ACE Summit Refines Strategies to Advance Women in Higher Education Leadership
October 09, 2023

ACE gathered a group of college presidents, leaders, and associations last month in Washington, DC, to address the gender disparity in higher education leadership.

At the Moving the Needle: Advancing Women in Higher Education Leadership Summit, these leaders refined three higher education models designed to diversify the pipeline to the presidency—a position that right now does not reflect the demographics of the student population.

Data from ACE’s recently published American College President Study (ACPS), show how women in higher education leadership have been progressing—in 2006, 23% of college presidents were women, while in the latest survey that number has climbed to 33%. However, considering that women now earn the majority of all college degrees, there remains a considerable gap. Additionally, women of color account for less than one out of every 10 presidents.  

Attendees gather at the Moving the Needle Summit

Gailda Davis, ACE’s assistant vice president and executive director of ACE Connect, set the stage for the event with a call to action for attendees to help “move the needle” towards parity. “Advancing women in leadership has been core to ACE’s mission since its earliest days. We still have a lot of work to do,” she said. “It’s important that each of you show up now.” 

Leading off the day’s discussions, Pamela Eddy, associate provost for faculty affairs and development and professor of higher education at William & Mary, had a one-on-one with Kenya Ayers-Palmore, president of Tarrant County College. Palmore talked candidly about the weight of the presidency and the need for resiliency as the challenges continued to increase during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There isn’t a unified voice on what we’re going to do on this. I would really like to see ACE as a convener in such a way and that we develop a unified agenda,” said Palmore.

Other speakers included Kim Lee, director of Community Strategy and Engagement who shared a brief history and overview of ACE’s Moving the Needle Initiative and how the initiative, through the Women’s Network, will be utilized to support one or more of the prototype models that emerged from this past summer’s ACE Innovation Lab on Parity and Equity in the College Presidency. Hollie Chessman, director of Practice and Research for ACE's Education Futures Lab, presented data from ACPS and presented a forecast of the presidency. Ashley Gray of ALG Consulting discussed the barriers black women college presidents face on their journey and beyond—only five percent of college presidents identify as women of color. 

Afterwards, the participants broke into groups to review and refine the prototype models that emerged from the Innovation Lab.

Prototype #1: Life Cycle of the President

The first proposed model was focused on learning more about the life cycle of a college president. It would involve inviting current and former presidents to participate in a study about how they worked toward the presidential role, how they achieved it, and their decision to step down.

Prototype #2: Institutional Readiness and Assessment

Boards and Institutions should assess their ability to allow new leaders to succeed and flourish on campus as well as develop a more transparent forecast of the institution or candidates.

Prototype #3: Equity-minded Transition Plan

To try and make the transition smoother for new presidents, this model would help design an equity-minded transition toolkit for boards to help create a more inclusive approach to bring their new president-elect on board. 

Later this year, ACE will focus on one prototype to pilot. At that time, more details about the remaining prototypes will be shared so other stakeholders can consider continuing the work. Connect with the Moving the Needle: Advancing Women in Higher Ed Leadership initiative to learn more. ​

Moving the Needle

Advancing Women in Higher Education Leadership

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American College President

2023 report and executive summary