Why Are There So Few Black Women Leaders on College Campuses?

Why Are There So Few Black Women Leaders on College Campuses?

Why Are There So Few Black Women Leaders on College Campuses?

Forced to face the twin hurdles of racism and sexism, black women leaders are underrepresented on college campuses. 


Chiquita Jackson started this school year at the University of Kansas with a historic opportunity: She was elected to serve as the first president of the Multicultural Student Government. The University of Kansas MSG was born in the in fall, 2015 following the student protests and hunger strike by black students and boycott by football players at the University of Missouri. In 2015, the student government at the University of Kansas became a contested site of race and representation; in response, students of color created a separate governing body, the Multicultural Student Government, in 2016. Jackson was elected the organization’s president in 2017, making her both the first to lead the organization and one of the few black women leaders on campus.

But by February, the story turned bleak and messy. Jackson, a 23-year-old senior majoring in political science, was removed from office after only one semester. Two black men led the effort to remove Jackson from office. Anthonio Humphrey, former vice president of MSG, said that she mishandled funds, behaved disrespectfully toward members and was unfair to other racial minorities. This ultimately led to the organization’s call for her resignation.

Ariana Jenkins, a recent graduate of the University of Kansas, said misogyny played a role in ousting Jackson. Jenkins pointed out that a former chief of staff for the organization had been accused of mishandling funds but was given an opportunity to make repayment. Unlike Jackson, that student is a man. “He was given the chance to reimburse MSG, but Jackson was not given that same chance,” Jenkins said. “The protocol in the entire removal process was very messy. There was not enough time for them to highlight the points in which they were trying to dismiss her from the presidency.”

The challenges to Jackson’s leadership exhibit the obstacles that black women face on college campuses when they find themselves in positions of power. Regardless of whether they are students or administrators, when black women are leaders in academia, they are forced to face the twin hurdles of racism and sexism. This kind of resistance to their leadership, along with institutional barriers, may contribute to the dearth of black women leaders on college campuses: Only 7 percent of student body presidents in the 2017–18 school year were black women, according to an American Student Government Association database. In 2016 only 5 percent of college presidents were women of color, while 25 percent were white women, according to the American Council of Education.

Where Are the Black Women Leaders?

Despite being underrepresented in campus leadership, black women receive a majority of higher-education degrees earned by all black students, earning 68 percent of associate’s degrees, 66 percent of bachelor’s degrees, 71 percent of master’s degrees and, 65 percent of doctoral degrees, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Despite having an edge in the classroom, black women are not commonly found among the top leadership of colleges and universities. A Campaign for College Opportunity March 2018 report found that among the diverse populations of California colleges, there are gaps for students of color in leadership positions, including black women. For example, at the University of California-Los Angeles black women make up only 3 percent of academic senate membership and aren’t represented at all in senior leadership positions.

The First and Only

When black women step into leadership positions, they are often “the first,” a designation that carries significant challenges. In May 2018, Lily McNair, PhD, was selected as Tuskegee University’s eighth president, making her the first woman president in the school’s 136-year history. Current and former college administrators say that they are stuck in the middle of a dichotomy of success for black women leaders on college campuses—the excitement of being the first and not being satisfied with being the only one in their position. Among African-American college presidents (8 percent of the total US college presidents), black women make up 34 percent, according to data from the American Council of Education.

Yolanda Pierce, PhD, who was recently named the first black woman dean of Howard’s Divinity School in the school’s 150-year history, said the obstacles of black women leaders stem from those in control of hiring. “I knew I was becoming the first woman dean in the school’s history, and so I think it just really begs the question that in 150 years, where have the other women been?” Pierce said. “It wasn’t that I had some sense that I was more qualified than some women 30 years ago or 50 years ago, but it was that some shifts have occurred in terms of higher education and black female leadership. So it was a bittersweet moment. I’m glad to serve as the first [black female] dean, but I don’t want to be the last one.”

Mentorship is the key for sustaining black women leaders especially those in high levels because there are few black women there, Pierce said.

