Unexpected Bias Reveals Need for Diversity

This post is the third in a series about hiring a new CEO or Executive Director. The first post is the story about an effective search that resulted in a great CEO. The second post included three stories which explored how the outgoing Executive Director might be (or not be) involved in the search process.

This post tells a story about a new President of a community college – a minority, immigrant woman — who faced challenges after being hired. The board chair sadly recognized that race and gender bias were a big issue. He acknowledged that had he and the board done a better job of managing expectations, the situation would not have deteriorated as it did. While the board that initially hired the new president had some diversity, it became more white, male, and middle-aged when a new governor was elected.

I suggest that if the board and the search committee were more diverse, the bias would not have been unexpected. People of color and women know they will encounter racism and sexism. They could have helped create a plan to better support the new incoming president.

Not Managing Expectations Undermines Female, Minority Change Agent 

By a Dedicated Board Member, Somewhere in the USA

Pub 9 drawing

I was on the board of a local community college for 10 years many years ago. The demographics of the student body was mixed. It was the aspirational community college for the black community. Thousands of students would take mass transit to the end of the line and hop on the college shuttle bus.

In our state, community college board members are appointed by the governor but elect their own chair, so it was a fairly independent board. As a public board, we had to do 100% of business in public. All you could do in private was read materials with the intention of discussing them in public.

After about a year, there was a minor scandal and the president of the college left. The board hired an interim and launched a search.

The Search Went Well…

The board chair put me on the search committee. The search committee, as you would expect at a public college, was composed of board members, members of the administration, faculty, and students. There was no dominant constituency. That way everyone felt that they could trust the process.

 We hired a search firm and identified our criteria. We were concerned about quality instruction. We needed a real academic leader. We also wanted a change agent. We wanted to find someone who could develop quality instruction in an environment that would be lacking in resources. The search firm brought us 100 resumes. We chose 20 or 25 for the first round. The search firm did phone interviews with the committee members participating. We narrowed down to four finalists. They each had a day on campus, meeting people. We had formal public interview. These were two-hour sessions with the search committee asking questions of the candidate and anyone from the campus community interested in the process could attend. The process was completely public.

… and we found an Outstanding Finalist – an Immigrant Woman with Impressive Background and Vision

One candidate stood out to everybody. She was a senior Vice President and Assistant Provost in the public college system in another state. Every single person on the search committee said, “This is the person we want.” She understood the numbers. She had done the best analysis of our financial situation. She had done the best analysis of our strategic situation. She provided vision for the college. She spoke impressively about how to ensure quality instruction – and quality is tough at a community college education because of lower faculty pay. She was a respected academic. She was published. She was also a person of color. She was born in another country and came to the United States with her family as a refugee. The fact that she would be the first college president in the United States who was an immigrant from her country was icing. Everything was there. So, we hired her.

The minority students were thrilled to have a minority leader. But in general, the student body could not care less. They were community college students. They were busy, trying to get their degree while working and raising families. Mostly, students don’t deal with the president, they deal with the faculty.

But the board was very excited about the potential of the new president. With our full support, she started make changes.

The Board Was Blind Sided When Faculty Threaten a Strike

About this time, the board chair resigned his position. The vice chair was elevated to chair and I became vice chair and chair of the finance committee.

The next thing we know, the faculty of one of the programs is threatening a strike. My state has been run by white guys for a long time and we were naïve about the implications of bringing in a minority woman. We came to realize that the 100% white female faculty strongly resented being told anything by a minority woman, no matter what her title was.

We had to address this issue, but as a public board, we had to address it in public. It was extremely challenging to address personnel issues and issues of bias this publicly. We decided to hire a consultant who specialized in higher education management. The consultant brought in a turnaround leader for the program with the unhappy faculty — a PhD former army colonel.

Building Rapport Helped Me and the President Through the Saga

Next began what turned out to be a saga. First, within the year, the new board chair left because we have term limits of ten years. The board elected me chair. So, only a couple years in, with very little relevant experience, I was board chair trying to shepherd the president into the second year of her presidency. To make it more interesting, I was probably 15 years younger than any of the other major players. I was in my early 40s. And everyone else was in their mid to late 50s. That led to natural questioning of my leadership. Age matters and people looked at my experience.

