How Colleges’ Presidential Searches Weed Out Candidates of Color and Women

America’s college presidents today are overwhelmingly white and male, and boards’ search processes are making the problem worse, according to a report released by the College Futures Foundation on Monday.

Black, Latino/a, Asian American, Indigenous, and Pacific Islander students today make up roughly half of today’s college enrollment, yet, according to the report, universities are moving at a glacial pace when it comes to appointing leaders who reflect that portion of their student body.

As of 2017, the latest year studied, fewer than one in five college presidents across the country were people of color. Only 30 percent of them were women, most of whom were white. The average age of the college president was 62 and the majority were married with children, according to the college-futures group’s report, “Whiteness Rules: Racial Exclusion in Becoming an American College President.” The research was conducted by Bensimon & Associates for the foundation.

“Assuming that white men are ‘natural’ for the college presidency sends two messages,” the report says. “First, to white men, that they should apply and will fit right into the presidential club. Second, to people of color, that they shouldn’t apply as they don’t belong with the rest of the presidents.”

The report highlights eight ways that presidential searches favor white candidates. Researchers interviewed presidents, system administrators, and search-firm representatives at public universities in California.

Search committees perpetuate racial and gender bias by conducting private meetings that are closed off to the general public, where they can make racist, ageist or sexist comments with no accountability. These comments, whether communicated covertly or overtly, can indicate to candidates of color or women that they are not serious contenders for the role.

The presidential search has a “hidden curriculum” that presidents of color described as similar to an “SAT exam.”

Candidates of color struggle to navigate cold calls, interviews, and the search firms’ processes.

Search committees play a key role in diversifying the presidential search process and making it more equitable. Hiring race-conscious search firms, ensuring that search committees are racially and ethnically diverse, and bolstering implicit-bias training within search committees are a few recommendations that the researchers make in their tool kit, titled, “Tools to Redesign the Presidential Search Process for Racial Equity.”

In the University of California system, 11 percent of chancellors have been people of color since its founding in 1868. Since then, 13 percent of chancellors have been women, and only 1 percent of chancellors have been women of color, according to the report.

If you had told Eloy Ortiz Oakley at 18 years of age that he’d one day be the chancellor of California Community Colleges, he wouldn’t have believed you.

“I always viewed higher education as a very difficult maze,” said Oakley, now president and chief executive of the College Futures Foundation. Oakley was chancellor of the California Community Colleges system for six years until this past August.

Researchers stressed the importance of explicitly centering race in the college-presidency search, ironically on the same day that the U.S. Supreme Court questioned the use of race in admissions.

Oakley grew up in a traditional working-class Mexican family. They lived in a predominantly Mexican American neighborhood in southeast Los Angeles, where it was common to see drugs and other crime. Neither of his parents graduated from high school. His father worked at a shipyard in Long Beach, repairing Navy ships, and his mother worked odd jobs, selling Avon makeup and skin-care products, and took care of her children. Oakley was recruited to play football at institutions like Brown University and Pitzer College, a liberal-arts institution in Claremont, Calif. But he found the college-application process confusing and daunting and decided to join the Army instead. It wasn’t until he was 23 that he decided to enroll in Golden West College, a community college in Huntington Beach.

Oakley says that most of the leaders in higher education today have had a privileged path into the role.

“Because I was given a chance to lead, I was able to open the door to conversations about the kinds of students that I grew up around,” he said, pointing out that his academic experiences allowed him to prioritize students who were first generation or low income and faced barriers getting to college. “Without my background, I wouldn’t have been able to see the importance of that.”

Candidates of color often never know whether they’re seriously being considered for the role or just being used to diversify the pool. And the doubts don’t stop once diverse candidates attain leadership roles.

“They are often the first president of color at their institution and bear the extra responsibility of being good enough that decision makers don’t consider their hire a failed experiment,” the report said. “In contrast, white candidates and presidents — especially men — can be themselves.”

Presidential candidates of color feel they can’t be themselves.

Mildred García, chief executive of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, says she was once told by a search consultant that if she wanted to be a college president, she had to cut her hair, stop wearing her anklet, stay away from bright-colored clothes, and stop doing research on people of color.

“I remember saying to the search crew, ‘If I had to not be my authentic self, then I don’t need to be a president,’” García said. She was president of California State University at Fullerton for six years before serving as president of California State University-Dominguez Hill for another six years.

At regional state colleges across the country, she’s seeing an increase in first-generation, low-income students, students of color, and adult students.

“It is very important that they see people that look like them in areas of leadership,” she said.

The irony in the timing of the study’s release isn’t lost on its authors. As the U.S. Supreme Court heard two cases on whether colleges can use race as a factor in admissions on Monday, researchers stressed the importance of explicitly centering race in the college-presidency search, during a webinar hosted by the College Futures Foundation on the same day.

In California, two leadership searches are now underway. California State University at Los Angeles is looking for a new president, and the California Community Colleges system needs a new chancellor.

“My hope is that institutions, particularly board leaders who are responsible for hiring the next generation of leaders, look at this report and reflect on their own process,” Oakley said. “If they can at least understand why it’s important to have as diverse a pool as possible, then we will have been successful.”

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