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Current Editor: Dr. Robert T. Howell
Volume 35, Number 1
Fall 1997

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The Need for More Culturally Diverse Leaders in Postsecondary Technical Education: A Challenge for Community Colleges

Edgar I. Farmer
The Pennsylvania State University

Before his untimely death, Robert Francis Kennedy's profound message to America consisted of words that we should consider as we cross the bridge into the 21 century. During his extraordinary political career, Kennedy often said, "that some men see things as they are and say, Why? I dream things that never were and say, Why not?" Kennedy's message is a challenge to us all, especially leaders in vocational education, as we address issues regarding the lack of diversity in leadership in post-secondary technical education. This issue is especially important at the community college level. Why not have more diversity in the leadership ranks of post-secondary technical education?

The issues surrounding cultural diversity are sensitive and complex, yet we must resolve our differences as a nation in order for America to maintain its competitive edge in the global marketplace. This assertion was reinforced by President Clinton during his remarks at a convention of newspaper editors. The President stated that "how we handle cultural diversity…may be the biggest single determinant of what America will look like 50 years from now and what our position in the world is" (Centre Daily Times, April 14, 1997).

According to Phelps and Taber (1996, p. 68), "there is a clear and pressing need to increase diversity among community college leadership. Currently only 10% of community college chief executive officers are women (121 of 1,222). The increasing growth in minority enrollment is also an important demographic highlighting the need for diversity in community college leadership. According to Bowen & Muller (1996), the growing importance of community colleges for the educational and social future of the United States is tied intimately to their ability to make a strong and effective commitment to minority leadership. However, a commitment to diversity should extend beyond government mandates, to active efforts and support from each institution. In the past, the commitment to increase minority leadership in community colleges has largely consisted of rhetoric which has produced limited visible results. For example, of the 1,097 public community college presidents who participated in a 1991 survey, less than 5% were African American, while 89% were Caucasian; yet almost 50% of all minority students enrolled in higher education in America attend community colleges (Vaughan, 1996). Moreover, less than 10% of all community college faculty and administrators nationally are people of color (Astin, Korn, & Dey, 1991). These statistics indicate that the playing field for leadership in community colleges is not level for people of color. It also indicates that the current number of minority leaders does not represent the student enrollment nor does it reflect the commitment to diversity from an American institution that embraces equal opportunity for all.

This underrepresentation in minority leadership is most evident in corporate America. For example, in 1991, minorities made up only 5.7% of the executive, administrative, and managerial positions in Fortune 500 corporations (Saltzman, 1991). Unfortunately, the glass ceiling exists in academia as well as in corporate America-particularly in post-secondary technical education at the community college level. The glass ceiling may be defined as an invisible barrier that prevents a disproportionate number of women and minorities from rising to top corporate positions (Combs & Gruhl, 1996; Cox, 1991; Gunsch & Filipowski, 1991; Morrison, White & Velsor, 1982). The reason why minorities lag behind in leadership roles may be due to (a) weak or indifferent recruitment practices, (b) lack of institutional procedures for recruiting minorities, (c) lack of commitment to diversity, (d) lack of administrative leadership and training programs, and (e) institutional racism, benign neglect, and indifference (Muller, 1996).

As I see it, the glass ceiling is a form of discrimination that hurts not only African Americans, but the American economy as well. In 1991, racial bias deprived the U.S. economy of approximately $215 billion, or 3.8% of the gross domestic product. The loss in revenue can be traced to a bias that hampered the access of minorities to higher paying jobs (Brimmer, 1993). In terms of revenue, it is important to note that the U.S. minority marketplace now equals the gross national product of Canada. In other words, minority markets buy more than any of the countries with which the U.S. trades. For example, in 1988, African Americans and Hispanics combined spent about $300 billion while the U.S. exported over $200 billion to Canada (Copeland, 1988).

Since women and minorities comprise 50% of the American workforce, we should value diversity as well as nurture and manage it effectively. The shift in demographics has already occurred in favor of minorities based on the population growth in the United States from 1980 to 1990. Increases included 13.2% for African Americans, 37.9% for American Indians, 107.8% for Asians, and only 6% for the white population (those of European origin) (Henderson, 1994). By the year 2000, one of every three U.S. citizens will be non-white according to Hodgkinson (1985) and by the year 2030, more than 50% of the U.S. population will be minorities (Wilson, 1996). Therefore, the presence of minorities in leadership positions as senior administrators and faculty should be a vitally important concern to all institutions and their stakeholders. We should remember that an institution is only as effective as the people who operate it. Furthermore, diversity, like leadership, does not lend itself to neat formulas, weekend workshops, or summer institutes where these skills are modularized and acquired (Ramirez, 1996). Ramirez (1996) notes that we should remember that "diversity calls up the most deeply felt passions about who we are as individuals and as members of multiple groups, and about the kind of society we aspire to shape" (p. 440).

As a post-secondary technical educator and a leader in the profession, I am issuing a clarion call to policymakers, boards of trustees, and other post-secondary technical leaders to mobilize the will, strength, and resources of America to increase the pool of minorities in post-secondary technical education leadership positions. We have an opportunity to create a new vision for America as we cross the bridge into the 21st century. Together, in the spirit of diversity, we can do it.


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Muller, G. H. (1996). Gateways to success: Urban community colleges and administrative diversity. In R. C. Bowen, & G. H. Muller (Eds), Achieving administrative diversity. New directions for community colleges. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Phelps, D. G., & Taber, L. S. (1996). Affirmative action as an equal opportunity opportunity. In R. C. Bowen, & G. H. Muller (Eds), Achieving administrative diversity. New directions for community colleges. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Ramirez, B. C. (1996). Creating a new kind of leadership for campus diversity. In L. I. Rendon, & R. O. Hope (Eds), Educating a new majority: Transforming Americaís educational system for diversity. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Saltzman, A. (1991, June 17). Trouble at the top. U.S. News & world Report, 40-48.

Vaughan, G.B. (1996). Paradox and promise: Leadership and the neglected minorities. In R. C. Bowen, & G. H. Muller (Eds), Achieving administrative diversity. New directions for community colleges. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Wilson, R. (1996). The unfinished agenda. In R. C. Bowen, & G. H. Muller (Eds). Achieving administrative diversity. New directions for community colleges. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Reference Citation: Farmer, E. I. (1997). The need for more culturally diverse leaders in postsecondary technical education: A challenge for community colleges. Journal of Industrial Teacher Education, 35(1), 109-112.

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