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January 23, 2023

Amid national DEI efforts, Greater Hartford colleges make strides in diversifying top leadership roles

HBJ PHOTO | STEVE LASCHEVER Greater Hartford colleges are led by a number of diverse women and minority leaders including: (Standing from left) Rhona Free, president of the University of St. Joseph; UConn President Radenka Maric; John Maduko, CEO of the Connecticut State Community College system; Zulma Toro, president of Central Connecticut State University; (sitting from left) Joanne Berger-Sweeney, Trinity College president; and Terrence Cheng, president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities.

Corporate America and businesses in general have put a much greater focus on leadership diversity in recent years.

While those efforts have yielded mixed results, one industry has seemed to fare better than many others in promoting diversity within its top ranks: higher education.

And it’s a trend that surfaced even before the May 2020 murder by police of George Floyd, which put a spotlight on racial inequities and forced companies and other organizations to take a hard look at their diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

Meet Greater Hartford's diverse higher-ed leaders

In Connecticut, almost half of the 20 largest colleges and universities in the state are led by women, while minorities are seeing an increasing share of top-level positions.

By comparison, there is only one women CEO leading the 20 largest publicly traded companies headquartered in Connecticut (Judy Marks, chief executive of Otis Worldwide) and one minority leader (Pedro Azagra Blazquez, CEO of energy giant Avangrid), according to a Hartford Business Journal analysis of leadership diversity.

Women and minorities over the past year have been tapped to take over some of Connecticut’s most prestigious higher-education jobs.

Serbia native Radenka Maric in September was named UConn’s second woman president, while John Maduko, a Black man, was named the first-ever president of the Connecticut State Community College system.

Maduko’s boss, Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system President Terrence Cheng, a Taiwanese-American, was named to his position in July 2021.

Nationally, efforts to diversify higher-education leadership have also shown some progress. A 2022 analysis by Inside Higher Ed, found there was a spike in minority university and college president hiring in the wake of Floyd’s killing.

According to Zippia Inc., a site that provides online recruitment services, 54.5% of college presidents in 2010 were men; that number fell to 51.3% in 2019.

Diversity efforts

Of the 20 largest colleges and universities in Connecticut, nine are led by women or minority presidents. Women, overall, have made greater strides in earning leadership roles than minority candidates.

Higher-ed’s diversity efforts stem from several factors, experts said, including heightened awareness of DEI in recent years as well as a stronger and more robust pipeline of women and minority candidates.

There’s also shifting expectations in the competencies colleges are seeking in their leaders.

“Sometimes, the business community has tunnel-vision to its shareholders instead of their true constituents,” said Joanne Berger-Sweeney, who was named the first woman and Black person to lead Trinity College in 2014. “Colleges and universities are preparing students of diverse backgrounds for their lives ahead, and maybe multiple careers. Many (colleges) today feel it is important to have people at the top who reflect that population. Industry, sometimes, has a narrow view (of diversity).”

Murtha Cullina partner Patricia Reilly, a lawyer who is an expert on higher education and diversity issues, said a greater emphasis has been placed on DEI than ever before.

Meet Greater Hartford's diverse higher-ed leaders

“When you looked at the presidents of colleges and universities 20 and 30 years ago they were almost exclusively white men,” Reilly said. “Some of it, yes, was brought on by George Floyd, that public awareness of disparities, but there has also been an emphasis on DEI, both in the private sector and in education.”

Reilly said having diverse individuals lead education institutions also reflects the changing demographics of the student population. More women than men are now enrolled in colleges across the country, while the minority student population is also increasing.

Being in a more progressive state also has its influences, college leaders said.

“We have so many examples (of women leaders) here in Connecticut, and that’s why we are ahead of a lot of states in this area,” said University of St. Joseph President Rhona Free, who has been in her post since 2015. “We’ve had terrific women governors, women in Congress, and women in business and as college presidents. I think the diversity among college presidents is valued and reflects the culture of the state.”

Having women and minorities lead colleges is also vital in sending a message to students, Free said.

“There are a number of benefits to having diversity in leadership,” she said. “It’s important in providing an example so that students know that leadership is not limited by gender, race, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation. It’s even more important because diverse (college) presidents see things differently and can take different approaches to a problem. There is often greater success with diversity because diverse people bring a broader perspective.”

Board directives

Of course, ensuring leadership diversity starts with a school’s board of directors, which is often in charge of major hiring decisions.

Those who hire college presidents and other university leaders said gender and race are two of many factors that go into who is ultimately chosen for the top spot.

Dan Toscano is chairman of UConn’s Board of Trustees, which has 21 members, including seven women and six individuals who are non-white/Hispanic.

Dan Toscano

Toscano played a key role in Maric’s hiring as president of the state’s flagship university.

The school also hired Atlanta-based executive search firm Parker Executive Search to help with its recruitment efforts. UConn tasked the organization with finding diverse candidates, Toscano said.

The school’s national search yielded about 50 applicants and nine were interviewed. Maric ended up as one of three finalists; the other two were white men, Toscano said.

UConn declined to provide a gender and racial breakdown of the 50 candidates, saying the search process was confidential.

“We wanted to hire the best person for the job, but we also wanted to make sure we didn’t miss people because we were too narrowly focused,” Toscano said. “It was important to not limit yourself to sitting university presidents or provosts, something that many colleges and universities do. Candidates representing diversity are in high demand. We went beyond the presidents and provosts and came up with diverse candidates from a variety of different places, including a Black woman who was a sitting law school dean. She was a viable candidate. It was a completely open playing field with many diverse candidates.”

Maric, who at the time of the search process was UConn’s interim president, was, in the end, the best candidate, Toscano said.

“We were thrilled that the best person suited for us just happened to be a woman,” he said. “Being a woman is still identified as an underrepresented class. She is also an immigrant to this country (from Serbia) and she brings a sense of awareness and empathy for others.”

JoAnn Ryan, president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities Board of Regents, which oversees four state universities, community colleges and the online Charter Oak State College, was on the search committee that eventually hired Cheng and Maduko to their leadership roles.

Ryan, also CEO of the Northwest Connecticut Chamber of Commerce, said it was important to get a strong, diverse candidate pool.

Ryan emphasized that both Cheng and Maduko were more than qualified for their respective jobs.

“We were so fortunate that the individuals we selected came from a background different from ours,” Ryan said. “They could enhance and add so much to the culture and, having people from different ethnicities and diversity is really key in attracting and retaining students.”

Room for improvement

While colleges have made strides in diversifying their top ranks, they still have more work to do when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion, said Fred McKinney, partner and co-founder of Trumbull-based economic consulting firm BJM Solutions LLC.

HBJ Photo | Steve Laschever
Fred McKinney

McKinney spent 25 years on the faculty of four colleges and universities, including the UConn School of Business and Quinnipiac University. He also served on the board of New Haven-based Gateway Community College.

He said colleges in general are “still lacking faculty representation of Black and brown people in their departments.”

Since presidents often work their way up from a faculty position, it behooves colleges to do a better job in attracting minority professors and staff, McKinney said.

“They need to do a better job at getting young people interested in pursuing academics,” McKinney said. “They need to go into middle schools and high schools and build that pipeline. Share this information with young people and let them know there is a good career for them and the opportunity to make a good living as a university professor.”

In addition, McKinney said, colleges need to focus on diversifying their boards, since they make the hiring decisions.

He said that while most college boards are more diverse than they were 20 years ago, “they are still not where they should be.”

Meet Greater Hartford's diverse higher-ed leaders

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