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How Stanford alums are leading changes in higher education

At the Stanford Black Alumni Summit, a group of college and university presidents discussed challenges and opportunities they have navigated at their institutions over the past two years.

Over the past two years, Stanford University, along with other colleges and universities, has had to contend with a variety of challenges on campus – an evolving, global pandemic, a growing mental health crisis, and a national reckoning of how community members experience anti-Black racism, to name a few.

At the Stanford Black Alumni Summit, DeAngela Burns-Wallace, ’96 (left), moderated a panel, “Leading While Black: Presidential Roundtable on the Opportunities and Challenges of Higher Education,” that featured college and university presidents with strong Stanford connections. From left to right: Jason Wingard, ’95, president of Temple University; Lori White, PhD ’95, president of DePauw University; Harry Elam, a former senior leader and longtime professor at Stanford who is now president of Occidental College; and Sean Decatur, PhD ’95, president of Kenyon College. (Image credit: 2022 Stanford Black Alumni Summit)

These issues, along with how institutions, including Stanford, are expanding their own diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020 were some of the topics of a roundtable discussion between five college and university presidents, all with strong Stanford connections, at the Stanford Black Alumni Summit, a two-day event in late April and early May that brought Black alumni together for a weekend of inspiring and thought-provoking programming.

One of those events was “Leading While Black: Presidential Roundtable on the Opportunities and Challenges of Higher Education,” which featured three Stanford alums and sitting presidents of their institutions: Sean Decatur, PhD ’95, president of Kenyon College; Jason Wingard, ’95, president of Temple University; and Lori White, PhD ’95, president of DePauw University. Also participating was Harry Elam, a former senior leader and longtime professor at Stanford who is now president of Occidental College. Moderating the discussion was DeAngela Burns-Wallace, ’96, secretary of administration and chief information technology officer for the State of Kansas and a member of the Stanford University Board of Trustees.

Burns-Wallace opened the panel discussion with data about how institutions across the country have expanded representation among their leadership in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, whose murder galvanized a national movement about rooting out racism in American society and redressing racial inequities once and for all.

As Burns-Wallace pointed out, some colleges and universities have made changes at the very top of their institutions. Between June 2020 and December 2021, 35% of the university presidents and chancellors appointed have been persons of color; in the 18 months before Floyd’s murder, the number was only 14.6%, according to data Wallace cited from Inside Higher Ed. Burns-Wallace also referred to a 2017 study by the American Council of Education that revealed less than one in five college presidents are persons of color. Representation by gender has also been disproportionate: The same study found seven out of 10 college presidents are men.

“This reality of leading in higher education and bringing the perspective and the voice of the richness of our culture, our past, our experiences is something that is still a path that is not always one that is deeply followed,” Burns-Wallace said.

Pioneering change

Stanford alums have been at the center of pioneering change across higher education.

In addition to the panelists who spoke at the Stanford Black Alumni Summit, other alums that have taken the helm at some of the county’s top educational institutions include Michael V. Drake, ’74, who became president of the University of California system in August 2020 after a 10-month-long search, and Jonathan Holloway, ’89, president of Rutgers University, who began his presidency on July 1, 2020.

During the panel discussion, White shared her own journey of becoming the first Black president – and also the first female president – at DePauw University, a small liberal arts university in rural Indiana, a position she started in March 2020.

White recalled a moment during the recruitment process when she stood in a gallery on campus where paintings of all the school’s previous presidents hung. She recalled: “As I looked in that space and I saw the portraits of [presidents] number one through 20, none of whom look anything like me, literally a voice from above said: ‘They’re going to offer you that job and when they offer it to you, you need to say ‘yes.’ It’s not about you, Lori. It’s about what you represent for future generations. They need to know what’s possible.’ ”

White credited the mentorship she received at Stanford while she pursued her PhD in education administration and policy analysis at the Graduate School of Education (GSE) as instrumental to her success. In particular, she acknowledged Patricia Gumport, a professor at the GSE; the late Mary Edmonds, who was a vice provost for student affairs; and Condoleezza Rice, whose career has included leadership positions in both government and higher education.

