Leadership & Governance

Survey Finds a Drop in Minority Presidents Leading Colleges

March 12, 2012

Meet the new boss.

Same as the old boss.

In a troublingly stagnant portrait, the latest national survey of college presidents finds a profession dominated by white men who have hardly changed in more than a quarter century. They're just older.

Today's typical college leader is a married white male with a doctorate in education. He is 61 years old, up from 60 years old in 2006, according to the American Council on Education's latest survey, "The American College President 2012."

The survey, released at the association's annual meeting, indicates that racial and ethnic minorities, who represent 13 percent of college presidents, are slightly less prevalent than they were in 2006, when 14 percent of college leaders were members of minority groups.

This report, which is the seventh produced by the association in 26 years, marks the first time in the survey's history that a reduction in the percentage of minority presidents has been reported. At the time of the first survey, in 1986, minorities constituted 8 percent of college presidents.

"The results of this study are sobering," said Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education.

More than 1,660 respondents from all sectors of nonprofit higher education participated in the survey, which assessed the college presidency in 2011.

The drop in minority representation comes at a time when colleges are increasingly paying outside consultants to help select their presidents. Search consultants were used to recruit nearly 60 percent of recently hired presidents, according to the survey, up from 49 percent four years ago.

Lucy Apthorp Leske, a search consultant with the Witt/Kieffer executive search firm, says finding minority candidates who are a good fit for a given institution remains a challenge.

"The use of search firms does not necessarily correlate with an increase in diversity placement," said Ms. Leske, vice president, partner, and a director of Witt/Kieffer's education and not-for-profit practice. It's the search committee "and the search firm together that have to commit to diverse pools of candidates," she said.

Hispanic presidents, who represented 3.8 percent of all presidents in the survey, saw the largest decline among minority presidents since 2006. The 0.7-percentage-point drop in representation of Hispanic presidents, coupled with a slight increase in the proportion of white presidents, was a key driver for the overall decline in minority representation in American colleges, the data show.

Juliet V. García, president of the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College, said that she and other Hispanic presidents have worked to groom a new generation of minority leaders, and that it is disheartening to see the numbers backsliding. She added that she is hopeful some of the highly charged political rhetoric aimed at Hispanics during an immigration debate over many years is not to blame for the decline.

"Instead of looking for diversity, perhaps the pendulum has swung back to protecting the gates. That's my most cynical perspective," said Ms. García, 63. "What I can tell you is that every one of us has been trying to grow that leadership."

Women, who have been historically underrepresented in the presidency as well, have made incremental gains in representation. More than a quarter of presidents are now female, and more than a third lead two-year colleges.

"Women are our success story," said Ms. Broad, who was president of the University of North Carolina system from 1997 to 2006.

On the pathway to the presidency, women say they are more likely than men to have made choices with family in mind. More than a quarter of female presidents said they had altered their careers for family considerations. Just 19 percent of men, on the other hand, said the same.

Ms. García, who has led the Brownsville campus for 20 years, said she suspects women with children are less willing to pull up stakes in pursuit of a more prestigious position in academe. While she expresses no regrets about staying in Brownsville, where she grew up, Ms. García acknowledges that she and her husband of 42 years gave that some thought.

"Have we had opportunities to move before? Yes," she said. "But you have to weigh those. In our case we've weighed them heavily against how it would impact long-term being close to family."

Generation in Waiting

While college trustees continue to express interest in nontraditional candidates for presidencies, the position of provost remains the most common path to top job. Among presidents responding to the survey, 34 percent were provosts or chief academic officers before their appointments. That number represents a nearly 12-percentage-point increase from 1986.

Walter M. Kimbrough, who was recently named the next president of Dillard University, defies nearly every expectation. A 44-year-old black man with a background in student affairs, Mr. Kimbrough simply does not fit the profile. Of course, that's also part of his appeal.

"I broke all the rules," says Mr. Kimbrough, who was 37 when he was hired as president of Philander Smith College, a historically black United Methodist college in Little Rock, Ark. "I'm a complete anomaly."

Well, not a complete anomaly. Mr. Kimbrough has never held a full-time faculty position, and 30 percent of presidents have never been on faculty at all. His field of study is higher education, which is the most common academic pursuit of presidents. He is married with children, just like 90 percent of his male counterparts.

With seven years under his belt as a president, Mr. Kimbrough is also in lockstep with the typical president, who has served the same length of time in his or her current position, according to the American Council on Education. However, only 8 percent of those surveyed were, like Mr. Kimbrough, 50 years old or younger.

Mr. Kimbrough says an infusion of presidents from his generation would be a benefit to higher education. "Hopefully we will move into a time period where there could be some newer voices."

How College Leaders' Traits Have Changed Over 5 Years

  2011 2006
Female 26.4% 23.0%
Minority 12.6% 13.6%
Currently married 85.0% 83.2%
Has children 85.3% 85.7%
Average age 60.7 59.9
Career History
Average years in present job 7.0 8.5
Prior position was president or chief executive 19.5% 21.4%
Prior position was chief academic officer 34.0% 31.4%
Prior position was senior executive 22.5% 29.6%
Prior position was outside higher education 20.3% 13.1%
Has never been a faculty member 30.4% 31.1%
Has ever worked outside higher education 47.8% 63.0%
Has a Ph.D. or Ed.D. 76.8% 75.0%
Education or higher education 37.7% 43.0%
Social sciences 11.9% 13.8%
Humanities 14.2% 13.7%
Source: American Council on Education


Correction (9/1/2015, 11:45 a.m.): Because of an error in the original version of a survey by the American Council on Education, the table accompanying this article initially misstated the percentage of college presidents whose prior position was outside of higher education. The council later corrected that figure, which is 20.3 percent, not 11.4 percent. The table has been updated to reflect this correction.