The opportunity in Allegheny’s next president

On Dec. 19, 2017, the Allegheny College community was stunned to learn that its beloved President James Mullen set his retirement for June 30, 2019. Sorrow struck the Allegheny community as President Mullen is so incredibly revered and few would consider his tenure as president as nothing short of legendary.

However, it is time that we face the future as we have a monumental task in front of us — finding president number 22, the one who will take over the reins of Allegheny College and set a new strategic vision for our institution.

This inevitable search process for Mullen’s successor comes at an intriguing moment for Allegheny as we are beginning both our third century as an institution, and a new exciting time for the world of higher education.

As the early foundations of the search process for our next president manifest, I have a recommendation to present that would kick off our third century in an incredible way — we should strive to place an emphasis on finding a new President who breaks a certain mold established by our past Presidents.

What do I mean by breaks a certain mold? Well, when one looks through Allegheny’s history, and at our past 21 presidents, a common thread can be found that links all the past presidents together: in all of Allegheny’s 203 years, we have only had white, male Presidents.

We are at a point in our history where we have the potential to break that pattern and find a president who can bring a new sense of diversity to that fold. To put it bluntly — we are in a position to potentially welcome a president who is not a white man for the first time ever.

Each Allegheny president has had so much impact and influence on the college. Now, we have an incredible opportunity to find a President who can bring a new type of impact that no president before could.

We have the chance to find a president who can reflect the changing tide in higher education. Allegheny College is changing, and the world of higher education is evolving. Higher education is welcoming more students every year who come from more diverse backgrounds.

A look at the enrollment statistics of Allegheny College shows the percentage of students of color has more than doubled in the past ten years, the number of female students continue to be larger than the number of male students, and we have a growing population of students who do not place themselves on the gender binary, among so many other changing student demographics.

It is important we keep striving to build a community that is even more diverse than the current landscape we have, and that should encompass our institutional leadership as well.

It is even more important to make sure these students feel a level of support and care on campus, as this is a problem a number of institutions struggle with.

To support both attracting diverse students and supporting them, think of how incredible it would be to have a president who understands what it means to come from a marginalized background. A President who understands the unique challenges associated with the path to higher education when you do not come from a background rich with privilege. A President who can relate to a sizeable population of our students who have not experienced this type of leadership on our campus before, and who can help make a more supportive community for everyone.

It has been shown in multiple publications, including in an excellent piece by Uma Jayakumar and Liliana Garces, that students who are on diverse campuses with intentional diversity efforts feel a greater sense of inclusion and community belonging.

Jayakumar and Garces note campuses with higher percentages of diversity are more likely to engage in discussions of race and social justice and promote communities of belonging.

With someone at the presidential level who can lead those charges for social justice, equity, and more, we can create a dynamic environment that will distinguish itself as different from any other era in Allegheny’s history.

Allegheny rightfully prides itself as one of the premier liberal arts institutions in America, and one that prides itself on being full of innovation. Moving forward with a president who is not a white male would continue our innovative trend, as only roughly 30 percent of colleges have female Presidents, and only roughly 17 percent of colleges have Presidents of color.

Doing so would also place more in line with our peer institutions, such as Swarthmore College, Trinity College, and Kenyon College, all of which have recently taken on their first black presidents.

We are charting new territory as the world of higher education is changing sharply. As we find new ways to evolve in this changing world, I truly think one of the best ways to support our students and support this new growing population in higher education is to find a successor to President Mullen who can bring a new sense of diversity to the role.

There is so much potential for number 22, and I would encourage the administrators to try to embrace this potential in our search process, and I would encourage the Allegheny community to vocalize their support for this charge if they believe in it was well.

I have no doubt in my mind that under President Mullen’s guidance, we will find someone who will do great things for Allegheny’s future. It will be sad to send off President Mullen, but let us consider seizing this new opportunity to make incredible new things happen for Allegheny.