'We're Leaders First': Gay and Lesbian Presidents Discuss Their Experiences

March 08, 2011

Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals who aspire to become college presidents will serve themselves well by being open with search consultants, boards, and the wider campus community about who they are, a panel of gay and lesbian college leaders said Tuesday at a session of the annual meeting here of the American Council on Education.

The five panelists, all members of the newly formed group LGBTQ Presidents in Higher Education, shared their experiences being an out gay leader or coming out while in a leadership position. All said that while it was important to be open about their sexual orientation, it wasn't their defining characteristic as a president.

"In my view, we're all presidents first," said Les McCabe, president of the Institute for Shipboard Education, which runs the Semester at Sea program. "We're all leaders first."

The ACE conference was the first official meeting for the 30-member LGBTQ presidents group, which formed last summer with the intent of supporting current gay leaders and advocating for leadership opportunities for gay and lesbian individuals who wish to become college presidents or other top leaders on campus. A number of the group's members introduced themselves and their partners publicly through a video last December.

Charlita Shelton, president of the University of the Rockies, told audience members they should focus on finding an institution that is the right fit for them and is accepting of them.

"Personally, I am not going to apply to an institution that is not inclusive," said Ms. Shelton, who came out as a lesbian eight years ago, after having previously been married to a man. "You've got to be in a place where you can flourish."

Mr. McCabe was already serving as president at the Institute for Shipboard Education when he came out three years ago. He said he was nervous to tell his board members that he was gay but found everyone to be understanding and welcoming. One conservative board member, whom Mr. McCabe said he feared telling, complimented him on his courage and told him his actions showed he was the right person for the job.

Mr. McCabe and others said their partners have also been accepted by the wider campus community, expected to attend official functions and helpful in charming donors for fund raising. Mr. McCabe's partner attended Sunday's ACE session for presidential spouses and partners, along with another partner of a member of the group, he said.

Being upfront early on with search committees and others about one's sexual orientation and whether one has a partner helps smooth out any awkwardness that might arise during an interview process, the panel members said.

The group, which will meet again this summer, is considering ways to provide mentoring opportunities to people who wish to become a college president and workshops with practical advice for those who are in the job-search process, similar to what is available for other groups who are underrepresented in higher education.

"Visibility and willingness to mentor are very important," said Neal King, president of Antioch University in Los Angeles.