A Celebration of African-American Women College Presidents

by Altheria Gaston

I have had the email address, madamepresident2b@*******.com, since 2006. At the time, I was a 32 year-old community college English instructor who was being mentored by the president of my college, an African-American male who saw leadership potential in me. With his encouragement, I began to aspire to the college presidency, and the email address was my way of affirming my long-term goal.

I didn’t know at the time how far-fetched this goal was. The latest data from The American College President (2012), the only study to provide a comprehensive, in-depth look at presidents from all sectors of American higher education, reveals that the typical face of the college president has not changed since the first report in 1986. The face is still that of an older, White male. The findings further reveal:
While women have increased their representation (26 percent in 2011, up from 23 percent in 2006), the proportion of presidents who are racial and ethnic minorities declined slightly, from 14 percent in 2006 to 13 percent in 2011. However, when minority-serving institutions are excluded, only 9 percent of presidents belong to racial/ethnic minority groups, unchanged from 2006.
These statistics reveal to us the contradictory location in which African-American women find ourselves. Women presidents are increasing. Racial and ethnic minority presidents are decreasing. Positioned at the intersection of race and gender oppression, we are often caught in the crossfire. As a Black feminist, I can easily recognize, as in the case of the college/university presidency, the multiple, overlapping forms of oppression that cause Black women to experience subjugation in ways that are different from White women (who face gender oppression) and Black men (who face racial oppression).

Despite these odds, African-American women are redefining the college/university presidency and inspiring the next generation of leaders in the academy. One of my goals as a Black feminist is to uncover contributions of Black women—specifically Black women who serve as college and university presidents.

The lineage of Black women in the presidency can be traced back to Mary McLeod Bethune. Bethune was founder (1904) of Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls in Daytona, Florida and oversaw its growth from five students to over two hundred fifty. She served as its president for over twenty years, merging her school with Cookman Institute in the 1920’s, becoming what is now Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona, Florida.

Another pioneer in the college/university presidency was Dr. Anna Julia Cooper. Although many scholars in academia have become familiar with the social justice work of Anna Julia Cooper, I would venture that most are not aware of her position as an administrator. Cooper became president of Frelinghuysen University in 1930 and worked there for twenty years as a president and a registrar. Frelinghuysen was a school founded to provide access to higher education for Washington, D.C. residents.

Dr. Anna Julia Cooper

Since the early 1900’s, numerous Black women have ascended to the presidency at colleges and universities in the US. One of the most notable achievements of an African-American woman in the presidency is that of Dr. Ruth Simmons, the first African-American woman to become president at an Ivy League university. Dr. Simmons became the first woman and the first African-American to serve as president at Brown University (2001-2012). Prior to serving at Brown, she was president of Smith College, a private, liberal arts college for women. Dr. Simmons earned her Ph.D. from Harvard University and her bachelor’s degree from an HBCU, Dillard University.

Dr. Ruth Simmons

Significant to note as well is Dr. Shirley Jackson, 18th president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Dr. Jackson is a theoretical physicist who holds a Ph.D. in theoretical elementary particle physics from M.I.T. (1973) and a S.B. in physics from M.I.T. (1968). She is reportedly one of the highest paid university presidents in the country! Dr. Jackson has served in this position since 1999.

Worthy of recognition as well are Dr. Mary Frances Berry and Dr. Johnetta Besch Cole. Dr. Berry became chancellor of the University of Colorado in 1976, the first black woman to head a major research university. Dr. Johnetta Besch Cole was the first African-American female president of Spelman College (1987-1997) and also served as president of Bennett College (2002-2007).

There are many other sister-presidents currently serving at institutions throughout the country:
  • Dr. Gwendolyn E. Boyd, Alabama State University 
  • Dr. Cynthia Jackson-Hammond, Central State University
  • Dr. Glenda Baskin Glover, Tennessee State University
  • Dr. Elmira Mangum, Florida A&M University 
  • Dr. Roslyn Clark Artis, Florida Memorial University
  • Dr. Joanne Berger-Sweeney, Trinity College 
  • Dr. Pamela Trotman Reid, University of St. Joseph 
As we observe Black History Month, let us salute these women, who despite their minoritized status, refuse to have a minority voice in higher education. And although I no longer aspire to be a college president, I continue to be a strong voice for the inclusion and equitable treatment of Black women in the academy.

Photo: Mary Bethune McLeod

Altheria Gaston is a doctoral candidate in the College of Education at Texas Christian University. She is a Black feminist who’s motivated to make education more equitable for children of color and children who are poor.

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