The forced resignation of the University of Missouri's president this week — and the choice of a black administrator to temporarily replace him — underscored a broader struggle within higher education to recruit leaders who reflect an increasingly diverse student population.
Mizzou's governing board appointed Michael Middleton as interim president of the four-school system after Tim Wolfe quit under pressure from activists who said he didn't adequately respond to complaints of racism at the university's flagship campus in Columbia.
Much of the criticism was leveled by a coalition of black students who, in addition to demanding Wolfe's departure, called for an increase in the number of black administrators.
Similar debates have roiled American colleges and universities for decades, as enrollment rates for blacks and Hispanics have steadily increased while administration appointments have lagged far behind, researchers say.
From 1996 to 2012, college enrollment among young blacks rose 72 percent, and more than tripled among Hispanics, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Census data. At last count, in 2013, black students made up about 14 percent of nationwide enrollment, and Hispanics 15 percent, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.
But among full-time faculty, black people comprise just 5.4 percent, and Hispanics 4.1 percent, NCES data show.
That tracks with the proportion of minorities who are presidents of universities and colleges. A survey by the American Council on Education found that in 2011, blacks made up 6 percent of presidents, Hispanics 4 percent.
Researchers found a similar discrepancy among the senior positions that are typical recruiting grounds for college presidencies.
In other words, the pipeline was bare.
"We still rely on people coming through a traditional career path of being full-time faculty, then department chair, then dean, then provost," said Dorcas Colvin, the vice president for leadership development and member services at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
"That traditional career path is also sometimes disadvantageous to women and people of color whose career path might have taken different routes," Colvin said.
If faculty represent the start of the administrative pipeline, then college graduates are the source material, researchers say. But despite growing enrollment rates, blacks and Hispanics remain less likely than whites to earn degrees, the Pew study showed.
"We have to be producing leaders of the new minority population at a much faster rate just to keep up with the trend, and we aren't," said Peace Bransberger, senior research analyst at the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.
One such effort is the Millenium Leadership Initiative, run by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. It recruits administrators — mostly minorities and women — and helps them navigate the presidential job-search process. Hundreds have gone through the program, and dozens have gone one to presidential posts, Colvin said.
"What’s going to have to happen is we’re going to have to look at taking different approaches in how we bring in and select college and university leaders," Colvin said. "And that’s difficult. Change in higher education doesn’t happen overnight."
No one knows that better than Middleton.
As an undergraduate at the University of Missouri in the late 1960s, he helped form the Legion of Black Collegians, which pressed the school to hire more black faculty and promote a more welcoming environment for black students.
In a press conference following his appointment as interim president, Middleton said some of the demands were similar to those black students are calling for today.