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The U of M just got around to hiring its first female president; Minnesota State has been cultivating diverse leadership for years

Among the 30 college and university presidents in the Minnesota State system, half are women and a third are people of color. 

U of M president finalist Joan Gabel
MinnPost file photo by Erin Hinrichs
Joan Gabel said she has, “by virtue of some set of lived experiences, a really deep and passionate desire for everyone to feel welcome at the table.”
The University of Minnesota recently appointed its first female president: Joan Gabel.

It’s a milestone that’s been celebrated by many who welcome a change from 167 years of male leadership at the state’s flagship public university. Before being selected for the job, Gabel told audience members at a forum at the Twin Cities campus that while her new role will not be her first time breaking the glass ceiling in higher ed leadership, those previous headlines haven’t been “quite as big as the headlines here.”

When reflecting on how her gender may play out in her leadership style, Gabel said she has “a really deep and passionate desire for everyone to feel welcome at the table.” But she also made it clear that she doesn’t believe that attribute is exclusive to women.

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It’s the sort of answer that many leaders who find themselves tethered to a “first” title — especially when due to gender or race — are apt to give when asked about the significance of their identity in shaping their work and vision. But plenty of research tells us that diversity in leadership positions, in fact, does matter.

Lorelle Espinosa
Lorelle Espinosa
Students want to see themselves in their leaders, says Lorelle Espinosa, vice president of research for the American Council on Education. And that includes women — who make up over half of the postsecondary student population — and students of color.

Research has also shown that diverse leaders create diverse leadership teams around them, foster innovation in ways that don’t happen with homogeneous groups and ensure value is placed on diversity all the way down the system, Espinosa adds.

“You bring in a diverse leader and you change the culture of an institution, if that leader is leading from that place, which we see happens more often with women and more often with leaders of color.”

Within the University of Minnesota system, Gabel will hardly be alone as a female leader. Three of the four campuses located outside of the Twin Cities are led by women chancellors. Women also hold nearly half of all presidencies among Minnesota’s private colleges.

But the real leader when it comes to diversity is the Minnesota State system, which is also serves the most diverse student population in the state. Of the system’s 30 college and university presidents, half are women and a third are people of color, compared to 30 percent and 17 percent nationally

The system’s chancellor, Devinder Malhotra, says this diversity in leadership positions adds value at both the campus level and the system level. “They bring an innate, nuanced, understanding of what it takes in order to take students from historically underserved communities across the finish line,” he said, noting leaders from diverse backgrounds also know “what it takes to create diverse teams.”

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“I think that understanding, in the long haul, will help us not only make our leadership ranks diverse, but to permeate diversity at each level of our functioning and operations.”

‘We became much more intentional’

Last year, the Minnesota State system made significant strides toward further diversifying its top leadership positions. Of the five new presidents appointed, three are women and two come from communities of color.

But this push to diversify really started a few years back, under the former chancellor, Steven Rosenstone, and his administration, says Malhotra. “We became much more intentional, much more deliberate, much more robust in our efforts to recruit leaders who come from communities of color and are of Native origins. And we have continued to build on that initial momentum to get to a point where we are today,” he said.

The system’s success in both recruiting and retaining a more diverse set of presidents can be attributed to a number of very intentional checkpoints and supports put in place. Starting with the search process, Malhotra says, it’s important to select a search consultant with a track record of recruiting diverse candidates to the Midwest. The makeup of the search advisory committee must also be diverse, and receive training on what it takes to “avoid an inadvertent biases.” And, in conversations with candidates, there’s always a strong focus on their experience in fostering equity and inclusion.

The “onboarding” experience is designed to support new presidents, especially those who come from historically underrepresented backgrounds. It includes an initial workshop to “help them understand the context of the institutions they are going to lead,” Malhotra says. Additionally, each is paired with an existing president in the system to serve as a mentor, as well as an external leadership coach, and offered an opportunity at the completion of their first year to do a feedback evaluation that tells them how their leadership style is perceived by their campus community.  

These support mechanisms have helped diversify college and university leadership outside of the metro area. Roughly half of the system’s presidents of color are serving at institutions in Greater Minnesota, a distribution that’s not always easy to achieve.

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“Whether it’s Mankato or Austin, it’s important to have leaders of color heading our institutions, because then they can play a role in which they can help these communities shape their social, economic and cultural agendas, so that they can deal effectively with these emergent communities,” Malhotra said.  

In looking to further diversify its leadership ranks, he adds, the system is also working to enhance opportunities to develop leaders from within the system.

It’s important to invest in creating those sorts of pathways to leadership positions, Espinosa says, because less than 20 percent of presidents come from outside of the higher education realm. “If you’re going to see a diverse presidency, you need to have a diverse faculty body, because that’s the primary path to the presidency,” she said. “Same with the provost. We think of that pipeline, overall.”

Moreover, she adds, since trustees appoint these individuals, it’s important that these governing bodies are diverse as well.

‘Representation matters’

Joyce Ester, president of Normandale Community College since August 2014, keeps a “box of joy” on the table in her office to stay inspired, especially when things get tough. Pulling out one of the first letters she’d received from a parent, she read: “I’m overwhelmed with excitement that you were chosen. There is great joy in seeing a person of color in this position. I am filled with hope and feel blessed that my daughters can see a sister at the helm.”

Holding the letter close, Ester looked up and said: “So it matters. Representation matters.”

