DePauw University President Dr. Lori S. White
The college and university presidency, as well as the executive leadership of state higher education systems, both remain overwhelmingly white. According to an American Council on Education report, in 2017, 8% of presidents were Black and 83% were white. Those numbers haven’t drastically changed over the past six years. Also noteworthy is that Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and community colleges account for the largest shares of Black presidents. Most predominantly white institutions haven’t yet hired their first-ever presidents of color, even though student populations on many of those campuses are increasingly diversifying.
The higher education CEO role entails ambassadorship, inspiring students and campus community members, vision setting and actualization, fundraising, and a whole lot of firefighting. Despite their underrepresentation, firsthand encounters with racism (plus sexism for women of color), and often steeper climbs to the highest leadership rank in their profession, numerous long-serving Black higher education CEOs continue to lead their institutions and multicampus systems in extraordinary ways. Some others who are new have entered their executive posts with tremendous fanfare, promise, and laudable early wins. Below is an unranked list of 10 to watch in 2023. This isn’t a ranking. There are other outstanding higher ed CEOs who are Black, but these 10 are indisputably among our nation’s best.
State University of New York System Chancellor Dr. John B. King
John B. King, Chancellor, State University of New York System
It’s no surprise that President Obama’s educator-in-chief is still one of the country’s most colossal educational leaders. King served as the 10th U.S. Secretary of Education. He then went on to lead The Education Trust, a well-respected research and advocacy organization whose high-impact work has been useful in highlighting and remedying racial and socioeconomic inequities throughout the American education system. Prior to joining the Obama Administration, King was the New York State Education Commissioner. He’s now back in New York. This time as Chancellor of the State University of New York (SUNY) System. With 64 colleges and universities, SUNY is the nation’s largest comprehensive university system; it educates nearly 1.3 million students in more than 7,500 degree, certificate, and continuing education programs.
“I’m excited to advance Governor Hochul’s and our Board of Trustees’ vision in making SUNY the best public higher education system in the country,” King says. “Leveraging the strengths of 64 campuses, we can demonstrate that excellence and equity go hand-in-hand, produce cutting-edge research and scholarship, and serve as an engine of economic development and upward mobility for every New Yorker. As a lifelong educator and as a policymaker, I’ve always focused on closing opportunity gaps and I’m committed to improving access and success for historically underserved students, diversifying our faculty and leadership, and preparing all students to thrive in diverse workplaces and communities.”
Helene D. Gayle, President, Spelman College
Spelman is one of the most important colleges in the United States. It’s one of two HBCUs for women. Last July, Gayle assumed the presidency of the college that educated former Surgeon General Dr. Audrey Manley, voting rights leader Stacey Abrams, Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman, Walgreens CEO Rosalind Brewer, and thousands of other Black women leaders. Gayle brought CEO experience with her to Spelman, having served as president of The Chicago Community Trust, one of America’s oldest and largest community foundations. The Trust’s assets grew from $2.8 billion to $4.7 billion during her tenure. An epidemiologist who spent 20 years at the Centers for Disease Control, Gayle also previously led HIV/AIDS, STD, tuberculosis, and reproductive health strategy and programs for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Keith Curry, President and CEO, Compton Community College District
Twelve years ago, Curry became CEO of a California Community College District that had lost its accreditation. He was relentless and strategic in earning it back in 2017. At the time, Compton was part of another community college district. Curry secured $11.3 million in the 2017-2018 California state budget to transition Compton to an independent college. Under his leadership, the College has completed nearly $118 million in renovations and new building construction projects. Curry has secured over $250 million for additional construction projects and student success initiatives, including a $80 million, 250-bed student housing facility. For many years now, Compton has been a national leader in addressing student homelessness and food insecurity. Students of color comprise 98% of its enrollment. California Governor Gavin Newsom appointed Curry to a statewide task force on higher education, equity, and COVID-19 recovery. He also serves on a multiyear commission that’s working to advance racial equity across all California community colleges.
Cambridge, MA: Claudine Gay speaks to the crowd after being named Harvard University’s next … [+]
Claudine Gay, President-Elect, Harvard University
Gay is the daughter of Haitian immigrants. On July 1, she will be the second woman and the first person who isn’t white to serve as president of our nation’s oldest higher education institution. The announcement of her historic appointment garnered significant attention in Forbes and most other major news outlets last month. Gay was a tenured professor at Stanford (her undergraduate alma mater) before joining the faculty at Harvard, the university from which she’d earned her Ph.D. in Government eight years prior. She then climbed the administrative ranks, eventually becoming dean of the University’s largest faculty.
“The idea of the ivory tower, that is the past, not the future, of academia,” Gay proclaimed just moments after it was announced that she’d been selected as the 30th president in the institution’s 386-year history. “We don’t exist outside of society, but as part of it. Harvard has a duty to lean in and engage, and to be in service to the world. Our people, our collections, our research, how we use our convening power in business, in law, in public policy for all of that, our commitment must be to openness and engagement.”
Kim Hunter Reed, Louisiana Commissioner of Higher Education
Louisiana’s top higher ed exec is unrivaled, the absolute best among state-level leaders. The State Higher Education Executive Officers national association presented her its top award in 2020. Reed remains hard at work on establishing and actualizing strategic priorities for all public higher education institutions in Louisiana. She held the same role in Colorado. Before that, she served in the Obama Administration as Deputy Undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Education. She has also led the White House Initiative on HBCUs (makes sense, given that her Ph.D. is from Southern University, one of the nation’s largest HBCUs — and she’s been a faculty member there, too). In 2022, Reed led efforts to secure Louisiana’s largest-ever budget increase for higher education, an additional $150 million. The governor appointed her chair of the Louisiana Cybersecurity Commission last year. Nearly two decades ago, she was Deputy Chief of Staff and Director of Policy and Planning in the Louisiana Governor’s Office. She has also served as the state’s Press Secretary.
