Last month, as thousands of California State University graduates tossed mortarboards to the sky, the CSU trustees quietly issued a news release that deserved as much confetti as the multicolored paper shreds left in the stadium stands of the system’s 23 campuses.
What was the big news? The appointment of Ellen N. Junn as president of California State University, Stanislaus.
Oddly unheralded was the transformational nature of this appointment, which brings the percentage of women presidents at CSU to just below half.
In August 2015 in these pages, I called upon the leadership of California State University to increase the number of women serving as campus presidents.
At that time, only seven, or 30 percent, of CSU’s 23 campuses were led by women – and one was a temporary appointment. Of the seven women, one was African American, five were white, and one was a Latina. No Asian women held a top position.
California paled in comparison to the State University of New York, where women presidents led 48 percent of the colleges similar to those in the CSU system.
That was then – and this is now. Due to the trustees’ five appointments since January, women presidents will now lead 11 of 23 CSU campuses, or 48 percent. Two of the five recent appointments are Asian American and three are white. Two campuses – Channel Islands and Chico – will be led by a female president for the first time.
Faced with last year’s underwhelming statistics, the CSU trustees could have taken an easier path: dismissing the numbers as bean-counting or arguing that the pool of qualified candidates was too shallow.
Instead, the CSU trustees and Chancellor Timothy P. White embraced and renewed their commitment to diversity.
They recruited and then recruited some more – all in the name of making CSU’s leadership look more like the students they are charged with teaching and inspiring.
According to Kelsey Brewer, one of two student trustees at CSU: “In our listening sessions on our campuses, the trustees heard from students, faculty and staff that they wanted presidents who reflected the student body. We set out to make sure we had a diverse pool of applicants. It was a team effort, and it was very intentional.”
To be sure, the primary responsibility of the new women presidents is not to simply represent women. But one hopes, as research has found with elected women, that these female academic leaders will bring to their work a sensitivity about what it means to be the “other,” to face overt and subliminal discrimination, to battle the low self-esteem that too often accompanies secondary social status.
And one hopes that this sensibility will infuse actual programs – like recruiting and supporting women from diverse backgrounds for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) classes, and stepped-up compliance on Title IX, whether it be curbing sexual harassment and assault, ensuring athletic opportunities or opening doors for pregnant and parenting students. And for faculty and staff? Expanding workplace programs to help balance family and caregiving responsibilities.
The pursuit of diversity – gender, race/ethnicity, LGBTQ and more – is an ongoing responsibility, and CSU’s work is not done. But through the appointment of five women in the short span of four months, CSU leaders pushed the percentage of women campus presidents close to the glass ceiling’s breaking point.
That kind of transformational leadership deserves acknowledgment, applause – and a lot more confetti.
Kate Karpilow writes on issues affecting women, families and children. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.