On February 12, Darryll Pines, the longstanding dean of the School of Engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park, was appointed president of the entire university. Over the course of more than 20 years at College Park, Pines rose through the ranks as a professor and administrator, building a distinguished academic and administrative track record that certainly warrants the appointment. But what makes this hire notable is the fact that Pines is a black man. Few hold such an exalted position at such a major university.
In a 2017 study by the American Council on Education, a higher education association, researchers found that individuals who identified as something other than white held just 17 percent of college and university presidencies in 2016, while representing 42 percent of students enrolled in 2015. Among the presidents of color, 36 percent led two-year associate, or two-year, colleges; only 5 percent identified as women of color.
In response to the Pines hire, another black university chief, Walter Kimbrough of New Orleans’ Dillard University, tweeted, “Maryland has a black president! Waiting for an SEC school to catch up … ” Indeed, there are no black presidents among the 14 universities in the Southeastern Conference. Almost all the universities in this powerful athletic bloc are located in states of the old Confederate South, where the majority of black Americans live. The SEC was the last among the major college athletic conferences to fully integrate, and it actively avoided mentioning race when it did so in 1968. In his book “Benching Jim Crow: the Rise and Fall of the Color Line in the Southern College,” Charles Martin wrote, “So strong was this unofficial taboo about mentioning race in public that at a January 1968 SEC meeting in Tampa, neither the commissioner’s annual report nor the formal agenda acknowledged that black players had made their first appearances that fall in varsity competition.”
There is a connection between representation and leadership that doesn’t go unnoticed. College presidents oversee all administrative processes on a campus, including admissions offices and student services (and technically, athletics, but one can argue the tail wags the dog in big universities). Aspiring college presidents from underrepresented groups have particular insights into the ways administrative and political processes are often used as tools of structural racism. As presidents, they have the authority to change administrative structures that thwart others from reaching the role.
People who are currently in these college leadership positions wield significant economic, social and political power, which they have no interest in relinquishing. In seminars, research papers and classrooms, university administrators and faculty continually wax poetic about the benefits of diversity, but they rarely move beyond words when it’s time to appoint a new president. The lack of diversity among all presidents in an entire conference of institutions is the clearest evidence that the status quo is being protected.
Higher education is charged by society with preparing students for the workforce. Part of this preparation is showing students they can be anything, do any job. The overrepresentation of white people in the top campus leadership role discourages students of color from considering the upper levels of academe as a career to which they could aspire on graduation. Without diversity in a field, participation wanes among marginalized groups. Without participation from a range of workers, we can’t maximize talent or economic growth. Without growth, we lack resources to develop current and future members of the workforce. The country becomes less innovative and economically competitive when we’re less diverse.
In addition, diverse decision-makers make better decisions. We’ve struggled to remove barriers to the college presidency, probably because people in power don’t see the need for change or don’t want to change. It’s not that surprising that Pines was hired to take the top job at the University of Maryland, because he is not the first black man to hold the top spot at UMD: John Slaughter served as chancellor, then the university’s highest post, from 1982 to 1988. Slaughter made his mark by making advancements in the recruitment and retention of black students and faculty.
University leaders, particularly those in public institutions, must engage with legislators and funders who often don’t see a reason to hire outside the bounds of their comfort zone. If governing boards for universities in conferences like the SEC won’t elevate black and brown talent to reach the presidency, students should force the issue.
“Since the student protests at the University of Missouri in 2015, students of color have been more empowered to address the campus racial climate,” Dillard president Kimbrough told The Hechinger Report, referring to the protests at Mizzou that led to the ousting of the university system president, Tim Wolfe. “While it may be unrealistic to see tremendous increases in black faculty and staff, it is reasonable that more black presidents will be selected. They will at least bring a level of sensitivity to these issues even if just from their own experiences,” he added. Kimbrough is a graduate of an SEC school, the University of Georgia.
It’s clear that college boards readily encourage talent to rise on the football fields and basketball courts in conferences like the SEC. Too bad they won’t do the same to encourage black and brown graduates to aim for the college presidency.
This story about university presidents was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.