College presidential searches still favor White candidates, report says

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Dive Brief:

  • College presidents remain overwhelmingly White and male, and search processes for these executives often reinforce racial barriers, a new report from the College Futures Foundation found.
  • The California-based foundation aims to improve degree attainment in the state. It detailed in the report how even public higher education systems with racially diverse student bodies — like the University of California and California State University — have employed remarkably few leaders of color over their histories.
  • Just 11% of UC campus chancellors have been people of color since the system’s founding in 1868. And only 19% of Cal State campus presidents have been officials of color since its creation in 1857.

Dive Insight:

It’s well known that White men generally dominate college presidencies, and these ingrained expectations can alienate candidates from these positions. More than 80% of presidents were White in 2016, according to the most recently available national data from the American Council on Education.

In the six years since the lobbying group published the data, the U.S. has undergone a racial reckoning extending to multiple aspects of American life. Despite heightened attention to these issues, the College Futures report finds little has changed to attract and hire more diverse prospects into executive slots.

College Futures researchers interviewed a contingent of UC and Cal State officials and search firm representatives. Bensimon & Associates, an organization dedicated to advancing racial equity, produced the report for the foundation.

Presidents of color within the two California systems said that during the interview process they felt they needed to prove they had “assimilated” and to “speak white,” the report stated.

Search committees would discount candidates with accents, “large hair” or “chunky jewelry,” the administrators told the foundation. Prospects said they believed they needed to conform to a White standard to be seriously considered.

These committees can exacerbate racial divisions in other ways. Search committees may cordon off meetings from the public, enabling members to express racism and sexism more freely, the report states. Even if their comments are not explicitly discriminatory, they can illustrate to candidates who are women or racial minorities that they are not welcome.

Thus, administrators must learn the “hidden curriculum” of navigating presidential interviews and will likely need the support of others to do so, the report says. Presidents of color would enroll in executive leadership programs to get mentorship on this, while White presidents said they did not need this coaching.

Executive search firms, which colleges have increasingly used to land their next leaders, do little to ease these barriers, the report states. These firms tend to ignore differing experiences between White candidates and other racial minorities and often rely on the same network of officials, who can be predominantly White, to find presidents.

Even though searches are brimming with bias, firms “tend to think presidential search now occurs under ‘post-racial’ conditions, namely that racism and racial bias are no longer barriers in hiring college presidents,” the report says.

Governing boards, which generally make final decisions on hiring, similarly don’t prioritize racial and gender equity, it says.

Once officials of color reach the presidency, they continue to face prejudice, sometimes in subtle ways, the report says. In one case, a president of color said they were asked during a meeting of college executives what their role was at the institution.

“This seemingly innocent question is a racial microaggression: underlying it is the assumption that a person of color can’t be the president and so must be someone else,” the report says.

The foundation released an accompanying toolkit with suggestions on improving racial and gender equity in search processes. They include hiring race-conscious search firms, focusing on racial equity during these processes and framing job descriptions to be welcoming to more diverse candidates.

“We are mindful that changing a process as consequential as presidential search is not easy,” researchers wrote. “The process is subject to policies, procedures, and norms that have been in place a long time and, in general, once something is institutionalized, reform is challenging.”


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