As search for next president narrows, diversity brought to the forefront

Many faculty, staff and students have called on the University to consider people of color and women in the search.

Illustrated by Hailee Schievelbein

Illustrated by Hailee Schievelbein

Austen Macalus

Last month, biomedical engineering professor Jonathan Sachs pointed out an issue that has become increasingly prevalent in the search for the next University of Minnesota president: diversity.

“I’m wondering if you could tell us how many of the previous presidents were women?” Sachs asked members of the University’s search firm at a Senate meeting in October. “And how many were underrepresented minorities?”

Rod McDavis, managing principal of AGB Search, provided the same answer to both questions: “Zero.” 

Since its founding in 1851, the University has never selected a person of color or a woman to serve as its president. All 16 presidents — from William Folwell to Eric Kaler — have been white and male. Many University members hope that will change. 

Faculty, students and staff have called on the University to strongly consider candidates that are female and from communities of color — some support selecting a candidate based on these considerations. And as the field of candidates narrows, those hopes could become a reality. 

Last week, the presidential search committee narrowed its list of candidates for the position, interviewing nine candidates out of a pool that included over 60 applicants. Women made up five of the nine interviewed, and one-third were people of color — a positive sign for those who support increased diversity.  

“Of course we think the next president should be the best person for the job and that person just might be someone from a community of color or a female,” said Keisha Varma, chair of the University Senate’s Equity, Access and Diversity committee.

Varma said she is encouraged by the search process thus far. 

“It seems to me that there’s going to be a likelihood that we consider having someone who might be a female or might be from a underrepresented group for the next president because I feel like so many have voiced their desire to have that,” Varma said.

Across the country, fewer than 20 percent of college presidents are minorities; women make up fewer than one-third of presidents, according to the American Council on Higher Education’s 2017 survey of schools. Those numbers are only a slight increase from the past decade. 

Undergraduate student body president Simran Mishra said the University has made progress when it comes to issues of diversity on campus, including recruiting and retaining people of color. 

“But we have long, long ways still to go,” Mishra said. “If our next president is from a diverse background and truly understands the value of diversity and is committed to making an impact in a sense, our University can continue that same momentum forward.”

Mishra said she supports selecting a president who comes from a diverse background. 

“Not just in the sense of visible diversity,” Mishra said. “But genuinely someone who has had experiences that were different from the norm and through those experiences has developed a sense of empathy to understand the needs of students who are marginalized on campus.” 

Ian Ringgenberg, head of the University’s Professional and Administrative Senate, said many people want a president who can improve the campus climate for traditionally marginalized communities. 

“There’s a culture in higher education that we’ve been working on changing for decades. Not only our institution, but higher education in general is a centuries-old, arcane organization, and one that traditionally has a very firm power structure,” he said. “As we consider what we want our University to be and who it represents, I think there’s a real desire to see not a white man in the position.”

The University’s current group of front-runners for president featured more diversity than the applicant pool at large. Women made up over half of those interviewed, but only 22 percent of total applicants. One-third of those interviewed were people of color, compared to one-fourth of applicants. 

A diverse pool of candidates is important, but University members are looking for the best candidate, regardless of race or gender, said Joseph Konstan, chair of the Faculty Consultative Committee. 

“In the end, if we made a good faith effort and we interviewed candidates of color [and] women and had a diverse pool, and the best person we find that’s interested in coming here happened to white and male, I think we can accept that,” he said. 

Konstan had called on the University to release demographic data on candidates throughout the search to aid this process.

After interviewing candidates, the committee will vet a smaller list of candidates before the search committee recommends a list of finalists to the Board of Regents. 

Diversity remains an important consideration for many on campus. But the final decision will be up to the regents. 

“It would be wonderful if we added a different looking picture along the set of photographs and portraits that we have,” Konstan said.