How Minnesota State Has Shattered the Glass Ceiling

Recent national discussions about “leaning in,” glass ceilings in politics and in the board room, and sexist news coverage during the Olympic games has triangulated the subject of gender equity, bringing the topic to the forefront of American consciousness in a way that hasn’t been seen in years.

Most higher education institutions have aggressive gender equity goals, but making progress against them can be challenging.

Indeed, the American Council on Education (ACE) has developed an initiative called Moving the Needle, with a goal of having half of the chief executives at higher education institutions be women by the year 2030. And, there’s a lot of ground to cover. According to the 2012 edition of ACE’s American College President Study—scheduled to be updated in 2017—only 26 percent of college and university presidents in 2012 were women. 

At Minnesota State, formerly Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, we think we may have identified the secret sauce. The recent addition of seven new presidents has resulted in almost 50 percent of our presidents being female—14 out of 30. In addition, the presidents of all our colleges and universities have elected four of their peers—all female—to represent them on the executive committee of the Minnesota State Leadership Council.

Minnesota State is making similar strides with diversifying the racial makeup of its presidents, as well, at 30 percent, which compares favorably to ACE’s national finding of 13 percent. 

How has Minnesota State done it? First and foremost, it is the result of a deep and abiding organizational commitment to equity and inclusion, led by Chancellor Steven Rosenstone. His vision has served as the foundation for a multi-layered strategy for developing, recruiting, and retaining diverse leaders in an effort to better serve our nearly 400,000 students. The threads that have been woven together to ensure success include:

  • Leadership Development: Minnesota State has developed an 18-month leadership academy program designed to nurture leadership talent among department and faculty deans, human resource directors, business managers, chief financial officers, as well as faculty and staff who aspire to future leadership positions. 
  • Recruitment: Presidential searches for Minnesota State are conducted by an array of internal committees and consultants who understand our deep commitment to diversity and inclusion. Minnesota State trains presidential search committee members about how unconscious bias can affect decision making. And, the search committee chair receives additional training to further ensure the search is fair. For this reason, they build diverse and excellent candidate pools from which to choose.
  • Mentoring: Once new presidents have been appointed, they are assigned a peer mentor from within the ranks of our presidents. The mentor relationship offers the new president someone who can informally help with advice, gut checks, and context. Many of these mentor relationships go on for years, as the benefits are so valued by both the mentor and the mentee. 
  • Onboarding: Each new president attends a two-day “boot camp,” along with their mentors to learn everything they will need to know to get started at their college or university. This extensive training creates a cohort among new presidents and helps them to begin adding value the minute they start their jobs in their campus communities.
  • Coaching: During our presidents’ first year, an independent, objective leadership coach is provided for added guidance and counsel. In addition, at the end of the presidents’ second year, they have the opportunity to receive 360-degree feedback, administered by a leadership coach, which allows the presidents to understand how they are perceived, where they have development opportunities and what they are doing well.

Any change to the makeup of a leadership team brings an evolution in how the group interacts, and our group is no different. While this new gender balance is new, we are seeing a shift: just a few years ago the leadership culture encouraged individuals to come to the group with fully developed recommendations. Now, the culture of this more diverse group of presidents encourages more collaboration to identify solutions together, and we believe better outcomes are achieved through further debate and robust participation by the larger group. We’re excited about how our culture is evolving, because we believe an added benefit of the collective group is that we will become even more supportive of our “system-ness,” which ultimately improves the student experience as they navigate their post-secondary journey within Minnesota State. 

But the benefit of more women in leadership roles that we find the most exciting, from a personal point of view, is how we are inspiring other women of all ages. We find that young women ask us questions about what it takes to be a leader, what we find most challenging, and how we got to where we are. These are questions most people don’t consider asking white male leaders. We also have been told by older women that we embody their aspirations for their children and their grandchildren. Another example occurred recently when one of our college presidents invited two female presidents of color to speak at a “Women on Wednesdays” lunch-and-learn event for staff and students on campus. The event served as an inspiration for at least one student of whom we are aware. She shared with her college president that seeing two female leaders of color speak inspired her to look into what it would take for her to become a college president one day.

And isn’t that what we’re really all trying to do? Inspire our students to dream beyond the future they thought they had, no matter who they are or where they come from. When our places of higher learning truly reflect the diversity of our students, they can more effectively imagine and realize their potential.

Anne Blackhurst is president of Minnesota State University Moorhead, Joyce Ester is president of Normandale Community College, Connie Gores is president of Southwest Minnesota State University, and Barbara McDonald is president of North Hennepin Community College. In addition, they also serve as the peer-elected representatives of the college and university presidents on the executive committee of the Minnesota State Leadership Council.

A version of this article appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education.