I decided to build rapport with the president and her husband so as events happened, we would have not just a formal relationship but an informal one to fall back on. And we did build a good relationship. We were very different people. But there was friendship and respect that served us well.

Matters Get Worse – Because of Racism and Sexism

Fast forward two or three years, the shit really hit the fan. The faculty voted no confidence in the president. They accused her of arbitrary behavior, imperiousness, tantrums. When we asked for examples, no one could give a clear example. We strongly suspected that we were facing the inability of a mostly white faculty to deal with a leader who was a person of color, a woman, and from another country with a different culture.

Then, one-sided, negative articles started to appear in the local paper. We could not figure out what was going on. College staff called the reporter and asked if he would like to speak to the president and he said, “No, I don’t need to.” With the press paying attention to our campus, the state Secretary of Higher Education asked to meet with me to see what could be done. We learned later that the reporter was the son of one of the unhappy faculty leaders.

The college board had also transitioned. I was appointed by a Democratic governor. Five years later, a Republican was governor. The new governor appointed mostly white males to the board where before it had been more mixed. As we entered this crisis, we had new board members who were all businessmen, very concerned about the image of the college and not very familiar with the workings of the college. I did have some holdovers from the original set of appointments. And I myself had been reappointed by the Republican governor.

An Independent Committee Was Formed to Investigate and to Establish the President’s Authority

As a full board, we decided to create an independent committee to investigate the allegations against the president. We brought in named figures from the community: a former lieutenant governor, a former candidate for governor, and others. We had this committee run an investigation into what was real and what was accusation. The president was upset that we didn’t support her outright. I probably spent three to five conversations a week convincing her that this was in her interest. Rather than undermining her authority, we were trying to reestablish it. We were concerned about maintaining the authority of the presidency in the face of faculty resistance. And we also wanted to help the faculty accept a different type of leadership.

The outcome was positive. The independent body cleared the president 100%, agreed that she had raised her voice twice in public but in situations that were understandable. We were able to hire a PR firm and exposed the local reporter’s source, so he stopped writing negative articles. Eventually, everything quieted down which meant the Secretary of Higher Education was comfortable too.

Lesson Learned:

Build Relationships Ahead and Have Search Committee Members Report to their Constituencies

I have several lessons: First, when you hire a change agent, and especially in our state, when you hire a minority and female change agent, you have to do a lot of ground work. You have to think about who will be impacted by the changes and get their buy in. If you have these relationships ahead of time, you can draw on them during times of change. We had failed to do that with the faculty and administrative staff. Representatives of these groups were on the search committee and supported the new choice. But they thought they were representing themselves, not their constituencies. We learned during this process that both faculty and staff were eager to interact with us. But we had not noticed or paid attention. All we needed to do was to invite them to participate in board meetings in appropriate and meaningful ways. They could report on their programs or bring students to present some of their work. These were things I instituted later.

Plan for the Unexpected

Second, you have to plan for the unexpected. We had not done this. As I said, we were so excited about the potential, that we did not think through the possible negative outcomes.

Manage Up

The third lesson is if you are going to chair a public board, you better meet your boss. I had never met the Secretary of Higher Education. When I got called in to his office, it was very awkward. I was CEO of a company in the state, he was the former president of a private university in the state. But we had no relationship. That was a mistake I would never let happen again. It is so simple: go meet your boss.  In the public sector, that means an appointed or elected official. Then if things happen, you will have a relationship.

Plan for Board Succession

A final lesson—which is not really connected to the search — is around succession planning. I had the experience of being put in the chair’s seat with no support. It worked out, but it was hard – and risky for the college. So later, I stepped out of my role as board chair my last year on the board. I was around for a full year to mentor the new board chair.  I sponsored an immigrant male with a PhD to take my place.  That made a very public statement that the college was supportive of minority leadership.

As a recap, I would say: Manage up, manage down, plan for the unexpected, and do succession planning.


  1. Craig Stewart

    Terrific example with great lessons learned. Key takeaway for me is the importance of establishing trusted individual relationships with all the key constituencies. Take nothing for granted and expect and be prepared for the unexpected!

  2. […] talks about a successful process. The second addresses how the outgoing ED should be involved. The third talks about the need for diversity on the search committee to avoid unexpected bias. The fourth […]

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