Mila Koumpilova, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Published March 29 2014
Women assuming top jobs on Minnesota campuses in unusually high numbersST. PAUL – For years, Cecilia Cervantes was content in midlevel college administration.
With few female campus leaders in the 1990s, aiming higher barely crossed her mind. It was the push by mentors that eventually led Cervantes to the Hennepin Technical College presidency in late 2008 – a journey spanning a decade and five states.
Women are having their moment on Minnesota’s campuses.
Almost a dozen have recently joined Cervantes in taking over a Minnesota college or university. In the past two weeks alone, three Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, or MnSCU, institutions tapped female leaders to replace retiring male presidents. And the private Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter and Luther Seminary in St. Paul have introduced their first female presidents.
Today, as women nationally make up roughly a quarter of campus presidents, nearly half of MnSCU’s current or incoming presidents are female.
Leaders across the country have argued that campus leadership should more closely mirror the demographics of college students. In Minnesota, 56 percent of undergraduates and 70 percent of graduate students are women, according to the state’s Office of Higher Education.
“It’s important for our student body to see themselves represented in what top campus leadership looks like,” said Kim Bobby of the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C. “That leads to heightened aspirations.”
Meanwhile, top leaders of color remain a small minority both in Minnesota and nationally. That’s even as the number of minority students has ticked up. They make up 23 percent of undergraduates and almost 40 percent of grad students in Minnesota.
More on top
MnSCU is proud of its recruiting efforts, said Chancellor Steve Rosenstone.
Earlier this month, women were selected to take over three outstate community and technical colleges. Now, 14 of 30 MnSCU institutions have current or incoming female presidents. (Two Dakota County colleges are sharing a president this year.) Six of the MnSCU presidents are leaders of color.
Of four semifinalists to step in for Rochester Community and Technical College interim President Gail O’Kane, three are women and three are black.
Female leaders also have claimed top jobs at private institutions. Among the 17 members of the Minnesota Private College Council, five have or are about to have female presidents.
The council’s two members that serve female students exclusively – St. Catherine University in St. Paul and the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph – traditionally have had women at the helm.
Earlier this year, when Mary Hinton was named the new president at St. Benedict, she became the first person of color appointed to lead a Minnesota Private College Council member institution. Meanwhile, Gustavus President-elect Rebecca Bergman will follow Hamline University’s Linda Hanson and Julie Sullivan at the University of St. Thomas as the first female presidents on their campuses.
Among more than a dozen private nonprofit institutions unaffiliated with the Minnesota Private College Council, one has became the first black woman to lead the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities in 2012. The Rev. Robin Steinke will become Luther Seminary’s first female president in June.
The University of Minnesota hasn’t had a female or minority president. Jacqueline Johnson, though, serves as chancellor in Morris, one of four outstate campuses.
Chuck Tombarge, the university’s communications director, says President Eric Kaler has looked to bring together a diverse group of senior leaders. His 11-member leadership team includes six women and two blacks.
“Diversity is a top priority for President Kaler,” Tombarge said. “That’s true in hiring, in admissions, in attracting and retaining faculty and staff.”
John Slama of the Minnesota Career College Association said recent years have seen a marked increase in female campus leaders at for-profit institutions, as well.
Mentored and mentoring
For Cervantes, the president of Hennepin Tech, it took connecting with the National Community College Hispanic Council to plant the idea of pursuing higher campus office.
“Because there’s been such a scarcity of role models, it’s hard to see ourselves in those roles,” she said.
Mentors in the group – all of them male – pushed her to take on roles of greater responsibility. They urged her not to shy away from relocating, which was often difficult to juggle with the demands of family. A mother of two, she moved from Colorado to Texas to New Mexico to California and on to Minnesota.
Cervantes, who previously served as president at the College of Alameda in California, says her gender and race help in Hennepin Tech’s push to draw more women and minorities to campus. Now, each group makes up about 40 percent of the student body.
Student Brandy Finley says Cervantes – a regular at concerts, competition and other student events – strikes an approachable figure on campus.
Cervantes has encouraged Finley, once a high school introvert, to get involved – from the college’s Gay Straight Alliance to a new club Finley helped start called Leadership and Knowledge Empower Real Students, or LAKERS.
“As I got to know Cecilia, she helped me grow a lot more,” said Finley, a culinary arts student.
Bobby says in academia and beyond, women still face some unconscious bias about who makes a strong leader and, occasionally, mostly white and male presidential search committees.
The American Council on Education’s leading presidential demographics study in 2012 found white men in their 50s and older continue to dominate the job nationally.
Women made up 26 percent of all presidents, up from 23 percent six years earlier. Meanwhile, they accounted for 57 percent of faculty and senior administrative staff. The portion of minorities in top academic jobs actually slipped a percentage point in that period, to 13 percent.
In the Chronicle of Higher Education’s presidential pay survey released late last year, six female leaders made the list of the top 20 highest compensated in public institutions. Four landed on that list for private campuses. None were from Minnesota.
A 2013 Council on Education study suggests a larger crop of female contenders for a presidency might be coming up the senior administrator ranks. Women now hold 43 percent of those senior leadership positions at four-year institutions. Only 14 percent are racial or ethnic minorities.
The council hosts as many as half a dozen forums for female mid-level and senior administrators interested in claiming presidential slots.
“Women are ready to step up to the plate,” Bobby said. “They are eager to lead.”
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.