Academic Leadership by Race

Student diversity grows while leadership remains mostly White

America has a long history of racism, from the era of slavery to the historic march for civil rights to the current Black Lives Matter movement. Yet while significant progress has been made over the last century, minority groups are still underrepresented in the workplace, especially in high-level positions. This is even more apparent in the higher education industry, whereas of 2018, White people make up 68% of faculty.

The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education provides a timeline, stretching back to the end of the 18th century when John Chavis, a Presbyterian minister and teacher, became the first Black person to attend college (now Washington and Lee University) in 1799. It wasn’t until 24 years later that Alexander Lucius Twilight became the first person known Black American to earn a degree (from Middlebury College). By 1900, more than 2,000 Black Americans had earned college degrees. Around 390 of these were obtained from White institutions. Today, education is seen as the most direct path to the middle class. Yet while the student population became more diverse, the faculty remained White, even at Black colleges.

Growth was equally slow for Black representation in academic leadership. Henry Martin Freeman became the first Black college president in 1856 (at Avery College). The first Black academic to be named president of a predominantly White school was Patrick Francis Healy in 1874, at Georgetown University. The Journal notes that he had passed for White. It wasn’t until 1969 that Clifton R. Wharton Jr. became the second Black president of a predominantly White university, Michigan State.

According to the Pew Research Center, Latinx, Black, and Asian American faculty made up 5%, 6% and 11%, respectively, of faculty in 2017. Members of these and other minority groups are even more rare in academic leadership. This is despite the fact that the percentage of students from minority communities has been growing. As more minority students enroll in colleges, the need for a diverse faculty grows. Diversity among academic leadership is crucial for effective management of the institution and the ability to relate to and educate the student body.

Key Takeaways

  • Top academic leadership positions are typically held by White men. Racial minority women are the most underrepresented group.
  • According to the Center for Education Statistics, as of 2018 White people made up around two-thirds of the faculty at colleges and universities.
  • The racial gap between faculty and students at higher education institutions continues to widen.

Minorities Are Underrepresented in Full-Time Faculty Positions

Black professionals make up a mere 0.8% of Fortune 500 CEOs and just 3.2% of all executive and senior-level officials and managers, according to a 2019 study from the Center for Talent and Innovation, now known as Coqual. The higher education industry is not much better; racial minorities make up only 14% of administrators, according to 2016 figures from the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (CUPA-HR).

Full-time Black and Latinx faculty are represented similarly in colleges and universities. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2018, these groups combined made up just 12% of professors, associate professors, assistant professors, instructors, and lecturers. White people made up the largest portion of all positions and represented 80% of full-time professors.

Administrative positions in higher education are also dominated by White people. In 2017, minority-group academics made up just over 10% of college provosts/chief academic affairs officers. Meantime, 83% of college presidents across all types of postsecondary education institutions were White. Black college presidents had the next highest representation (8%), followed by Latinx presidents (4%). In 35 years, the number has grown exceedingly slowly; 92% of college presidents were White in 1986.

Racial Wage Gaps in Higher Education

According to, the controlled racial wage gap is defined as “a comparison of pay between white men and people of color who have the same job and qualifications.” Even in today’s diverse workforce, a racial wage gap exists across industries.

In the U.S. workforce, Asian workers are the highest paid group, earning $1.023 for every $1 a White man earns. The next highly paid group is Pacific Islanders, followed by Indigenous, White, Latinx, and Black workers.

There is a similar pattern within higher education administrators: White, Latinx, and Black administrators are paid less than Asian American administrators, who make up 2% of college administrative positions and earn significantly more than their Latinx, White, and Black counterparts. However, the incomes of these other three groups are very close overall. “When it comes to salaries, minority administrators as a whole are paid equitably in relation to their non-minority (White) colleagues. In other words, minority pay matches non-minority pay dollar for dollar. What’s more, this salary parity has remained fairly steady for the past 15 years,” reports a 2017 study from CUPA-HR.

Racial Minority Women

Racial minority women are the least represented and lowest paid group in both the overall workforce and in the higher education industry. This group is susceptible to greater bias because of the intersectionality of their identities. For example, women face discrimination in the workplace, as do Black people, so a Black woman is very likely to experience bias due to both issues.

Black women earn just $0.65 for every dollar a White man earns, while Latinx women earn $0.58, according to a 2015 Pew Research study. Black men earn $0.72, Latinx men get $0.69, and White women earn $0.82. The gap narrows for racial minority women who work in staff, faculty, administrative, and professional positions. In fact, there is a greater wage gap for White women who are college administrators than for racial minority women in the same role.

Racial Gaps Between Faculty and Students

In recent years, colleges and universities have begun to recognize the importance of a diverse student body, taking both income and race into consideration. Stories of unfair admissions practices made headlines, including alleged discrimination against Asian American applicants to Harvard and celebrities buying their way into top colleges. Although there is still a long way to go before true diversity is achieved, colleges and universities have made some progress.

Today the focus is shifting toward the demographic composition of the faculty. As college students become more diverse, the staff and administration remain largely White. For example, a 2017 Pew Research Study found that 20% of college students were Latinx, compared with just 5% of faculty. Forty-five percent of undergraduate students were minorities, compared with only 24% of faculty.

The racial gap has narrowed slightly over the last two decades (1997–2017) when looking at nonwhite people as a whole. In 1997, minority groups made up 28% of students and 14% of faculty. However, Black and Latinx representation in faculty barely moved. Black representation increased from 5% to 6%, and Latinx grew from 3% to 5%.

The Bottom Line

Having diverse leadership in higher education is important for the institution and the student body. Having minority representation in faculty, administration, and staff will improve student engagement and retention, as well as classroom discussions, and help prepare students for the workforce. Racial gaps will not improve overnight, but there are steps that colleges and universities can take to help speed up the process:

  • Evaluate existing pay and representation to identify any gaps.
  • Ensure fair market wages and competitive salaries when competing for minority candidates.
  • Examine employee turnover, age, and experience of existing minority employees to identify those who can potentially move up the career track.

Higher education has come a long way since segregation and all-male colleges. Taking steps today will help institutions narrow the pay and representation gaps, creating a more equitable environment for all students, faculty, staff, and administrators.

Article Sources

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  2. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. “Key Events in Black Higher Education.” Accessed Feb. 16, 2021.

  3. Pew Research Center. “College faculty have become more racially and ethnically diverse, but remain far less so than students.” Accessed Feb. 22, 2021.

  4. American Council on Education. “Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education.” Page 247. Accessed Feb. 16, 2021.

  5. Coqual. "Being Black in Corporate America: An Intersectional Exploration." Page 2. Accessed Feb. 16, 2021.

  6. College and University Professional Association for Human Resources. "Pay and Representation of Racial/Ethnic Minorities in Higher Education Administrative Positions: The Century So Far, 2017." Page 4. Accessed Feb. 16, 2021. 

  7. National Center for Education Statistics. “Race/Ethnicity of College Faculty" Accessed February 22, 2021. 

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  9. American Council on Education. “Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education.” Pages 266 and 267. Accessed February 22, 2021.

  10. “The Racial Wage Gap Persists in 2020.” Accessed February 22, 2021.

  11. Pew Research Center. "Racial, gender wage gaps persist in U.S. despite some progress." Accessed Feb. 22, 2021.

  12. College and University Professional Association for Human Resources. “Representation and Pay of Women of Color in the Higher Education Workforce.” Page 6. Accessed February 22, 2021.

  13. 1.    College and University Professional Association for Human Resources. “Representation and Pay of Women of Color in the Higher Education Workforce.” Page 10. Accessed February 22, 2021.