OPINION

Opinion: Student protesters should consider careers as college presidents

BERLIN, GERMANY - SEPTEMBER 20:  Students study with their laptop computers in the Pedagogical Library at the Freie Universitaet university on September 20, 2011 in Berlin, Germany. German universities recorded a record 2.218 million matriculations in the 2010/2011 winter semester, a rise of 4.5%, and expect even more students in the coming winter semster, which starts in October. The end of compulsory military service in the Bundeswehr, the German armed forces, which went into effect earlier this year, is a major contributing factor to the rise in the numbers of students arriving at universities across the country.  (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

BERLIN, GERMANY - SEPTEMBER 20: Students study with their laptop computers in the Pedagogical Library at the Freie Universitaet university on September 20, 2011 in Berlin, Germany. German universities recorded a record 2.218 million matriculations in the 2010/2011 winter semester, a rise of 4.5%, and expect even more students in the coming winter semster, which starts in October. The end of compulsory military service in the Bundeswehr, the German armed forces, which went into effect earlier this year, is a major contributing factor to the rise in the numbers of students arriving at universities across the country. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)  (2011 Getty Images)

As a Latina I grew up at a time when signs read, “No dogs, Negros or Mexicans Allowed.” I was not permitted to eat my lunch in the first grade because I spoke Spanish in the cafeteria.

Thankfully, signs barring people of color are no longer acceptable and, despite these beginnings, I earned a doctorate, a career in higher education and I work helping to prepare people to serve in top administration, including college presidents.

Unless we commit to developing new leaders of color, we become complicit in maintaining the status quo. Instead of tearing down young change agents, let's nurture their talent and prepare them for leadership in nonprofits, business, government and education.

- Sofia Martinez Ramos

Yet the barriers that people of color experience in higher education and other places are just as damaging. The lack of representation at the top policy-making positions leads institutions to develop budgets, policies, and strategic plans for us, about us, but without us. 

Emerging student leaders are providing an important but missing voice about many important issues on college campuses. Hailed by some and criticized by others, students of color are stirring a debate on leadership tactics, but we must also consider what leaders should look like.

In Missouri, Jonathan Butler's seven-day hunger strike led to the resignation of his university president. In Arizona, amidst a contentious divide regarding an impending ban of Ethnic Studies, students organized, protested and filed a lawsuit in 2011.

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Among these student protesters are the types of leaders that should become college presidents.

The available data provides clear evidence of the distinct lack of voice and representation of people of color at the top ranks of colleges and universities. Their numbers and proportion in policy-making positions continue to trail behind their white counterparts and result in a lack of cultural sensitivity and competency where it matters most.

Court challenges continue to gut affirmative action and key programs, effective at producing faculty and administrators of color. After providing the majority opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger Sandra Day O’Connor said, “The Court expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.”

She believed population diversity increases would bring equity, but 12 years have passed and in many ways we have moved backwards.  

In U.S. colleges and universities, the numbers tell a compelling story. Comparison data from the two most recent ACE reports on college presidents found racial diversity declined from 14 percent in 2006 to 13 percent in 2011. This number is inflated because it includes Minority Serving Institutions, which, when removed, presidents of color representation drops to 9 percent. The ACE survey also showed Hispanics, at 3.8 percent of all presidents, had declined almost 1 percent (0.7) between 2006-2011. 

In positions believed to be part of the pipeline to the presidency, people of color also declined. In Chief Academic Officer (CAO) positions, African-Americans went from 3.7 to 2.3 percent, Asian-Americans from 3.7 to 2.4 percent, and Hispanics from 1.5 to 0.8 percent in 2013.

Women are making strides. In 1986 just 10 percent of college presidents were women, while today 26 percent of institutional leaders are female. Women in senior leadership positions increased from 40 to 43 percent overall, with 41 percent of female CAOs, 72 percent of chiefs of staff, 28 percent of academic deans and 36 percent of executive vice presidents.

Colleges and universities proclaim commitment to diversity, setting up committees and offices meant to diversify the institution. Yet, formidable hurdles continue to thwart success, including a lack of advanced degree and faculty pipelines, lack of comprehensive institutional support, unconscious bias and the need for specialized knowledge and experience.  

Efforts to diversify higher education have had considerable success. For example, over the past 50 years, the Ford Foundation nurtured the growth of at least 14 fellows who became university presidents or provosts, and at least 23 vice presidents or vice provosts. More than 5,000 students got fellowships to pursue graduate degrees.

Juliet Garcia, a Ford Fellow, was the first Latina to serve as a university president in the nation at UT- Brownsville. This trailblazer explained, “There is nothing wrong with the human capital in a minority population. The difference is having the opportunity to fulfill it.” 

Strides have been made but the numbers are a clear call to action. Unless we commit to developing new leaders of color, we become complicit in maintaining the status quo. Instead of tearing down young change agents, let's nurture their talent and prepare them for leadership in nonprofits, business, government and education.

Dr. Sofia Martinez Ramos is President of Luminario Education Strategies, and affiliate faculty of Mexican American Studies and the Hispanic Center of Excellence at the University of Arizona Health Sciences, and a Tucson public voices fellow with The OpEd Project.

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