This is something she also knows from personal experience. Early on in her career in higher education, she’d had the opportunity to drive Dr. Johnnetta Cole, the first African-American woman to lead Spelman College, from the airport to a national conference where she was a speaker. During that drive, Ester mentioned that she wanted to be a college president one day, which prompted Cole to offer some direct advice: Get a doctorate. So she did.

Joyce Ester
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Joyce Ester is grateful that she’s not Normandale’s first female president of color, having to spend a lot of time addressing that “firstness.”
Then, about four years ago, Ester and Cole crossed paths again at a conference. Ester says she approached Cole, ready to re-introduce herself. But when Cole saw Ester’s name flanked by new title, her greeting — “Hello my sister president” — was enough to make Ester cry.

Ester is proud of the fact that she’s not a first-generation college student. Her mother went back to school to get her GED while Ester was in middle school, then moved on to complete her bachelor’s degree shortly before Ester enrolled in college. And she’s also grateful that she’s not Normandale’s first female president of color, having to spend a lot of time addressing that “firstness.”

But she does appreciate how her identity as a black female president uniquely positions her to lead equitably. Early on during her tenure, she says she had the opportunity to lead some cross-cultural conversations with some adults on campus who had misinterpreted the playful actions of a group of African-American male students as being too aggressive.

“I get an opportunity to be in those spaces. I think sometimes, particularly with our students of color, I do feel like I have an entree into their space. I have a little bit more of a path, sometimes, to walk into a group — although our students are amazing, and anyone could do that,” she said.

One student, Job Okeri, 19, has spent one-on-one time with Ester as a presidential ambassador through Phi Theta Kappa, and says the significance of receiving mentorship from such a leader can’t be overstated. “Seeing different people being at the top, when you’re a person of color, makes you believe you can do anything you want to,” he said, adding with a smile: “She has connections, too.” 

Adenuga Atewologun, president of Riverland Community College — which has three campuses, in Albert Lea, Austin and Owatonna — also embraces his identity as a person of color.

Adenuga Atewologun
Adenuga Atewologun
Having gone through a very internationalized school system in Nigeria and then in his graduate study pursuits in the U.S., where he was surrounded by lots of international peers, he says he never felt out of place as a student.

But he’s well aware of the value he brings, as a black male, to the three campuses that he currently oversees, which are located in communities that are becoming increasingly diverse. When he took the job in 2013 students of color only made up about 8 percent of the population at these three campuses. Today, that figure is closer to 21 percent.

“What I’ve found is that many students that are from diverse cultures — they find it very exciting to come to my office to just meet and talk,” he said. “I think that alone gives them confidence. It inspires them that they can, themselves, reach to — and beyond — what I happen to have been able to.”

In the interest of bridging cultural divides not just on campus, but in the greater campus communities as well, Atewologun adds that he makes a point to be very involved in the community, by serving on a number of chambers, rotaries and boards of trustees.

Jeff Boyd, president of Rochester Community and Technical College, adds that diversity training for all faculty and staff is also important when it comes to creating more equitable campus environments. He’s a first-generation college student, himself. But not all college faculty can relate to the barriers inherent in that challenge, or in other challenges faced by students from underrepresented backgrounds.

“We don’t understand, sometimes, the barriers students — students of color in particular — go through, be it financial, not having anyone at home to help them navigate some of the systems or protocol of higher ed,” Boyd said.

To take advantage of his platform as president, Boyd also blogs every month, often addressing issues of race and equity. “Those are still things people are grappling with,” he said. “I think it’s very important to keep those conversations going and to give people avenues to have those conversations courageously. Leading from the top, I think it’s richer.”

Women leading private colleges

While the slate of presidents leading the 17 private colleges in Minnesota is still primarily white, nearly half of these positions are currently held by women.

Julie Sullivan, the first female president of the University of St. Thomas, sees great value in this layer of diversity — both in terms of providing role models for future aspiring female leaders and in terms of leadership style.

She grew up close to her grandmother, who was a successful entrepreneur and told her she could be anything she wanted to be, so long as she worked hard at it. She also had an incredibly empathetic mother, she says, who helped her navigate some health issues during her childhood.

Julie Sullivan
Julie Sullivan
“I remember she’d say to me: ‘I wish I could be sick for you.’ She really meant it,” Sullivan said. “I was able to kind of learn those lessons earlier. And those lessons are probably ones that help me so much as a leader today, in a more diverse environment and really understanding that we all come to where the dialogue is … through the experiences we’ve had and the lenses that have developed as a result of those experiences.”

Looking back on her journey to her presidency, Sullivan says she spent the early part of her career in accounting downplaying her gender. She wore suits with flowered bow ties and made a point not to wear mascara. Things have come a long way since then.

Today, she doesn’t feel pressured to diminish that piece of her identity. Rather, it’s valued as a real asset — one that affects her leadership style.

“I make it a point in my senior leadership team, as best I can, to have half men and half women — to keep it as balanced as possible,” she said. “The gender perspectives are equally valued, whether it’s men or women. And you get better conversations.”

Mary Hinton, president of the College of Saint Benedict, says she is more likely to be reached out to around issues of inclusion. It’s somewhat of an added expectation, given her identity as a woman of color — and one she’s happy to engage in, especially given her unique platform as president.

But she aspires to serve as a role model for female students regardless of their race or socioeconomic background. That includes female students from Edina and female students from North Minneapolis, she says.

Even more important, she hopes that in leading by example, those students find inspiration in each other. “What I hope I bring is a passion, out of my lived experience, to see the humanity of each person I encounter,” Hinton said. “And I hope I can encourage them to see it in each other.”