Addressing Latinx Representation in Higher Education Leadership

Michelle Espino

As colleges grow increasingly diverse, college administrators need to be prepared to meet the needs of students from many backgrounds. Yet, a lack of representation at administration levels can be limiting and narrow in scope in addressing student issues. 

UMD College of Education researcher Michelle Espino studies the lack of representation of Latinx administrators at research universities. One major barrier to administration positions for Latinx faculty is the stepping stone nature of the academic pathway. According to the 2017 American Council on Education President Survey, most presidents at research universities are first provosts. But to be a provost, faculty need to be a full tenured professor, presenting a tangled and often inaccessible route to senior academic administrative leadership for Latinx faculty. That’s a problem when diversity in leadership is needed most.

“Now more than ever we need to have diverse leadership that has a variety of experiences and knowledge to be able to support the students we are attracting to our institutions,” said Dr. Espino, associate professor in the Department of Counseling, Higher Education, and Special Education.

Recently, Dr. Espino was awarded $75K in funding over two years to study Latinx leadership in higher education through the Spencer Racial Equity Special Research Grant program, which works to improve racial inequality in education. The study aims to understand the opportunity structures, organizational environments, and individual experience tied with Latinx pathways to leadership.

The research explores career pathways of Latinx individuals to senior and executive leadership positions at research-extensive Hispanic-Serving Institutions, which have 25 percent or more Hispanic students on campus. The topic is especially relevant considering representation in leadership positions of higher education tend to be similar around the country.

“Representation at the senior levels of university life in general is predominantly white, especially at research universities,” said Dr. Espino.

Out of around 1,500 higher education institutions surveyed in the United States, only about 4 percent are represented by a Latinx president, with the percentage having remained the same for the last 20 years, said Dr. Espino. Many Latinx leaders are at the community college level, whereas research universities haven’t incorporated as much diversity throughout institutional structures.

“I think those are the places that have that center of knowledge production—the ones that are generating knowledge for society—and if we don’t have representation at that level for people of color, from people who have an understanding of the changing demographics of the student body, that’s a limitation,” Dr. Espino said.

The Spencer grant will support Dr. Espino’s study on academic administrators in mid-level leadership roles such as department chairs, deans and faculty in the provost suite. The nationwide study involves 32 administrators at 16 different Hispanic-Serving Institutions, including the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, the University of New Mexico, and the University of Arizona.

“If we don’t have representation there, how can we expect that we’re going to have representation at predominantly white institutions?” Dr. Espino said.

At a foundational level, Dr. Espino would like to know the percentage of Latinx faculty on each campus. She’ll also be studying individual career pathways and motivation for Latinx faculty to go into administrator positions—especially when it can mean leaving the classroom and pausing research goals—as well as any institutional barriers preventing advancement and any programs in place offering training and mentorship support.

Additionally, determining how successful senior administrators position themselves as leaders and explain leadership skills could lend insight into accessing leadership pathways for Latinx individuals at research universities. Ultimately, the work could help develop strategies for promoting Latinx leadership in higher education.

“Latinos are increasingly coming into research universities. If we’re not offering opportunities to support and retain them, then it makes it very difficult to be successful as an entire institution. We need to make sure we have diverse representation at the leadership levels to make the critical decisions that are needed to support a very diverse student body,” Dr. Espino said.