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Students of All Races Welcome First Black Presidents to Largely White Colleges

NEW YORK — While studying abroad last year, Swarthmore College senior Chinyere Odim met Valerie Smith, the first black president of her largely white liberal arts college. The meeting, as Odim recalls it, reminded her why a racial mix on campus matters.

"She was so excited to talk with me and to learn about my experience abroad," Odim, who is black and originally from Brooklyn, said of her conversation with Swarthmore President Smith while she visited London on her inauguration tour. "I feel like she gets me, and that's why I appreciate her being here."

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Since 2013, seven small, highly selective liberal arts colleges not known for diversity have for the first time chosen college presidents who are black— just as students are demanding a better racial mix on their campuses.

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In addition to Smith at Swarthmore, black presidents are now at the helm of Kenyon College in Ohio (Sean Decatur in 2013), Trinity College in Connecticut (Joanne Berger-Sweeney, 2014), Wellesley College in Massachusetts (Paula Johnson, 2016), the University of Puget Sound in Washington (Isiaah Crawford, 2016), Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania (John Williams, 2015), and at Pitzer College in California (Melvin Oliver, who started in July).

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The appointments at largely white institutions come at a time when racial strife has roiled college campuses. Many black students complain they feel isolated and more are opting to attend historically black colleges. At the nation's top public colleges, black students are drastically underrepresented, according to federal records and enrollment data analyzed by The Hechinger Report, confirmed in a recent report from the Center for American Progress. Latino students are also underrepresented at top schools.

Related: Why more black students are enrolling in historically black colleges

Data show there is plenty of room for improvement in leadership ranks: The most recent survey of 1,662 U.S. colleges found only 6 percent were led by black presidents (13.3 percent of the U.S. population is black). The 2012 survey from the American Council on Education was sent to public and private colleges and universities across the U.S., including two year programs: It's now being updated.

Appointing black presidents signifies an important shift in the criteria colleges and their boards are using to assess leadership skills and experience and creates space for diverse leaders to enter higher education, said Lynn Gangone, vice president for ACE's leadership programs.

"When I see this host of colleges looking to leaders of color and African-American leaders, in particular, I am thrilled," said Gangone.

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Melvin Oliver, the new president of Pitzer, calls the new group of black leaders "a particularly distinguished group of scholars," and speculates the appointments "may have been a fluke of timing."

Nonetheless, he sees many commonalities and hopes the new presidents can learn from another. "These are pretty much elite schools that would like to be more diverse, and all of us have challenges," Oliver said. "I hope we can have some breakthroughs that everyone can take advantage of as opposed to little solutions."

And while the recent appointments are "great, and long overdue," they are just one step, cautioned Marybeth Gasman, a professor of higher education in the graduate school of education at the University of Pennsylvania, where she directs the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions.

Related: The five things no one will tell you about why colleges don't hire more faculty of color

"It is absolutely not enough to [just] have a black president," Gasman said. "Campuses need to work hard to diversify their student bodies and their faculty and staff. They need to stop making excuses."

'Working on it'

At Kenyon, a school of 1,689 that is more than 73 percent white, it's not just black students who appreciate the new appointments. Emily Margolin, a white senior from New York City, inquired about the lack of diversity when she began considering colleges.

Margolin wanted a better racial and ethnic mix, so she asked an admissions officer about efforts for change underway on the idyllic rural campus in Gambier, Ohio, where just over 4 percent of students are black.

"He said, 'Kenyon is working on it, but there is a predominant brand of young person who attends the school,'" recalled Margolin, now a political science major who loves her school but recognizes it has a lot of work ahead to become more diverse.

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Kenyon President Sean Decatur says the school is taking important steps, scouting for high-achieving students from backgrounds less represented on campus and inviting them to Kenyon for a weekend at the college's expense.

"These programs connect us to college counselors to gain access to students who might have been overlooked," Decatur said. "It gives students from Cleveland, Detroit or Chicago an opportunity to consider Kenyon, to get to know the campus. The weekend really plays a role in helping these students see themselves as part of the pool."

Public vigils at Swarthmore

At Swarthmore, a school of 1,581 in Pennsylvania that is 6 percent black, protests have exposed divides on the sylvan campus, particularly in the aftermath of public vigils for Michael Brown and Eric Garner, two unarmed black men killed by police in 2014.

Odim, the student who met President Smith while studying in London, recalled that a few days after students wrote "Black Lives Matter" in the middle of campus on a large white chalkboard, someone wrote, "Go back to Africa" in apparent response.

Afterwards, some students took to Yik Yak, a messaging platform, to vent their irritation over displays of support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Related: Yale students break through generations of pained black silence

Odim was unaffected by the hostility: "I don't feel personally attacked by it," she said. "But it's triggering and uncomfortable for a lot of other students on campus. The climate is tense but only when there is nationwide tension."

Last year, when Swarthmore students showed their support for protesters at the University of Missouri — who had demanded the resignation of that school's president over claimed mishandling of racism on campus — Swarthmore's new president Smith, a scholar and former dean at Princeton University, met with student leaders.

"It was a very eloquent expression of the spirit of collaboration," Smith said of the protesters. "The moment was meant to acknowledge solidarity with students across the country, and for the work that has to happen on our campus."

Pitzer's letter of frustration

Minority students at Pitzer, a private institution of just over a thousand students that is part of the five-member Claremont College Consortium in California, penned a letter to the administration in November 2015 to express frustration at the college's failure to support students of all backgrounds and races.

"We, students of color at Pitzer College, experience marginalization by this institution through manifestations of White Supremacy in the form of hate crimes, lack of diversity, power structures within academia, and racial profiling on our campus," the letter said.

