The 5 Percent: Action Steps for Institutions Investing in Women of Color

By Morgan Taylor

October 21, 2019

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By Ashley L. Gray, Jennifer R. Crandall, and Morgan Taylor

For other posts on succession planning, see A Call to Action Regarding Succession Planning and Sustainability and Takeaways for Career and Succession Planning From the 2018-19 Class of ACE Fellows.

The face of the college presidency has changed in recent years, moving slowly away from the monolithic profile of the past (White men over the age of 60) to something more representative of the face of colleges and universities themselves. Some groups—particularly women—are increasingly represented in these leadership positions. The American College President Study 2017 (ACPS), our most recent survey on this population, found the number of women had grown to 30 percent in 2016, up 4 percentage points since 2011.

But who are the women entering the leadership pipeline? In 2016, 25 percent of all presidents self-identified as White women, while women of color accounted for only 5 percent of U.S. college and university leaders. This inequity demands we take an intersectional approach to understanding the pathways, supports, and barriers to the presidency for women of color. Such an approach will take careful planning and intentionally designed policies and practices to succeed.

When we factor in age, future intentions, and institutional preparedness, succession planning becomes more urgent. With the average age of presidents at 62, it’s not surprising that 78 percent of presidents planned to step down within the next nine years. What’s particularly sobering is that more than 75 percent of presidents indicated that their institution does not have a presidential succession plan. Yet the problem of turnover and succession planning facing higher education could be an opportunity to intentionally recruit women of color into the presidency.

In Andy Brantley’s recent call to action for succession planning and sustainability, he asked what actions institutions can take to ensure a diverse, prepared, and committed pipeline of future higher education leaders. To promote women and people of color into campus leadership roles, he urged hiring managers and search committees to address implicit bias and for institutions to create mentoring and sponsorship programs.

However, with White women occupying 25 percent of the presidency, much of the research and resulting recommendations for addressing the gender gap in higher education leadership focus on their experiences and needs, while silencing the experiences and needs of women of color. Intentional representation in research is essential to understand the lived experiences of women of color and to implement succession plans that promote equity.

In what follows, we unpack these recommendations using ACE’s Voices from the Field: Women of Color Presidents in Higher Education as a starting point. The brief amplifies the lived experience of four members of the aforementioned 5 percent, and illuminates how the intersection of gender with race and ethnicity presents unique experiences and challenges for women of color. Three primary themes emerged.


Trailblazers are pioneers in the field of higher education who encounter the challenges associated with being the first.

Among the presidents we spoke with, Judy K. Sakaki, president of Sonoma State University, is the first Japanese American woman president of a four-year university in the United States and the first female Asian American president of a four-year university in California. Roslyn Clark Artis, president of Benedict College, is a two-time president, having served at Florida Memorial University and now Benedict College. She is in the company of a few extraordinary Black women who have served at multiple institutions. Waded Cruzado was the first woman and the second Hispanic president of New Mexico State University when she took office there in 2008. She currently serves as president of Montana State University. Sakaki and Judy C. Miner, chancellor of Foothill-De Anza Community College District, are from student affairs, which creates a greater need for understanding the pipeline to the presidency from nontraditional fields. With this trailblazing status came external voices of doubt, blatant racism and sexism, and questions about allyship.

Because they are still among the class of firsts, there were few women of color in senior leadership positions as role models, which impacted their ability to see themselves as presidential.

“There were no role models for me. I didn’t see anyone that looked like me in a position as a president,” said Sakaki, “I didn’t really think it was possible.” Cruzado echoed this sentiment as she reflected on being actively recruited by a search firm, but questioned if her identity would make her a good fit for the position. After turning the search firm down, she asked herself, “What [did they] see in me that I’m not seeing?”

In terms of isms, Sakaki, for example, said, “I have been called every anti-Asian name you can think of in a derogatory way.” For Artis, one ism took the shape of an alumni group expressing that they would try to get accustomed to a woman at the helm of leadership.

So what would it look like if more women of color saw themselves as presidential? What would your institutional leadership look like if the readiness of women of color to lead wasn’t questioned? And what can institutions do to provide professional development for women of color who aspire into the presidency?

ACPS data show that in some ways, women may be more prepared than men to advance to the presidency. Compared with men, women were more likely to have served as an interim president, earned advanced degrees, and participated in professional leadership development programs.

Action steps

  • Rotate leadership teams to diversify experiences and professional development opportunities for women. For example, ACPS reported that 64.9 percent of presidents stated financial management as a primary use of their time. Creating tangible experiences for women around budget management is one essential area for professional development to expand the pipeline for women of color.
  • Invest in the professional development of senior-level people of color. Such work needs to be done in tandem with “provid[ing] boards greater and more integrated assistance” to work with presidents. Board members need to understand the complexity of the evolving higher education landscape so they can help set institutional priorities and support presidents.
  • Institutions committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion must address implicit or unconscious bias. Unconscious biases can still affect one’s judgment despite being unaware of them. Training is an ongoing learning and growth process of checks and balances. In particular, board members with unchecked or unconscious biases can derail the hiring process or presidency for women of color. Boards should also require search firms to include the most diverse representation of presidential candidates.


