Diversity & the Search for Leadership in Higher Education: A Report from the Frontlines an update...

For the past 18 months, our firm has been retained by Howard University to assist in recruitment of four professional colleges’ deans. All of the posts are filled and we are now retained to assist in recruiting two department chairs in the College of Medicine.

During this time, the question of diversity on campuses has again garnered considerable attention, including that of the U.S. Supreme Court, but most prominently that of students of color frustrated by the lack of progress they see at their institutions, most of which are majority-white universities.

From the perspective of a search firm charged with finding leadership for a storied institution sometimes referred to as “the Harvard of the HBCUs,” the renewed energy of the push for greater diversity has made it possible to see for ourselves the gap between word and deed, promise and performance.

At the same time, we can bear witness to the remarkable appeal of one HBCU as a place to which persons of color continue to be drawn.

Here, we will report on how experience at Howard has sobered us to the challenge of making good on what is now nearly a half century of talk about diversifying American higher education. Our perspective is not all-encompassing: we deal with the practical tasks of identifying and recruiting talented persons for academic administrative posts of deans and vice presidents, not the challenges of recruiting students and professors whose race or ethnicity contribute to a more diverse higher education landscape. 

Still, our admittedly limited vantage point on diversity can, we believe, enable us and – we hope – others to be prepared to undertake more and stronger efforts to make campuses places that reflect much better than is currently the case the diversity that is now and henceforth will be America.

Diversity at an HBCU

It’s hard not to grasp the irony that presents itself when someone first arrives on campus at Howard University. The institution will celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2017 and its very name is that of a white former Union general, Oliver Otis Howard. Howard headed the Freedman’s Bureau following the end of the Civil War and was instrumental in establishing the institution to educate freed slaves. Indeed, General Howard served as the first president of the University, which did not have a black president until the 1930s.

The neighborhood bordering the University is known as “Shaw” after Robert Gould Shaw, the son of a prominent white abolitionist family of Massachusetts. Colonel Shaw commanded the 54th Massachusetts volunteer regiment of Union soldiers – the first all-black unit in the Civil War - and was killed near Charleston, South Carolina, in July, 1863, attacking Confederate forces. The area of Washington, D.C., where the University is located was also home to many freed slaves and the neighborhood has long been referred to as “Shaw.” (Colonel Shaw’s prominence does not extend to North Carolina’s Shaw University, albeit, its namesake and benefactor was another citizen of Massachusetts, Elijah Shaw), and it’s yet another irony that Shaw University was the first college or university in the South to admit women.) 

These ironies are diminished somewhat when the diversity of people on the Howard campus becomes clearer. For the same reasons a university was seen as needed by and for freed black slaves in the 19th Century, persons of color from around the world sought entry to Howard, with the first Chinese students arriving on campus in 1870, only three years after the institution’s founding.  Thereafter, students from Africa and from places populated by the African Diaspora became a small but steady flow to Howard.

A white president for a university established to educate freed slaves seems incongruous until one recalls that not until 1876 did a black American earn a Ph.D., the traditional requirement in the academy for a leadership post. That graduate, Edward Bouchet, was barred from joining the faculty of any white university.

In fact, historical portraits and photographs of deans or of classrooms and laboratories at Howard frequently depict white professors and some white students, particularly in the professional programs of medicine, pharmacy, dentistry and the like. And the Howard of today numbers whites and persons from around the world throughout much of the institution.

The diversity of Howard University was and is more than a product of historical circumstance. As the University’s Clifford Muse noted, Of greater historical significance, Howard’s incorporators, who also comprised the first Board of Trustees, confirmed their faith in the institution by adopting a policy ensuring the University forever open to all individuals irrespective of race, sex, creed or national origin. Howard’s founding policy guaranteed its unique position in higher education as the first American university operating on the basis of a non-discriminatory admissions policy.”

Howard University remains an historically black institution, one in which two-thirds of the faculty are black American or either African or from countries made up primarily of the African Diaspora, four percent are of Asian origin, and just over two percent are Hispanic or Puerto Rican. Overall, 65 countries are represented by the Howard professoriate and this is not new.

And Howard is an institution that remains true to its origins, with 86 percent of all students identifying themselves as African-American or Black. As of the 2015-16 academic year, Howard students represent 104 different countries (among which, rather curiously, Nepalese are relatively numerous) and the national stature of the University is reflected in virtually all 50 states and numerous U.S. possessions providing students.

