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Asian American Leadership in Higher Education: A ‘Glass Cliff’ or ‘Golden Opportunity?’

What do we mean by a “glass cliff?” It happens when a member of an underrepresented group assumes a leadership role during a period of crisis or downturn, when the chance of failure is highest. Research has documented the “glass cliff” for Asian Americans in corporate America; for instance, when companies are in decline, they’re two and a half times more likely to appoint an Asian American CEO.[i] This made me wonder if there is also a glass cliff for Asian American higher education leaders.

Asians make up 5% of the population, 6.5% of college students, and 8.4% of faculty members — but they comprise only 1% of college presidents.[ii] Based on an annual growth rate of 6%, racial parity in the presidency for Asian Americans will occur by 2036 (see Figure 1 below). Parity is defined as the year in which the representation of Asian Americans in the presidency reflects their overall representation in the U.S. population. Data on the future demographics of the United States come from the U.S. Census Bureau’s projections.

Source: https://www.aceacps.org/minority-presidents-dashboard/#looking-ahead

When, how, and why do Asian Americans ascend the leadership structure of higher education? In my own research, I have found that Asian Americans are underrepresented as endowed professors. In 2018 I co-edited the book Asian/American Scholars of Education: 21st Century Pedagogies, Perspectives, and Experiences. The book shares the knowledge and travails of Asian/American luminaries in the field of education. This unique collection of essays acknowledges the struggle that Asian American Education scholars have faced when it comes to being regarded as legitimate scholars deserving of endowed or distinguished status. A common theme was that the Asian American scholars did not have a direct or linear path to their coveted position. Oftentimes, the position appeared out of nowhere. It wasn’t the fulfillment of a pursuit so much as a serendipitous situation that presented itself. This theme has also been documented in the leadership development of African American higher education leaders.[iii]

When I finished my Ph.D. in 2012, my first faculty position was at a Predominantly White Institution. The PWI, I quickly realized, did not have a desire to invest in my leadership development, which was ironic, because I was a targeted hire and received a handsome $10,000 research budget for the first three years as one of the terms of my employment. After working at the institution for three years, the dean did not even know my name, as evidenced when we ran into each other at Dairy Queen. When I introduced my wife and children to him, he had to ask me what my name was. I chose to leave this PWI for an Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution (AANAPISI) because as an Asian American scholar, I was not being given opportunities to grow or to serve others. Being a department chair was the next experience I felt I needed, and I would get it at the AANAPISI.

The department that I led at the AANAPISI was small but extremely diverse. There were four colleagues in the department (including myself, the only male), and we are all faculty of color (Black, Korean, Taiwanese, Brazilian). To me, serving as department chair was a vital experience as a young scholar—I was in my mid-thirties, and I believe that more young diverse scholars need to be given opportunities not only to lead but to “learn by doing.” What happens to young diverse scholars who are not given opportunities to learn and grow?

I ended up at the edge of a “glass cliff” at the AANAPISI, something I share in the form of counternarrative in my latest edited volume Racial Battle Fatigue in Faculty: Perspectives and Lessons from Higher Education. The president of the AANAPISI that I left has been embroiled in a case of severe mismanagement when it comes to her work with students of color on its student senate, something that has made national news.[iv] In the end, I believe that Asian American leaders, current, aspirant, or prospective, need to understand that they may be on a “glass cliff.” If they are not, it is a golden opportunity for them to serve and lead. But, regardless of the circumstances of their opportunity, Asian American leaders will be surveilled and critiqued, as all leaders of color and minority leaders are.


Nicholas D. Hartlep, Ph.D. is the Robert Charles Billings Chair in Education at Berea College

[i] https://qz.com/work/1399005/struggling-companies-hire-asian-american-ceos-to-right-their-wrongs-but-is-that-a-good-thing/


[ii] https://www.inquirer.com/philly/hp/news_update/20120203_Ursinus__Fong_a_rare_Asian_American_college_president.html

[iii] https://www.higheredjobs.com/Articles/articleDisplay.cfm?ID=2122&Title=Advice+for+Aspiring+Leaders+of+Color%3A+Seven+Insights+from+Black+Provosts+at+Predominantly+White+Institutions&fbclid=IwAR2cXVy9Y-LBhmZ1TJKJPRLTHqGYs_bptpBO_IWm4JS2PZHHS3TK4fiIedw

[iv]  https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2019/08/09/dispute-over-minority-affairs-officers-leads-collapse-student-government

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