Since 1889, Elon University has had eight presidents. All of them have been white men.
And if you ask sophomore Shawna Harris-Lenior, president of the Elon chapter of the National Council of Negro Women, she fully expects that 128-year trend to continue when Elon names its ninth president this year.
“When they say they’re looking, all I think is, ‘Oh, white men,’” she said. “I think the lack of African-Americans has to be talked about.”
As the search for President Leo Lambert’s successor continues, students voiced concerns of the lack of ethnicity in university presidents. And the stats support them. A recent study by the American Council on Education says minorities made up just 17 percent of presidents of institutes of higher education in 2016. Women only encompassed 30 percent of presidents, according to the study.
In periodic emails to the Elon community, Wes Elingburg, a trustee and chair of the search comittee, said diversity and inclusion will play a part in their search.
Now, students say they need to prove it.
“We talk about being a diverse school — they want to become one,” said senior Max Herrera, a member of Latinx, the Latino-Hispanic Union. “I think it starts with the administration — that’s across all schools in the United States.”
Through Vice President of University Communications Dan Anderson, Elingburg declined to comment for this story.
But Herrera said he hopes the search committee remembers that diversity goes beyond race.
“It goes beyond being ethnically diverse, racially diverse, socioeconomically diverse — there are so many different identities out there,” Herrera said. “I hope we find a president who knows how to support all of those.”
His ideal candidate, Herrera said, “Is someone who also thinks diversity is extremely important.” When the search committee solicited opinions from the community with forums and surveys in the spring, Herrera said he expressed just that.
“Diversity, to me, is the most important thing at this school. So, I said somebody who would at least support that,” Herrera said. “If they’re of color, or even a woman, that would be fantastic — in fact, I would prefer that. But I hope at least this person comes from a diverse background of opinions, different cultures and they have a good understanding of what it means to be a diverse school.”
And in doing so, some students said that would be reminiscent of Lambert. Since the beginning of his presidency, Lambert championed causes for inclusivity. In 1999-2000, his first academic year as president, only 315 ethnically diverse students were enrolled. In 2016-2017, that number surged to 1, 011. Other initiatives Lambert started were the Center for Race, Ethnicity and Diversity Education, the Center for Access and Success and El Centro. When state and national situations questioned the welfare of marginalized groups, such as House Bill 2 and President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration, Lambert immediately responded, saying he would do everything in his power to protect his students.
Regardless of race, junior Emily Golden said she wants someone who will follow Lambert’s footsteps — or at least attempt to.
“Someone who can fill Leo Lambert’s shoes — how is that even possible?” Golden asked. “I think President Lambert has done an amazing job of being engaged with the students and really setting a vision for Elon in the next 10 or 20 years. So, I think someone coming in should also share that vision and should be willing to engage with the community and listen to what the students of Elon.”
The female minority
Golden is a member of She Can Lead — a new on-campus organization that promotes leadership development among girls and women. Golden echoed Herrera’s interest in a female candidate for university president.
North Carolina has few of them.
In North Carolina, out of the 130 unversites and colleges listed on National Center for Education in 2016, females composed just 23 percent of presidents.* Golden says that simply resembles the national trend. But she hopes Elon will be different.
“I think it speaks to the national trend that women are treated differently when it comes to leadership and aren’t often the first to come to mind when you think of people who are considered leaders,” Golden said. “More women should be considered to be presidents of universities. It would be great if Elon had a female president, but we shall see.”
And in terms of minority women, the stats are far fewer. Just 5 percent of university presidents in the United States were women of color in 2016. In North Carolina, they also made up just 5 percent. Lenoir said that needs to change. But she’ll be surprised if Elon’s next president is someone of color.
“Those people who are presidents are at HBCU campuses, so I think this is an issue that has to be talked about — especially on PWI [predominantly white institution] campuses,” Harris-Lenoir said. “I would be very surprised and if it was a woman. I would be very very surprised because that’s not normally who’s in higher education.”
Her reservations aside, Harris-Lenoir said she wants a president of high moral character — regardless of race.
“I think I would want the new president to be honest and real with us so that we can be honest and real with everyone else on campus,” Harris-Lenoir said.
“I hope that he’s open-minded — he provides a new voice that we’re missing. Of course, we have diversity trainings and things like that, but it’s a bigger issue that we need to talk about.”
Golden, too, expressed hope in the search committee.
“It would be really wonderful to see a female candidate, and I hope that if there was a female candidate, she would be treated with the same respect the male candidates get treated with.”
Herrera said he hopes to see the Presidential Search Committee taking the students’ opinions into account while making their decision.
“I have faith in members of the search committee — they know diversity is important here, and I just have faith that they will find the right candidate for us,” Herrera said. “I know Morgan Bodenarain, the SGA president, and I have faith in her. Diversity is something that is extremely important to her.”
*The Grace School of Divinity, Grace College of Barbering, Grace College of Divinity, Jung Tao School of Classical Chinese, Mercy School of Nursing and Watts School of Nursing were excluded from the North Carolina statistics because no information regarding their president was available online.