It remains to be seen whether the more recent pronounced assertions by black students in both predominantly-white and predominantly-black institutions of the lack of progress in racial equality will lead to increased enrollment of black students in black colleges and universities, but Howard’s current freshman class is one of the largest in recent years and is predominantly students of color.

 And how do these considerations affect efforts to attract and recruit the talented leadership every higher education institution wants and needs?

Early signs are that predominantly-white universities are prepared to intensify efforts to recruit faculty and administrators of color. But how does an HBCU – even one with so illustrious a past as Howard - compete for talented leadership?  

Recruiting Talented Leadership at an HBCU

            In charging each of the four search committees formed to recruit deans, Howard president, Wayne Frederick, stipulated only one requirement of the four groups of candidates recommended to him as finalists: at least one finalist within each group – if not more – must be female. Other than gender, committees and search consultants were under no stipulations in the consideration of personal attributes of prospective candidates.

            Every search committee with whom our firm worked reflected the diversity of the University but were always majority-black.

Applicants and persons who responded to overtures in ads and from our recruitment were disproportionately of color. Some whites expressed interest in the deanships and they were persons employed at the Ivies, at research universities across the country, and from abroad. In all but one search, the pools of finalists also reflected the diversity of Howard.

            To date, each search has come to a successful conclusion with the hiring of a new dean. Asked why they chose to leave tenured faculty positions and administrative posts, usually at majority-white institutions, those chosen to join Howard told stories that echoed the University’s past. Three of the four deans were born abroad, two from Caribbean nations and one from Nigeria, thus continuing along the well-traveled routes of the African Disaspora.

            The most recent Howard decanal appointee is Dr. Toyin Tofade, who will become Dean of the College of Pharmacy in August 2016. A native of Nigeria, she earned her Bachelor of Pharmacy from Obafemi Awolowo University. During a visit, Dr. Fred Eckel of the Eshelman School of Pharmacy at the University of North Carolina invited the then-Ms. Tofade to apply to the graduate program in pharmacy practice and experiential education. She did so, was accepted, and earned a pharmacy Master’s and doctorate from UNC.

            Dr. Tofade went on to become a director in a regional health education center and then joined the faculty of the School of Pharmacy at the University of Maryland, later appointed Assistant Dean for the experiential learning programs there.

            Asked why she chose to join Howard, Dr. Tofade first credited Fred Eckel for “discovering” her “and giving me an opportunity at UNC. It is my responsibility to give back.”

            Dr. Tofade went on to say -           

I believe that the populations we [i.e., Howard] serve can compete with the best; however, intrinsic individual perceptions about inability to pay may minimize the confidence around ability to perform at the very best. . . . It's a different time in our history, the environment and culture in higher education in general are changing, particularly with regards to training "minority" students, and I am honored to be a part.

For her, “paying back” the helping hand of a white American educator and empowering students of color to both feel and be confident in their abilities to excel in higher education are sufficiently compelling calls to join an enterprise that struggles with all of the difficulties of most American universities but especially HBCUs – deferred maintenance and consequently aged facilities, overworked staff and faculty, the need to remain financially accessible to students whose families do not earn the same as their white counterparts countered by dependence on tuition to operate. Dr. Tofade could have foregone becoming Dean at Howard and remained where she was, but chose instead to enlist in a cause.

Hugh Mighty joined Howard University in July 2015 as Dean of the University’s College of Medicine and Vice President of Clinical Affairs for Howard University Hospital. Born in the West Indies, he graduated from Georgetown University, earned his M.D. from the University of Maryland, and a M.B.A. from Loyola College, all predominantly-white institutions.

Similarly, virtually all of his appointments – Director of Critical Care Obstetrics at the Univesity of Texas Medical Branch, Chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Maryland, and just prior to joining Howard, Vice Chancellor of Clinical Affairs at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center at Shreveport – were in majority-white universities.

Recruiting Dr. Mighty proved challenging as he was also being sought for other positions by other institutions, including one that would have placed him in an executive position of an organization much like those in which he had spent his career - predominantly white. Assisting Howard’s efforts were personal and family ties, considerations that usually take on greater weight as candidates rise through academic ranks and administrative posts. Compensation remains important, but our experience in recent years has been that only very large salary differences trump other professional and personal considerations. Indeed, despite the increasing publicity attached to executive compensation in higher education, considerations other than money factor more prominently in candidates’ decisions than cynics might believe.