Pitzer's student body is 5 percent black, 15 percent Latino, and 48 percent white, according to enrollment data from the National Center for Education Statistics. The administration responded by convening a coalition to address campus climate and diversity. But some students feel they have not gone far enough.

Related: More Latino students earning high school diplomas wrestle stubborn equity gap. Next stop, college

"Pitzer has this huge focus on racial justice," said Aviya Hernstadt, a junior from Brooklyn. "But a lot of students feel like this image of the school is of one that fights for justice, but students get here and find that it is not actually practiced."

In July, Pitzer welcomed Oliver, a scholar known for his research on racial and urban inequality. Oliver's first challenge: a community message addressing a black Pitzer student's widely publicized Facebook post requesting a non-white roommate.

"Just having a black president doesn't mean everything will be hunky-dory," Oliver said. "We could have just as much trouble as a white president being everyone's president. You can't just be the president of black students or Latino students."

Oliver now wants to focus providing sufficient aid to attract students "that match our [social justice] mission … we don't have the resources to attract them. We need to have the full paying student and sometimes that means our student body gets bifurcated."

'Spending the money you have'

At Trinity College, President Joanne Berger-Sweeney also said she is looking for ways to bring in income to fund programs aimed at increasing diversity.

"Everyone can say 'I could do more if I had more money,' but what matters is how you spend the money that you have," said Berger-Sweeney, who is preparing for her third year as president of the leafy, gothic campus in Hartford, Connecticut. "We have to diversify our revenue in order to diversify our student body; it can't all come from our tuition."

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Annual estimated costs at Trinity exceed $66,000; the student body is 6 percent black, 64 percent white, and 7 percent Latino, enrollment data shows.

Related: The socioeconomic divide on America's college campuses is getting wider, fast

Berger-Sweeney said her plans include maximizing the use of Trinity's campus when classes are not in session with academic camps, offering continuing education classes to professionals in the Hartford area and using school facilities for community events.

She also sees promise in raising revenue for more minority outreach and aid via a consortium model, like the one used at Pitzer and the Claremont Colleges, allowing colleges in the Hartford area to share some human resources and other administrative functions.

Muhlenberg's 'comprehensive diversity plan'

At Muhlenberg College, where fewer than 3 percent of the roughly 2,200 students are black, the board of trustees approved a comprehensive diversity plan in October 2014 to help recruit and retain a more diverse faculty and student body; they also hired additional staff to promote multicultural life on the Allentown, Pennsylvania campus.

To boost minority enrollment, the administration has built partnerships with community-based nonprofit organizations, such as Prep for Prep and Say Yes to Education, that help form a pipeline to higher education.

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"We are committed to have a diverse student body that covers all dimensions of difference," Muhlenberg President John Williams said. "It is not just because it is the right thing to do. It is because it enriches our education.''

The school's board of trustees has agreed to spend an additional $125,000 per year — more than twice what it spends now — toward annual diversity initiatives, according to Muhlenberg's strategic plan. The school's largest investment in diversity is $20.7 million in need-based financial aid annually.

Williams said he is encouraged that half of tenured-track faculty hired in 2016 are nonwhite, but acknowledged that change is a slow and challenging process. "We are just starting out on this journey," he said.

Breaking new ground?

Several of the new black college presidents agreed in interviews that addressing decades of racial disparity will involve both targeted outreach programs and generous financial aid packages for underrepresented minorities, along with creating more opportunities for such students to visit their campuses.

It may also mean diversifying faculty. By 2020, a majority of college students in the U.S. will be nonwhite. Yet nationally, just 6 percent of university faculty members are black and 5 percent are Latino, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Federal data show those figures have risen only slightly since 2009, and experts have questioned why so few black (and Latino) faculty members are being hired.

Related: How efforts to recruit black professors rob poorer colleges of diversity

In recent months, Yale, Brown, John Hopkins and the University of Cincinnati have all increased funding to recruit more minority faculty. In addition, about 75 colleges have hired new "diversity officers," in the last year, according to Archie Irvin, president of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education.

Higher education officials say hiring black college presidents for the first time provides an opportunity to break new ground and set an example.

"Higher education's end users — our students — benefit from seeing themselves mirrored in the front of the classroom, in the lab, and in the senior-most levels of academic leadership,'' said Nancy Aebersold, founder and executive director of the Higher Education Recruitment Consortium (HERC), a nonprofit aimed at creating equity in higher education recruitment.

Aebersold added that college presidents "aren't born, they are made, and institutions who aspire to have diverse representation in the role of chief executive officer should be identifying, nurturing, and contributing development dollars to leaders of color with this in mind."

Others say the appointments are just a start. They called for better pipelines and preparation for top jobs on college campuses throughout higher education.

"We still have work to do — we need to focus on developing more pathways to presidency for people of color," said Tia McNair, vice president of the office of diversity, equity and student success at the Association of American Universities and Colleges, known as AAC&U. "The faculty and staff need to reflect the student body, which is increasingly diverse … we could be doing better in all areas."

In the meantime, some students say having a black president at the helm is — at the very least — a sign of change they can embrace. Said Pitzer junior Aviya Hernstadt: "It is not logical that students at a social justice-oriented school are learning the complexities of race and socioeconomic status in an environment that is majority white and upper-class.''

New president Oliver isn't sure he agrees. "What I really worry about is [if] the campus becomes one where we don't have the full range of socioeconomic students,'' he said.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Hechinger Report editor Liz Willen contributed to this story. Read more about higher education.