“Having women like that invest in me … certainly has helped get me to this point,” White said.

Similarly, Wingard said it was the connections he made as an undergraduate – from meeting his wife at age 18 to having professors like John Baugh, professor emeritus in the Graduate School of Education – that contributed to his nontraditional career path, which included holding executive roles in corporate industry as well as in higher education, including at his own alma mater, Stanford.

Wingard recalled Baugh’s words to him: “We need more Black men in academia and I’m going to make sure that you are one of the brothers that we put into academia to help make the impact and change that we need to do.”

The value of networks amid challenging times

The value of an encouraging support system was a resounding theme throughout the panel discussion.

When COVID-19 began to take hold over communities across the country, Elam said he was “blessed” to have people like White, Decatur, and other leaders in his Stanford network with whom he could discuss arising issues.

Elam, who joined Occidental College in Los Angeles in June 2020, made the decision on July 15, 2020, to shift Occidental’s fall semester to remote instruction. He described the move as “prescient,” since he would have been forced to do so anyway the following month: On August 12, Los Angeles County ordered schools to shutter. But the day Elam announced the school’s plans, he received an angry note from a parent, and in response, Elam said he told them, “The last thing I want to do as a new president is not have students.”

Elam stressed the help – professional and personal – that a supportive network can provide. He shared how, during this period, he spoke on the phone with Decatur. Elam said he found a sympathetic ear because Decatur too was encountering similar situations at his own school.

“Getting advice, getting support, taking care of yourself are some of the most important things with this job,” Elam said.

Decatur discussed the unique set of challenges that come with being a leader who is also a person of color – from experiencing questions of belonging to dealing with microaggressions. Or in some instances, “outright racism,” Decatur said. As he described further: “When you’re making a difficult public decision that’s controversial, how quickly the macroaggressions come out if you are a Black leader.”

Here too, Decatur echoed the value of a supportive community, particularly one that is separate from the workplace.

“Having that group and network of support helps to maintain a) that sense that you’re not crazy, that this comes up as an issue, and also b) that [having] a source of support is just as important,” Decatur said.

Cultivating connections

A goal of the Stanford Black Alumni Summit is to strengthen these types of personal and professional relationships, said James Jordan, ’93, director of diversity and inclusion at the Stanford Alumni Association. Jordan first proposed the idea for the summit to the Stanford National Black Alumni Association board in 2011 to bring together and connect Black alumni across classes, careers, and continents, and the event has since grown.

This most recent summit, held in Washington, D.C., was the group’s fifth. In prior years, it has taken place in New York, Atlanta, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

“The event really strengthens ties across generations,” Jordan said. “People, many of whom don’t know each other, make connections professionally and personally at this event.”

Jordan said what has made the summit series so successful is how so much of it is driven by alumni.

Programming is developed largely by a volunteer alumni organizing committee, which considers how relationships can be cultivated across not only graduation years but also industries – as demonstrated by the presidential roundtable discussion. The recent summit also included a panel with those who have served on corporate boards, an area where Black people remain severely underrepresented, and a discussion on the importance of Black storytelling featuring alums working in media.

Jordan also described how the summit aspires to be a continuation of the Stanford experience that brings together people of diverse backgrounds in meaningful ways.

“The university has been very intentional about creating community among its students, supported by faculty, staff, and alumni, so that you feel you are part of something larger that feeds you while you’re here,” Jordan said. “I think that’s what inspires these alums to want to help plan this event – they want to see the continuation of that connection to Stanford and with each other.”

This year, the summit theme was an homage to the late John Lewis, the venerable civil rights activist who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1987 until his death in 2020. The three-day event, Good Trouble: Our Heritage, Humanity, and Hope, also included a session with Howard E. Wolf, ’80, vice president for alumni relations and president of the Stanford Alumni Association.

Jordan said the summit has since inspired similar events among other Stanford alumni groups, including the Stanford Latino Alumni Summit that was held in 2019 and the Stanford Asian Pacific Alumni Summits in 2017 and 2020. In the coming year, the Stanford Indigenous Alumni Association is planning its own gathering.