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%.

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