In August 2007, the Chronicle of Higher Education created a stir by reporting that the appointment of Sean Buffington to the top job at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts had boosted the number of openly gay university presidents in the United States to three. The others cited were Ralph Hexter of Hampshire College and Roosevelt University’s Charles Middleton, who said a “Plexiglas ceiling” had been keeping gays out of academia’s top administrative job. Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force at the time, told the Chronicle the number was a disgrace given that “there’s no shortage of gay people” in higher education.
Indignant responses started rolling in as soon as the issue came off the press: gay and lesbian presidents who’d been overlooked were standing up to be counted, and it was clear the Chronicle‘s number was a gross underestimate. By September, the tally had jumped to a grand total of . . . 11.
Three years later, one informal count puts it at 25. “It’s a healthy sign that there are so many of us are out and identifiable in such a short period of time,” Middleton says. “But I also think it’s a negative commentary on the openness of higher education that there are so few of us.” According to the Higher Education Directory, there are 4,662 accredited, degree-granting academic institutions in the U.S.—so those 25 are filling about one half of 1 percent of the possible spots.
Even so, Raymond Crossman, the out gay head of Chicago’s Adler School of Professional Psychology, says a “critical mass” has been reached. Next month, he and Middleton will welcome eight of the 25 to Chicago for the inaugural meeting of a new national top dogs’ club, provisionally named LGBT Presidents in Higher Education.
Scheduled for August 6-7 at Roosevelt and the Adler School (which probably won’t have completed its move from 65 E. Wacker to new digs at 17 N. Dearborn by then), the meeting will have the chiefs huddling over subjects like professional development and how to work with board members as well as the mission, shape, and future of the new group. And because a college president’s spouse is traditionally expected to play at least a ceremonial role on campus, participants’ partners will be on hand, holding a confab of their own.
“There’s enough of us to get a conversation going and see what we can do together,” says Crossman, who adds that one of the first things he did when he came to Adler in 2003 was call Middleton. “Any time a disenfranchised group starts to take leadership, they have interesting issues.” Among the most pressing: “How to work effectively with other folks—because you may be viewed only in terms of your marginalized group.”
Crossman says it’s no coincidence that he’s at the Adler School. As a graduate institution continuing the work of Alfred Adler, its mission is to train socially responsible psychologists. “Out of the thousands of schools in the country, only a few have had the courage to pick an LGBT president,” he notes. “It’s those schools that focus on social justice.”
Marquette University, in Milwaukee, comes to mind as an example of the kind of place that’s unlikely to be led by an out LGBT president any time soon. In May the Jesuit school rescinded its offer of a deanship to lesbian sociologist Jodi O’Brien. MU president Robert Wild told the New York Times they changed their minds when they “found some strongly negative statements about marriage and family” among her writings, which include titles like “Wrestling the Angel of Contradiction: Queer Christian Identities.” Wild denied that O’Brien’s sexual orientation was a factor, but Nancy Snow, a philosophy professor at MU, called the move discrimination, and, in a statement published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, more than 100 faculty members condemned the “involvement of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and other outside influences in this decision.” Last month MU reached a settlement with O’Brien and Wild announced by e-mail to the faculty that he’d apologized to her for the way the whole thing was “handled.”
But large public universities, whose presidents may have to wrangle money from conservative state legislators, haven’t rushed to hire gays either. The appointment of lesbian scholar Carolyn “Biddy” Martin to the chancellorship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison two years ago was seen as a major breakthrough. (The career of the only other openly gay chancellor of a large public university, Denice Denton at UC Santa Cruz, ended with her 2006 suicide—which may have had more to do with controversy surrounding improvements, like a $30,000 dog run, to her official residence on campus than with her sexual orientation.)
As for closeted gay presidents, Crossman doesn’t think there are many anymore. “It’s become culturally and emotionally less possible,” he says, “and everything comes out when you’re having your candidacy vetted for one of these roles. The interview process includes bringing your spouse to the campus.” Crossman says his partner of 15 years, artist Christopher Dillehay, had to pass muster before Adler gave him the job. “People had to decide if he was going to represent the institution well. And that’s why we’re having partners as part of the meeting.”
So how much does sexual orientation still matter? To Crossman—who says he’s experienced “heterosexism” and uses every public speaking event as a “teaching moment,” making sure “they know I’m a gay man”—it matters in a positive way, especially at a place like Adler. “It’s very important to folks who see diversity as being a key part of the agenda of the organization to have an LGBT person” as a leader, he says. “It’s more than symbolic. It’s walking the talk.”
As it happens, Chicago alone has at least as many out gay college presidents as the Chronicle first postulated for the nation. Besides Crossman and Middleton there’s John Balester Jenkins, president of the Illinois Institute of Art, a for-profit school with 3,200 students on campuses in Schaumburg and the Loop. Jenkins won’t be at the meeting—he and his partner of 30 years are visiting their son’s summer camp that weekend. But he considers it a wonderful idea. A 60-year-old who started his academic career closeted, Jenkins says he was once fired from a vice presidency by a Chicago college president who told him flat out he didn’t want a gay person on his cabinet and gave his job to the underling who’d outed him. That was a turning point, Jenkins recalls: he vowed never to mask his identity again. Now, to see an association of gay college presidents take shape, he says, “it’s gratifying.”