“I think having a mentor is a really valuable and important thing. I also think that questions of racism and sexism always come into play,” she said. “I think it’s very true that black women have to be two and three and four times better than their other counterparts in order to be taken seriously, in terms of their leadership.”

Bernadette Gray-Little, who became the first woman and first black chancellor at the University of Kansas in 2009, echoed that sentiment, saying it is key for more black women to succeed in senior leadership positions, despite the difficulty of those positions. Gray-Little retired in 2017.

“I think the main thing is being ready and being in the right place,” Gray-Little said. “My experience in becoming a chancellor was probably the most typical kind of experience you would have—you had been a faculty member, then a role in university leadership, then you become visible and someone asks you to apply for a chancellor job. More people [in this case, black women] need to get in that place where they’re doing those things, leading up to that path.”

Missing Black Girls

The dearth of black women administrators in academia is mirrored in the students on college campuses. Margo McClinton Stoglin, the Texas director for Ignite, a nonprofit that seeks to train the next generation of women political leaders, said while working with Latinx and black college women in Texas, she hasn’t known any black woman to be a student-body president at a predominately white institution, despite seeking office.

“We are seeing that our young women are running for student-government leadership,” McClinton Stoglin said. “They talk about the fact that they have other hurdles to jump over in terms of managing their finances, managing their work and managing academics. Ignite has helped them navigate those constraints and helped them think more strategically on how they can still run for those positions.”

Black women sometimes face resistance when they do hold top student-government positions. When Taylor Dumpson became the first black woman student-government president at American University last year, on her first day in office bananas were hung from campus buildings on string tied like nooses. The bananas had the words “Harambe” and “AKA” written on them. Dumpson belongs to the historically black sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated. She didn’t finish her term and resigned in January 2018 to “focus on my health and education,” she told the American University student newspaper The Eagle.

Some black women student leaders have to play catch-up and are at a disadvantage in attaining leadership positions, especially those who are first-generation college students, said Kimbrely Dandridge. She became the first black woman student body president at the University of Mississippi in her junior year in 2012.

“When I was growing up, I didn’t have a lot of exposure to how things were on a college campus. Neither of my parents went to college,” said Dandridge, who is now a lawyer at the Butler Snow Law Firm in Tennessee. “I didn’t really know the dynamics of how college was set up and how I was supposed to go on campus and make a space for myself. I feel like a lot of times for [black people] it’s a lot harder because we’re on campus trying to figure things out, and it’s our first introduction, unlike our white counterparts.”

Jackson believes there is also a lack of support of black women leaders even within the black community.

“We don’t get the same respect; we don’t get the same support in return,” Jackson said. “They would rather have a black male, a black non-radical male, who will just go with the flow instead of accepting black women leaders who really want to make a change on campus.”

Humphrey felt differently. Although he said he believes that Jackson worked hard for MSG, he said that she wasn’t always a good leader in her role as president.

“This wasn’t about gender. This wasn’t about color. This is about mismanagement of funds and professional leadership,” Humphrey said.

Jasmyne Neely, an African-American Studies major at the University of Kansas, said that she remained neutral about the incident because she wasn’t involved with MSG. Although she said that Jackson’s removal was unfortunate, Neely didn’t think it would prevent more black women from taking leadership positions. However, she did mention that misogyny does play into these types of situations, although it might not have played a role in Jackson’s situation.

“Black men are quicker to clapback and persecute black women than they are to clapback and persecute another black man,” Neely said.

While the obstacles facing black women’s leadership on college campuses are clear, there’s hope for the future. Amber Dodd, a senior at Mississippi State University, is the secretary of her school’s NAACP branch and is excited to become the chapter’s president next year. Though she’s aware of the challenges that she might face, it hasn’t dampened her enthusiasm for leadership.

“A lot of people don’t see me as a leader at all, actually,” Dodd said. “But I’m just committed to making sure that my community stands strong at Mississippi State University, so if I have to be a secretary of the NAACP or a member of the Black Student Association to do that, then I will.”

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