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Leading with Vision in Challenging Times: Presidential Perspectives
Susan Reiss, Editor, On Campus with Women, Association of American Colleges and Universities

How can campus leaders sustain and communicate a commitment to campus diversity in challenging times? What experiences have shaped their commitments? Susan Reiss explored these questions with three college presidents who are national leaders in campus diversity work.

Robert Corrigan, President, San Francisco State University

Shortly after Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, the president of the University of Iowa called Robert Corrigan into his office and asked him to develop a new set of courses on race because his expertise was in American Studies. “I realized at that point how narrow my education had been,” says Corrigan. “The political and social frame of reference I was using were as much a part of the problem as anything.”

Corrigan embarked on a career in administration because, “I thought if I really wanted to change society, I needed to change higher education and open it up so that everyone could participate.” While working on the East Coast and now at San Francisco State University (SFSU), Corrigan has let this vision guide him.

At SFSU, the faculty shares this vision. The place is committed from top to bottom. “We had the first black studies program in the country and we were the only school where ethnic studies courses were part of the general education requirements,” he explains. “What was lacking when I arrived was a sustained emphasis on diversity issues. My role was to stress the need to make these issues a part of a university wide initiative.”

However, Corrigan admits that creating needed change hasn’t always been easy. When he arrived on campus, Corrigan appointed a university commission on human relations to assess the needs and propose responses for various diversity-related issues that concerned both students and faculty. “One by one, the Academic Senate and other groups have implemented most of the recommendations,” Corrigan notes.

On the issue of recruitment of minority faculty, Corrigan has worked toward reaching a critical mass. “If over a decade you hire enough minorities and women, you reach a point where you change the nature of the institution,” he says. At SFSU, half of the eight college deans are minorities and one is a woman. To achieve a more diverse faculty, Corrigan has insisted that the hiring pools be as broad as possible. “These hires were as much the colleges’ choice as the president’s,” says Corrigan. “Individual riches tend to float to the top.”

In a time of backlash, Corrigan has this advice: “You’ll tire out if you’re promoting diversity just to be politically correct. You have to be shrewd and politically astute. If you’re up against a governor or electorate that has voted to eliminate affirmative action, you need to find ways to continue to attain the end goal.” Prior to passage of the anti-affirmative action Proposition 209 in California, the Presidents of the California State University system decided against taking any collective stance on the issue. Instead, Corrigan and others took strong individual anti-209 positions.

The bottom line for Corrigan is that the president of an institution must make diversity a high priority or else the issue won’t be picked up by the faculty. “Being the leader of a university involves a fair amount of risk taking,” Corrigan asserts. “We [in higher education] went through a period of too many years in which the process to select a president eliminated the risk takers. We need to examine the process by which people move from one level to another.”

Peter Ku, President, North Seattle Community College

Peter Ku, a Chinese American, immigrated to the U.S. in 1963. He worked as a busboy, waiter, and janitor before completing his degree. He has seen the entire socio-economic strata, says Ku, referring to the many jobs he held before embarking on his career as a librarian and then as an academic administrator. “My background provides an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of different groups,” Ku explains. “We have a saying in Chinese, ‘Embrace everybody’s wisdom.’ People should understand each other’s cultural heritage. It’s not just about African Americans or Asian Pacific Americans but about gender, the disabled, age and the like. We have to provide everyone with the chance to advance.”

Ku has experienced the extremes of race relations, working in Greenville, North Carolina and witnessing the Ku Klux Klan movement, and then moving to Columbia, Maryland and working at Howard Community College for 16 years where races mixed with few problems.

Drawing on these varied experiences, Ku has made diversity a priority at North Seattle Community College where he has served as president since 1990. One of his first actions was to revise the college’s mission statement to make diversity a major objective for the institution. “North Seattle was a little behind when I arrived, but we were able to integrate my vision with that of the faculty and administration,” he says.

As a result of a variety of initiatives, many groups on campus were brought into the process of advancing campus diversity. “The most important outcome was that the faculty decided to add a 5-credit hour multicultural diversity course to the degree requirements,” says Ku.

To generate support for diversity initiatives in the current climate, Ku says it’s important to insist that diversity isn’t reverse discrimination. “I must speak out consistently in the face of the backlash,” he contends. “The key to success and to promoting my vision of diversity is keeping people well-informed. This has to be done locally, nationally, and globally.”

Ku sees the need to promote diversity partly as an economic requirement. “By 2020, we’ll need a lot of workers--40-50% will come from the rank and file minority. The majority will have to understand the cultures of those they’re dealing with.” Maintaining balance between many groups won’t be easy, according to Ku. “It’s a huge challenge to keep minority cultures all interested in each other. The issue goes beyond a majority/minority focus.”

Shirley Strum Kenny, President, SUNY, Stony Brook

Growing up Jewish in East Texas in the 1940s and 1950s, Shirley Strum Kenny learned first-hand about tolerance and acceptance. Her father, who owned a shoe store, treated everyone equally. He didn’t segregate his customers. “My parents brought me up to accept others,” says Kenny. “Emotionally, this is very much a part of what I believe. Intellectually, accepting others seems so essential for the nation.”

Transferring these ideas to higher education, Kenny maintains that, “Diversity is a requirement for intellectual excellence in a university. There is no way students can be fully prepared for the global workplace otherwise.” She notes that diversity issues have been transformed from what was right and fair in the 1960s to what is good for the nation today. “Race is one issue this nation hasn’t dealt with successfully. It just cracks us down the middle. It’s a scary time right now.”

As tensions rise, Kenny says it’s important for those in leadership positions to speak out. “It’s important for me to say what I believe and to be personally involved in ensuring that we keep moving forward.” At SUNY, Stony Brook, Kenny hasn’t just talked about diversity. She’s gotten out of her office and worked side by side with students and faculty on projects designed to create a community where all people feel welcome.

Kenny has taken some concrete steps to change administrative structures to advance her vision. She aligned the affirmative action office more closely with her office. She also clamped down on practices that, over the years, had hindered diversity. “We now follow hiring practices and other policies that promote diversity to the letter,” notes Kenny. A speaker series on diversity issues has brought the community to the university and provided another avenue for dialogue. In addition, the President’s Student Diversity Council brings presidents of clubs that deal with diversity together. “I think the T-shirt the students created for Diversity Day says it all, ‘Diversity is the one true thing we have in common,’” Kenny says.

Dealing with diverse groups does present challenges, but Kenny stresses the importance of making sure such groups are not separated or segregated. “Through classes, co-curricular activities, and residential living, we become the new us--a different group with like interests,” explains Kenny.

Hiring faculty from different racial and ethnic groups and developing the pipeline are also key priorities for Kenny. “Higher education has tended to think that African Americans, for instance, will apply for jobs only in certain disciplines. But we want astronomers, chemists, economists, and historians from all different backgrounds,” says Kenny. By promoting the importance of hiring a variety of races, education is improved. “It’s exciting. Bright young people come into a department and begin changing the department’s thinking,” she contends.

Arts and other cultural programs for the public are an important way to build ties between the university and the community and, in turn, enable different groups to mix and get to know each other’s cultures. These programs are also opportunities for young people to get a taste of what the university can offer. By interesting young people from diverse groups in higher education, the pipeline for diverse faculty, staff, and administrators can broaden and deepen.

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