Inside Higher Ed: Out presidents

By Scott Jaschik, for Inside Higher Ed

August 9, 2010

Nine college and university presidents gathered in Chicago over the weekend and decided to form a new organisation that will promote the professional development of gay academics as well as work on education and advocacy issues.

The meeting was the first attempt to gather the growing number of out college presidents (25 were invited) – and participants said in interviews after the event that they wanted to encourage more gay academics to aspire to leadership positions and wanted to push higher education to include issues of sexual orientation when talking about diversity. The partners of some of the presidents also attended and held their own discussions, and the new group plans to be a place to talk about issues related to the partners and other family members of gay presidents.

“I think it was great that we met. We all kind of felt we were making history, and we had a really good time talking about issues that were relevant to us as presidents and as LGBT people,” said Theodora J. Kalikow, president of the University of Maine at Farmington.

The new organisation has been named LGBTQ Presidents in Higher Education, said Charles Middleton, president of Roosevelt University and co-host of the meeting. The group plans to reconvene first in a few months, and then perhaps at next year’s meeting of the American Council on Education.

“As university presidents, we talked first and foremost about what is our presidential responsibility as leaders in higher education,” Middleton said. To that end, the group will focus on leadership development for those who are gay presidents or gay academics who aspire to become presidents, professional development for gay people at all levels of academe, and on education and advocacy to promote equity and diversity.

“As the world evolves, we are going to have things to say on specific issues,” he said.

Middleton said that it is time for an organisation like this to exist. College leaders nationally are talking about the need for new leaders in all kinds of educational fields, and the country cannot afford to write off any one group, he said. Gay academics “need to be taken off the exclusion list”, he said.

Several of the presidents noted that they came together at a time when issues of gay rights are very much in the news – both for society as a whole and higher education in particular. The presidents met the same week that a federal judge rejected California’s ban on gay marriage and the same year that the US Supreme Court upheld the right of public colleges to require all recognised student groups to abide by anti-bias policies – including policies that some religious groups object to because they cover sexual orientation.

Raymond Crossman, president of the Adler School of Professional Psychology and the meeting’s other co-host, said that, “I think it’s no accident that there’s an appetite to do this right now. It’s a particular moment in the culture, and I think we have something to offer about educating the academy.”

Crossman said he views such advocacy as a traditional role of a college president, even if the issues being raised may not be same ones on which other presidents have focused. “I think that as presidents of colleges and universities there’s always been a role to take positions, to be part of a continuing dialogue in our culture,” he said.

Kalikow said that she hoped the group would send a clear message to gay academics that, if they aspire to leadership positions at their institutions, “it is doable.” As president at Farmington since 1994, when it was much more unusual to name an out president, Kalikow said she was well aware that attitudes have changed and also that there are still institutions where a gay or lesbian leader might not be welcome. It is important, she said, for an aspiring gay academic “to listen to the little voice in your head that says, ‘Don’t do that,’” when considering going to a particular institution that might be hostile.

But she said that gay academics need to know they can aim high. “My advice is to be out since you were a baby or as soon as possible. But then, the reason we get these positions is by being really excellent at what we do. That’s the most important thing. You have to believe in yourself, not set lower expectations, and find the place that’s the right match.”

One of the topics of discussion at the meeting was how to view the extent of progress in presidencies being open to gay candidates. While the numbers today would have been shocking a generation ago, most of the presidents said that there are many colleges that because of their location, religious ties or other factors are highly unlikely to be open to gay presidential candidates, at least in the near future. Many of the colleges that have named gay presidents are places with “strong social justice missions”, Crossman said.

“There are sectors in higher education where this is a very difficult issue,” said Ralph Hexter, who is the president of Hampshire College (and who celebrated with his campus when, in 2007, after gay marriage became recognised in Massachusetts, he married his partner).

“We talked about the fact that there are certain regions” where it would be more difficult to be an out president, said Hexter, who recently announced that he would be leaving his presidency. “One of the hallmarks of our group is that we are out LGBT, and we all know there are many, many others who for whatever reasons – their regions, their personal situations, their institutions – are not out. This is not an organisation that will push anyone out of the closet, but maybe more people will look at us and say, ‘Hey, these people are OK.’” Likewise, he said that search committees may look at the organisation and realise that they can consider the candidacies of gay people to be president.

He said that the current gay presidents “are pioneers in a way” and “I think you are going to see a lot more in the next five years.”

“It’s important for gay and lesbian leaders in higher education to see a path,” he said. Hexter added that he did not know of any such group in any other country and he also hoped it would send a message abroad – including in countries where people might not think it possible to be a gay university president.

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