Cal State system has a major gender diversity problem

Susan Martin, who takes office Tuesday as San Jose State’s interim president, is one of seven women to lead CSU campuses.
Susan Martin, who takes office Tuesday as San Jose State’s interim president, is one of seven women to lead CSU campuses. California State University

Only 7 of 23 presidents in the California State University system are women, counting Susan Martin who takes office Tuesday as president of San Jose State with a one-year interim appointment.

Ten of the 23 CSU campuses have never had a woman as president – including the well-known colleges based in Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Francisco, San Diego and San Luis Obispo.

Since the first state college was founded in San Jose in 1857 (the CSU system was created in 1960), only 17 of the 183 presidents – 9 percent – have been women.

Gains in ethnic representation are largely due to the appointment of men. Currently, two Asian men lead campuses, but not a single Asian woman. Male Latino CSU presidents outnumber Latinas 5 to 1. And two African American men serve as CSU presidents, but only one African American woman.

CSU has a better track record since Chancellor Timothy White took office in late 2012, but a significant gender imbalance remains. That’s why the recent appointment of Robert Nelsen, a 63-year-old white man – and a cowboy-boot-wearing Texan – was a surprising choice to lead Sacramento State.

Should we care? Absolutely.

College presidents set priorities for their campuses, control access to resources, mentor midcareer leaders and build bridges with businesses and community groups – responsibilities that play out differently when women and people of color are at the helm.

So what to do?

First, make diversity a top priority. To ensure that campus leadership reflects the diversity of our state, CSU trustees and the chancellor need to use every appointment to pursue gender and ethnic parity. No more cowboy boots – unless they have pink fringe.

Second, make better use of interim appointments. Consider this missed opportunity: When the president of CSU Chico took medical leave earlier this year, a 70-year-old white man was appointed as acting president. White heralded the interim leader as providing a “seamless transition.”

But what if a woman had been given the reins, even for a short duration, and described as “an up-and-comer,” a “future president”? What if the background and vision of a Latina had been acknowledged as inspirational to thousands of first-generation college students?

Every appointment counts: CSU leaders need to use interim appointments not only to ensure seamless leadership, but also to build the bench of future leaders.

Finally, no excuses. The state of New York is near parity in the appointment of women as state college presidents. Of the 21 campuses in the State University of New York system that function like CSU campuses, 10 are headed by women – or 48 percent, far higher than the 30 percent in California.

There’s no way around it. Faced with the same national pool of candidates for potential college presidents, higher education leaders in the Empire State are outhustling leaders in the Golden State.

It’s time for trustees and Chancellor White to step up their commitment to diversity – and appoint more women from all backgrounds to serve as college presidents in the CSU system.

Kate Karpilow is executive director of the California Center for Research on Women and Families.