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Campus Women Lead

Spring 2011

Volume 40
Number 1

Gender and Higher Education Leadership


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Heather Knight spacer
Heather J. Knight

Race, Gender, and the College Presidency
By Heather J. Knight, president of Pacific Union College

“Will a woman be strong enough and smart enough to lead an organization as complex as a college or university?” “Are we really ready for our first female, black, Latina, Asian, or Native American president?” “Will the college’s wealthy white male donors and alumni give philanthropically in response to requests made by a female, black, Latina, Asian, or Native American president?” “What if she doesn’t golf? You know how much business is conducted on the golf course.” “But she has children! Will she really be able to balance her work and family commitments?”

Believe it or not, these are just a few of the provocative questions likely to be posed by search committees and campus communities when women—and in my particular case, women of color—aspire to academic leadership and especially to the position of a college or university presidency. After all, despite the fact that women now constitute 23 percent of college and university presidents, only 4 percent of all college and university presidents are women of color (American Council on Education 2007). Furthermore, only 63 percent of female presidents are currently married, as compared to 89 percent of their male counterparts; and only 68 percent of female presidents have children, as compared to 91 percent of male presidents. Certainly, one can infer from these data that women aspiring to the ultimate leadership role in higher education—the college or university presidency—often pay a personal price related to their gender. So given these daunting realities, how can women hold firm to their sense of self and maintain personal authenticity while successfully navigating the pathway to the presidency?

Finding the Right Fit

Most often, the first steps on the journey to becoming a woman college or university president are earning a doctorate, securing an academic position, and achieving promotion and tenure (the gold standard of legitimacy in academia). This process in itself can prove challenging, especially for first-generation college students like me who often choose to situate their teaching and scholarship in previously marginalized and contested fields of academic study, such as ethnic studies or gender studies.

Although I was privileged to earn my doctorate in English at Stanford University, a number of my professors often reminded me that my area of emphasis, African American literature, was not yet part of the “official” literary canon. I was also made to understand that I was not guaranteed a job when I graduated just because I was a black woman—not that I ever had that expectation. Yet despite the naysayers, I was fortunate to land my first professorial position at an institution, the University of the Pacific, that prized my areas of professional interest and expertise and encouraged and enabled me to live out my commitments to academia and to the local community.

At the University of the Pacific, I was able to focus on community-building pedagogies like service learning and community-based learning. I developed the university’s first courses in African American and multicultural literature, which aided in subsequent curricular diversification, and I emerged as a champion of diversity at a time when strong advocacy in that area was desperately needed. While serving on a presidential search committee, I learned about the presidency and also engaged with deans and regents who suggested that I might have “the right stuff” to one day become president myself. I also received my first promotions into administrative positions, without which my career would certainly have taken a different trajectory. I cannot emphasize enough how important institutional fit was to my career, or how much my strong sense of self and personal commitment to my work directed me in finding success on my pathway to the presidency.

Securing Supportive Mentors

In addition to good institutional fit, it is crucial to find supportive mentors: experienced colleagues who have identified you as having administrative talent and who are willing to give you opportunities to hone your skills and test your mettle. These mentors must not only guide and nurture you, they must also be wise enough to allow you to develop and maintain your individual style and intellectual substance.

I remember quite vividly being pulled aside by a well-meaning senior female administrator soon after having been appointed to my first administrative post. She told me that if I wanted to be taken seriously by my male colleagues in my new position, it would be inappropriate for me to wear bright colors. She advised me to wear only black, navy blue, or gray. At that moment, I decided: I would never succumb to gray! More recently, I received an anonymous letter informing me that I was doing a wonderful job as the new president of Pacific Union College. After listing a number of my positive attributes, the writer inquired, “By the way, would you consider changing your hairstyle? It is such a distraction.” Somehow, I feel certain that a male college or university president would not have received a letter of that sort.

In the gendered spaces that we inhabit, those who wish to be considered seriously for leadership positions must grapple with both substantive and stylistic issues. Long hair or short? Natural hair or textured? Conservative dress or academic glam? A strong sense of personal identity along with good judgment about decorum in professional settings is certainly very important. This is particularly true for women hoping to maintain their individuality and find success on the pathway to the presidency.  

Envisioning “The Unprecedented”

Even before I attained a presidency, I found that it was important to envision myself in the role. This meant presenting myself in a way that was “presidential.” After all, practice is essential for any good artist, and the college or university presidency requires a singular and rare combination of artistry and acumen.

Collectively, we in higher education also need to envision a world where more women across all identity categories are in these leadership roles. I believe that we must recognize that we are indeed experiencing a major historical moment, a paradigmatic shift where women are shaping their own destinies. Women are now recognizing that they have made and are still in the process of making history. They are “interrupt[ing] the usual” in higher education, creating new gendered and racialized spaces for doing and being what Caroline Turner calls “the unprecedented” (2007).

As academic leaders, women presidents must be grounded enough in their own distinctive identities to be willing to serve as pioneers, to create new norms and new opportunities for others to do their best work. They must refuse to accept the crippling effects and limitations of sexism and racism. Women presidents must also be courageous enough to chart new territory where we and others can fulfill our life purposes through meaningful and visionary leadership in the academy. I concur emphatically with Marvalene Hughes, president of Dillard University and one of my most important mentors, when she says that “Nothing is more noble than having a career which represents your life’s purpose” (Bower and Wolverton 2009, 56).

In the end, I would offer women aspiring to the presidency this advice: stay true to yourself—your personal, intellectual, and spiritual commitments—and learn from everything, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Take advantage of every opportunity: when a door opens, always be willing to walk through it. As was the case when I served on that presidential search committee, you never know which experiences will prove invaluable. And don’t be afraid of tough or new assignments, as they enhance your knowledge base, your portfolio, and your capacity for leadership. In my life, seemingly unconnected strands have come together to create a rich, distinctive, and colorful presidential tapestry that I could not possibly have designed. Finally, never forget why we do the powerful work that we do in higher education.  After all, nothing empowers as education empowers.

Editor’s note: This article is based on Heather Knight’s speech on Race, Gender, and the College Presidency, presented on January 27, 2011, at AAC&U’s Annual Meeting in San Francisco, California.


American Council on Education. 2007. The American College President: 2007 Edition. Washington, DC: American Council on Education.

Bower, Beverly L. and Mimi Wolverton. 2009. Answering the Call: African-American Women in Higher Education Leadership. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus.

Turner, Caroline S. 2007. “Pathways to the Presidency: Biographical Sketches of Women of Color Firsts.” Harvard Educational Review 77 (1): 1–38.

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