Kevin James, President, Morris Brown College
Morris Brown, an Atlanta HBCU, was on life support for many years after losing its accreditation in 2002. At one point, it had only 20 students and just a few faculty members, most of whom were teaching as unpaid volunteers. Remarkably, the College never closed. Its trustees believed James could revive the 142 year-old institution. They were right. His presidency began in 2019. The College regained accreditation three years later, CNN reports. James created #TheHardReset, a campaign to restore Morris Brown. It’s working. Today, the College has 270 students, a provost and department chairs, and several new faculty. One major highlight of the campaign is a $40 million partnership with Hilton hotels (which was initially $30 million). James has also secured $1.5 million from the National Park Service for building repairs, and earlier this month received a $2.9 million federal funding package.
Lori S. White, President, DePauw University
White started her first presidency in July 2020, during the pandemic. “Among the work of which I’m most proud is facilitating a highly collaborative strategic planning process as a new president, 100% over Zoom, involving faculty, staff, students, alumni, and members of the DePauw Board of Trustees,” she notes. “This culminated in DePauw’s Bold and Gold 2027 Strategic Plan, which positions us as a model for the 21st century liberal arts college.”
White did another incredible thing in her first presidential year: she united 70 other presidents to form the Liberal Arts Colleges Racial Equity Leadership Alliance. Member institutions benefit from professional learning, data on their campus racial climates, and a robust digital platform that houses downloadable DEI resources and cross-institution virtual communities of practice. White leads the quarterly convenings of Alliance institution presidents.
All of White’s presidential predecessors were white (and I don’t mean relatives of hers with the same last name). Each was a man. At the time of her appointment, she was the only woman of color to serve as president of a higher education institution in the state of Indiana. Greencastle, where DePauw is located, has around 10,000 residents, 88% of whom are white. The town’s population is only 1.8% Black. The University is considerably more diverse; students of color comprise more than a third of its population. It will surely become even more diverse – so too will its faculty and staff – under White’s leadership. In fact, because of the Alliance, nearly six dozen other liberal arts colleges spanning every geographic region of the country will become more equitable, diverse, and inclusive.
David Kwabena Wilson, President, Morgan State University
Wilson is a veteran president who shows no signs of slowing down or achieving less any time soon. He’s led Morgan State, a public HBCU in Baltimore, with unparalleled excellence for 13 years. Baltimore Business Journal has named him one of the city’s top 10 CEOs. The campus has lots of new buildings and beautiful renovations, a result of the more than $1 billion that’s been raised for construction during the Wilson presidency. The University has also been awarded more than $46 million in NASA contracts since he’s been at the helm. Four years ago, the institution completed a $250 million campaign, the largest in its 156-year history. Last fall, Morgan State announced its plans to start the first new medical school at an HBCU in more than four decades. Wilson was on President Obama’s HBCU Board of Advisors. More recently, he served on the NCAA Board of Governors.
Mautra Staley Jones, President, Oklahoma City Community College
Last year, Oklahoma’s fourth-largest higher education institution welcomed Jones, its first woman and first Black president. Excluding those who’ve led Langston University (Oklahoma’s one HBCU), Jones was the first-ever Black woman CEO of any higher education institution in the state’s history. In her first year, Oklahoma City Community College used its COVID relief funds to forgive nearly $4 million in debt for over 4,500 students who’d enrolled between Spring 2020 and Spring 2022 and had unpaid balances. Last summer, the College received a $1.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to support first generation college students. Prior to becoming OCCC’s President, Jones spent seven years as Langston University’s Vice President for Institutional Advancement and External Affairs. She was inducted into the Oklahoma African American Educators Hall of Fame last fall.
Louisiana State University President Dr. William D. Tate IV
William F. Tate IV, President, Louisiana State University
LSU is a member of the SEC athletic conference. In 2021, Tate became LSU’s first Black president. He also became the first-ever Black president of any university in the SEC. This wasn’t his first presidency. In 2007-2008, Tate served as president of the American Educational Research Association, the world’s largest organization of scholars who study education. Obviously, it was the long, impressive administrative track record that Tate established at Washington University in St. Louis and at the University of South Carolina that made him the top contender for LSU’s presidency. But his background as one of the world’s most brilliant education researchers and social scientists clearly informs his smart leadership of a complex institution that enrolls nearly 36,000 students. Tate highly values and courageously leads in response to evidence, which should be the case among all higher education CEOs in this era of intense political polarization. He takes seriously the University’s social responsibility.
“Perhaps more than any other institution in the nation, LSU has a vital role to play in securing our nation’s future through protecting our state,” Tate asserts. “To address this need, we have built an aligned research agenda focused on a pentagon of excellence — five interdependent areas of research and innovation that include agriculture, biomedical science, coastal restoration, defense (ROTC and cybersecurity), and energy, all of which are central to Louisiana’s economy and America’s position within the international market. But the thing that excites me most is the role we will play in educating the next generation of leaders in each of these fields.”
DePauw University President Dr. Lori S. White