Sankofa means “it is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.” This Ghanaian word and symbol from the Akan tribe serves as a reminder that the past must not be forgotten as we acquire new knowledge.

This concept was a reoccurring theme among all the presidents. Whether they were speaking about their own champions who helped them along the way or their own personal responsibility to guide others through the pipeline, they all discussed the importance of remembering and learning from their own struggles.

For Sakaki, this extended across race, gender, and aspirations.

“I feel that because there are so few of us and because of who I am, I take great responsibility in being a role model, being there for female students, for students of color, for young professionals, for even middle managers or deans who are aspiring to higher positions,” she said.

Others spoke explicitly of supporting women. “Our young women deserve role models too,” Artis said. “They understand people who understand their lived experience too.” Cruzado acknowledged, “Half of my leadership team is composed of women . . . . So there’s a quiet transformation taking place.” All of the interviewees described feeling the need to help knock down barriers and coach other women through the process.

How can we create pipeline initiatives that support women of color long before they enter graduate school? In what ways does mentorship support women of color who aspire to fill leadership positions?

Action steps

  • Encourage leaders from majority groups to be allies for women of color. Allyship is an ongoing learning process in which someone works alongside a marginalized or oppressed group but is not a member of that group. It involves listening, educating oneself, checking one’s own privilege to better understand the struggles of marginalized people, and sharing those lessons with one’s own identity group.
  • Go beyond mentoring and be a sponsor. Sponsorship is a type of mentorship in which sponsors share status and opportunity to advance someone’s career. For women of color, the social network a sponsor provides can open doors to jobs, resources, and other expertise. Being more aware of the underrepresentation of women of color in leadership roles and its root causes allows for more impactful change through horizontal and vertical relationships.
  • Identify, support, and advance women of color by investing in intentional executive coaching or leadership programs to diversify the pipeline. For example, The Aspen Institute’s Task Force on the Future of the College Presidency recommends the development of a more diverse presidential candidate pool through mentorship and leadership development programs, including the ACE Fellows Program and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities’ Millennium Leadership Initiative.

One thing we do need to consider as we promote these mentorship relationships: At what cost are women of color presidents responsible for other women in the pipeline?

“In my experience, what I think happens for women of color is that you can’t just make a bad decision. If you do, someone will tie your gender and your ethnicity to that bad decision,” said Sakaki. Artis agreed, saying that “it is such a cross to bear in the sense that any misstep, we will be subject to termination, where men seem to be given multiple opportunities if their mistakes ever come to light at all.”

“If I don’t do a good job, I am, in fact, closing the doors to women in the future. I’d better do a good job, right?” Cruzado told us.


Connectedness at the community and individual levels was of value to presidents we spoke with, which they interpreted primarily as the capacity to develop students holistically.

“I’m somewhat maternalistic toward my students, and you can probably hear that in my comments, that I view them as my children and I tell them, ‘I would treat you as I would treat my own. [T]hat means I expect a lot from you, and it also means that I’m going to love you,’” Artis told us. “And I would rather believe that a university, it’s not a conveyor belt, but a combustible engine, right?”

“Something happens in the four or six years where a student is with us that then we take that student from wherever [they] are and transform [them] into a competent professional, a committed citizen, and a happy and healthy human being. That is a success,” said Cruzado.

The student-centered focus of these presidents also makes them aware of the need for authentic leadership. “If you’re authentic,” Miner said, “students will be able to tell. And if you’re not, they pick that up immediately. A heavy lift for me on this campus was really helping to change the culture to be more student-centric and what I call creating a campus community of care.”

Action step

  • Familiarize your leadership team with the idea of intersectionality. Literature and conversation that just focuses on women often does not consider the double margins of gender and race.


Despite the challenges, these presidents and other women of color are leading with courage, competence, and innovation. As institutions look for opportunities to promote more women and people of color into campus leadership roles, they need to be mindful that intersectional identities may require different or nuanced approaches to recruitment and retention.

The majority of the graying presidency is planning to step down after their current presidency. At a time when the student body and general population continue to diversify, institutions of higher education require diverse perspectives on how best to serve an evolving demographic and situate themselves within the larger sociopolitical and sociocultural landscape. Part of this equation demands sustainable supports to attract and retain women of color. This can be done through intentional policy and practice change. To meet the needs of the growing diverse population of college students, it’s essential that they feel represented at the helm.

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About the Author

Morgan Taylor

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