Voices in Education

Investing in Black Academic Leaders
In 2017, the Philadelphia Inquirer highlighted the fact that the city’s three most prominent universities each had an African American serving in the top academic post. Why was it so newsworthy? Up until that time, only 4 percent of all provosts at four-year institutions in the United States were Black. This statistic caught our eye. Given the historic views on the capacity for intellectualism in the Black community and the low numbers of Black faculty, we knew Black academics at Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) had an uphill climb.

We also knew those Black leaders who had become provosts at PWIs had a unique story to tell. We wanted to learn more about these leaders—not just the barriers they had crossed, but what practices and strategies they and the people around them used to help them attain success. This is what Shaun Harper called an anti-deficit approach to racial and ethnic scholarship.

Our conclusion? University leaders play a huge role in investing in and promoting Black talent. While rising Black leaders can be smart about their own career decisions, they need the support of their institutions and leaders to reach these possibilities. Specifically, leaders can do these four things:
  1. Hire and inspire Black talent. Quite simply, hiring and promoting diverse faculty and staff is the single most powerful move institutions can make to diversify their workforce and leadership positions. But we also learned that many promising Black leaders may not even be considering senior leadership opportunities. About half of our participants said they would not have considered becoming a provost or administrator if not for the suggestion, invitation, or persistent nudging of another senior leader, mentor, or sponsor. One participant said of his mentor, “If it wasn’t for him, I think I wouldn’t have ever thought of being a provost.” Another said, “I did not have, as some people might, a plan that included becoming a provost.” More work needs to be done to empower promising Black academics to pursue these opportunities.
  2. Clear the path for rising leaders. Often administrative and policy obstacles can prevent the rise of promising Black leaders. For example, we were told how important it is that Black faculty members complete the path to full professor before crossing over to administrative work. It may be enticing to pull promising Black faculty into administrative roles early, but this can stunt their leadership progress. We also heard how important it is for Black leaders to serve in core academic leadership positions rather than more specialized roles such as equity and inclusion or student affairs.
  3. Embrace non-mainstream forms of work and research. The acceptability of racial/ethnic scholarship in the academy has improved in recent years but still represents a major obstacle for diverse candidates. In our study, ten out of thirteen of our participants had engaged in some form of Black or ethnic studies either as a primary or secondary field. While this did not appear to hold them back, it may continue to be a challenge to others. In addition, our participants came from a range of backgrounds prior to academia, including teacher, social worker, and hospital administrator. Staying open to nonstandard professional trajectories would help more Black leaders be considered for senior roles.
  4. Create ongoing support. Finally, building ongoing support for Black and other leaders of color is important to ensuring their success. Coaching, professional development, and faculty and staff associations could be made available to these leaders. The role of national organizations and groups focused on the needs of Black academic leaders is also crucial. Many other methods and concrete practices exist for university leaders to make their campus a welcoming place for Black and other leaders of color.
Black leaders remain very underrepresented in roles like the provost job, but this is slowly changing. We have identified at least twenty Black provosts at PWIs named in the last two years. As a university leader your action is needed to continue to hire, mentor, support, and promote others along their path. Who in your sphere of influence can you invest in and support in reaching their leadership potential? Your support can make all the difference.

About the Author: Russell S. Thacker writes regularly on educational leadership, diversity, and innovation and directs a K–12 private school. He received his PhD from the University of Idaho, master’s from George Washington University, and bachelor’s from Brigham Young University. Sydney Freeman, Jr. is a full professor in the College of Education, Health & Human Sciences at the University of Idaho. He is an international authority on such topics as higher education leadership and faculty career development and has published nearly one hundred scholarly and academic related manuscripts.

Russell S. Thacker and Sydney Freeman Jr. are the authors of "'When I Show Up': Black Provosts at Predominantly White Institutions" in the Summer 2021 issue of Harvard Educational Review.