7 colleges welcome their first black presidents

Presidents are investing more resources in diversity initiatives

Since 2013, seven prestigious small liberal arts colleges have appointed their first black presidents. Writing for the Hechinger Report, Nicole Lewis argues the trend signals growing diversity in higher education.

A 2012 surveyfrom the American Council on Education found that out of 1,662 U.S. institutions, just 6% had black presidents. Since that survey, racial tensions have intensified on college campuses, with many black students seeking the safety and support of historically black institutions. 

Now a handful of black presidents are leading colleges that are predominately white, including: 

  • Valerie Smith, Swarthmore College;
  • Sean Decatur, Kenyon College;
  • Joanne Berger-Sweeney, Trinity College;
  • Paula Johnson, Wellesley College;
  • Isiaah Crawford, University of Puget Sound;
  • John Williams, Muhlenberg College; and
  • Melvin Oliver, Pitzer College

Lewis rounds up a few initiatives that these presidents have already launched to diversify their campuses further:

Special invitations

Kenyon invites high-achieving students from underrepresented backgrounds to campus for weekend visits. President Decatur says these visits help Kenyon connect with college counselors to underserved student groups.  

"It gives students from Cleveland, Detroit, or Chicago an opportunity to consider Kenyon, to get to know the campus," Decatur says. "The weekend really plays a role in helping these students see themselves as part of the pool."

Protestor meetings

The Black Lives Matter movement has taken off at campuses across the country. Swarthmore's Smith has responded by seeking to communicate with student protestors, not shun them. When Swarthmore students stood in solidarity last year with student protestors at the University of Missouri, Smith met with student leaders on her own campus. 

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"It was a very eloquent expression of the spirit of collaboration," she says. "The moment was meant to acknowledge solidarity with students across the country, and for the work that has to happen on our campus."

A diversity fund

Trinity President Berger-Sweeney aims to bring in more money to fund diversity initiatives on campus through innovative models. Her plans include utilizing campus resources and facilities when classes aren't in session and using a consortium model to share human resources and administrative responsibilities.

"We have to diversify our revenue in order to diversify our student body," Berger-Sweeney says. "It can't all come from our tuition."

A broader pipeline

Muhlenberg President Williams focuses on building a pipeline of diverse students and future leaders. He partnered with community-based nonprofits to help more minority students attend college. The college also hired new administrators to support multicultural life. The school's board of trustees recently pledged to spend an additional $125,000 annually on diversity initiatives such as need-based financial aid. In addition, half of the tenure-track faculty members hired this year are non-white. 

The personal approach

At Pitzer, the student body is made up of 48% white students, 15% Latino students, and 5% black students. The administration created a coalition to address issues related to diversity, but tensions persisted. When Oliver arrived in July, one of his first challenges was responding to a college roommate adseeking responses from non-white people. 

"Just having a black president doesn't mean everything will be honky dory," Oliver says. "We could have just as much trouble as a white president being everyone's president. You can't just be the president of black students or Latino students."

Oliver has also set his sights on providing financial aid to students from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds (Lewis, Hechinger Report, 10/27). 


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