’re not seeing greater diversity with time. In general, women and minorities report that they get less transparency during the process, less clarity about what the goals of the university are – all the things you want to get during an interview.

“Women and minorities are less likely to get that information during the process. If they don’t get the information, the message they get is that ‘I’m not wanted here’.”

To my question, “Where is this information supposed to come from?”, Wilde answered that it used to come during the search process, when an applicant could speak to people other than the search committee.

“In the good old days, they used to come to campus and meet with various different groups. And the more groups you meet with, the more you’re going to learn about the campus and what’s going on on campus. If all you ever do is talk to a few people from the search committee, you’re not getting a broad enough base to really learn that much.

“And the result is that the C-suite is remaining white, while the faculty are slightly more diverse and the student body becomes much more diverse with time,” said Wilde, who has co-authored with Finkelstein numerous articles and studies on hiring university and college presidents, including “How to improve hiring of college presidents”.

Role of search firms questioned

Over the past few decades, Finkelstein explained, colleges and universities have turned to search firms to fill presidential positions. ACE’s study, he noted, provides evidence that employing such firms is a poor use of resources.

We know from our research, he told University World News, that in 1975 only 2% of universities used a search firm, and those were only private institutions. In 2015, 95% of institutions used them, a jump of more than 90 percentage points.

Since virtually all of the universities that grant doctorates use them, the fact that in 2022 only 60.6% of presidents say they ascended to their presidency after being contacted by a search firm means that 40% of the time universities are wasting their money by employing such firms.

“If search firms are being hired because they claimed they can provide the broadest pool of candidates to the table and 40% are coming from somewhere else,” said Finkelstein, “all these universities are paying an awful lot of money (as much as US$750,000) to a search firm while in reality other people are doing that work for them.”

Nor, as ACE’s study shows, has the use of search firms increased diversity. Rather, according to Finkelstein and Wilde, search firms contribute to keeping the C-suite white and male.

“We did a study of who runs search firms and it turns out that there are many more women running them than men. And yet, we’re continuing to hire white males,” said Wilde.

“Now that, to me, means it comes back to the trustees. They tend to be CEOs of larger organisations, and most of them are male. And so the trustees are replicating themselves. And they’re going to keep doing that until there are changes – changes in whether or not to use a search firm and changes in who selects the trustees.

“In public universities, most are appointed by the governor. Well, look around the United States. How many are male? How many are female? What is the percentage of ethnic minorities?”

The answers to Wilde’s rhetorical questions are that 38 of the country’s governors are male and three identify as coming from minority communities.

Presidential life-cycles

The ACE study also provides a sketch of the life cycle of American college and university presidents. The average time between when an individual begins aspiring to be a college president, applies to become one and is appointed is 6.8 years. Both white women and women of colour move one year faster. It takes men of colour 8.9 years to become a college or university president.

The average term of a president is six or seven years. More than 55% of presidents plan on stepping down in the next five years, with almost half of these planning on stepping down in the next year or two. Some 9% said they are stepping down early as a result of having dealt with the COVID-19 crisis, a finding that surprised Okahana, “given broader conversations about how the workforce has been affected by the pandemic”.

If 50% of presidents – some 2,000 – actually do step down over the next five years, “it’s going to be a very, very lucrative period for search firms”, Finkelstein said.

Against that, another 9% of presidents said that they plan to stay on a few years because of the crisis.

Finkelstein and Wilde’s analysis of 300 university presidents’ contracts shows that there is a disincentive for presidents to seek a second term, especially at public colleges and universities.

“When a term is up, a president is usually eligible for a sabbatical on their presidential salary. And then, they are eligible to return to the faculty as a tenured faculty member at a salary substantially higher than almost any other professor in their department or college,” he said, before doing the maths that showed a salary of US$675,000 (75% of the presidential salary of US$900,000) – what he characterised as a “platinum parachute”.

Loss of institutional memory

The high rate of turnover in the C-suite, which, Finkelstein said, includes provosts, raises the question of “institutional memory” in America’s colleges and universities.

While presidents reported a number of onboarding activities designed to introduce new presidents to their school’s institutional culture, they are far from universal.

Only two activities were cited by more than 60% of presidents: introduction to key donors and campus listening tours, and these were cited only by presidents of major research universities. At colleges that award only bachelor degrees, only 47.9% and 43.8% (respectively for these two activities) of presidents cited these activities.

At major research universities, 56% of incoming presidents met with the institution’s faculty senate, while at BA granting institutions the figure was 32%. Fifty percent of presidents at major research institutions reported meeting with the university’s governing board, while only 42% of presidents of institutions that grant MAs reported meeting with the governing board.

Nor is it universal for incoming presidents to meet with their predecessors. At major research institutions, 59% reported doing so while at BA granting institutions only 55.2% did.

Okahana drew my attention to the fact that only 21.5% of presidents have temporary succession plans and 30% are actively preparing their successors.

“These findings underscore the importance and urgency for boards and sitting presidents to take more proactive approaches in preserving institutional memory and future-proofing their institutions,” he said.

According to Finkelstein: “Where the real institutional memory is, is with the faculty. If you’re a tenured member, you tend to stay at one institution. But it is these people who are being pushed aside in the process of hiring presidents; the people who are committed to the institution.”

The plague of short tenures

Leon Botstein, president of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, has a unique perspective on the tenure of college presidents. He is America’s longest serving college president, having become president of the quintessential small (750-student) liberal arts college in 1975, a year before I arrived there as a freshman.

Under his leadership, Bard’s student body has grown three-fold. The college now offers a number of graduate degrees, has satellite campuses in eight US cities, in addition to running the Bard Prison Initiative (which offers inmates the opportunity to earn a BA).

Botstein said: “The short duration of the tenure of university and college presidents is a troubling reality. Institutions of higher education are too dominated by constituencies with long, vested interests in the status quo. Those constituencies include governing boards, permanent faculty, and in many cases alumni.

“Six or seven years as the CEO of an institution of higher education make innovation, improvement and leadership based on principles such as excellence in teaching, scholarship and academic freedom, virtually impossible. It takes years to understand an institution and by the time something important can be planned, the CEO is headed for the exit. All the constituencies, with the exception of the students, can wait a new CEO out.

“American elementary and secondary education has long been plagued by short tenure of school superintendents. This has led to mediocrity.

“The ever shortening of the length of service of presidents in higher education is a harbinger of the decline of the quality and character of teaching and scholarship. The CEO with a short-term outlook does not possess the capacity to defend higher education and its essential principles and standards.”

A persistence of values

Though focused on the United States, Finkelstein and Wilde told me that The American College President is an important study for those outside the US.

Aware that he was using a contentious word, Finkelstein characterised the leadership at American universities and, indeed, Western universities writ large as “colonial” in the sense that “white male values still largely dominate the leadership thinking of universities” even as student bodies become more diverse.

“This is not a sustainable model if universities are going to provide the kinds of experiences and leadership for societies in the 21st century. Things aren’t changing in universities, while the world is changing dramatically. Universities aren’t keeping up,” Finkelstein said.