Such was the case in Dr. Mighty’s decision to join Howard University. Asked to explain his choice, he responded by citing both a legacy and the challenge: 

In Howard, there was and is this amazing legacy that was maintained despite the changing environment and the general hierarchy that has arisen over the past century of medical education. The towering institutions such as Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and Stanford all have great reputations and even larger endowments and top-notch facilities. Despite this, Howard has managed to take good but perhaps not academically-superlative students and turn them into physicians who embrace the mission of serving the underserved.


And it’s tougher to do that now because the outstanding black high-school graduate is sought out by every university, including those with endowments that spare students and their families from taking on the cost of a medical education.


That’s part of Howard’s challenge. While the University has served its mission well for a century-and-a-half, we never acquired the general institutional wealth to maintain facilities or award full scholarships in large numbers. Sixty percent of Howard undergraduates qualify for Pell grants, which is need-based federal aid. Moreover, Howard is a private university with a higher price tag than state-supported institutions.


Howard’s challenge is more than a financial one, according to Mighty. Full-time, tenure-track positions are scarce throughout American higher education, especially for senior professors at HBCUs, including Howard.

Notwithstanding all of the talk about improving diversity in the nation’s colleges and universities, many professors at HBCUs do not see themselves as having opportunities to move elsewhere. This creates a certain sense of immobility that can foster pessimism and negativity and make it very difficult to see the institution’s potential for change and growth. Students too can give in to some of the dismay.

            Why, then, take on a job with that sort of challenge, particularly when other opportunities await? Mighty’s response was a quick one.

Well, there’s another challenge to joining Howard, namely, that of changing the environment enough to build a foundation to move the University forward while staying true to the mission of turning hope into reality for those who come to learn as well as those who are here to dispense knowledge – all the while using limited resources very wisely.


Look, if it were easy, Howard would not want someone like me here. And for that matter, I don’t want the last chapter of my career to be spent on cruise control.


            Two deans, or even four, are nowhere near being a large enough sample from which to draw conclusions about how diversity can be advanced, especially when it comes to academic leadership. The two examples cited here suggest that a predominantly black university can attract black leaders whose educations and careers are almost totally at predominantly white universities

            But is this a rigorous test of diversity in leadership? Would not the real evidence of success in recruiting leadership for an HBCU be the hiring of white or Hispanic deans, vice presidents, or presidents?

Moreover, the current state of affairs does not bode well for the near future.

Our experience in recent years has been that majority-white colleges and universities make efforts to ensure that the pool of semi-finalists and finalists for senior administrative posts include persons of color and, more specifically, black Americans. Interviews cannot proceed, in some cases, without under-represented candidates in the pool.  

The efforts of predominantly white institutions are complicated because even though the work that will engage those who take on the jobs is administrative in nature, the candidates are nevertheless expected to have exemplary records of superb teaching and mentoring of students, substantial and well-regarded scholarship and publications, and substantive service to their institution or their profession. While black professors have met and do meet and exceed these requirements, the numbers of them and their seniority are not and will not be sufficient for black academicians to be hired to senior posts in the numbers anyone thinks desirable. More will be required.

            Signs that might be omens are evident in initiatives such as the one announced by Johns Hopkins University that involves a commitment of $25 million to increase the number of persons of color on the faculty. But as laudable as this effort is, it will not increase the number of black academic leaders for 10-20 years if the traditional pattern of administrative advancement remains the norm.

            Alternatively, predominantly-white universities may look to HBCUs and Hispanic-serving institutions as sources for black and Latino/a professors who could be selected as department chairs or deans and from there move up the ladder of administrative posts and gain presence in institutional leadership roles. This would shorten the time required to increase the numbers of persons of color as leaders, but this route has been available for some time now and still not have the desired effect.

            There simply may not be shortcuts to improving the diversity of higher education leadership. Time and persistence may be required to make change occur. Even as women have become the majority of students in American colleges and universities, the percentage of women presidents has hardly moved.

            Truth is, we remain very much a segregated nation. Blacks and whites – and for that matter – Chicana/os, Latina/os, Hispanics - live in separate worlds, meeting at work, cheering and despairing at sporting contests, and briefly encountering one another to transact business. If the dark side of de facto segregation is how much we deprive one another of our respective cultures and talents, then the bright side is the sense of community each group enjoys and some of us from different ones value for their intrinsic worth.

            It is indeed sobering to see just how far the nation needs to go to achieve a meaningful diversity within the leadership cadre of our colleges and universities. Our consolation comes from witnessing talented persons of color whose careers were in predominantly-white institutions be drawn to a university established to provide an education to some of the people enslaved but set free.







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