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A terrible loss

A terrible loss

Denice_denton

The tragic death of Denice Denton (pictured), the openly lesbian chancellor of University of California, Santa Cruz, has highlighted the fact that minorities, especially members of the LGBT community, are underrepresented at the highest levels of leadership at colleges and universities around the nation.

On June 24, the LGBT community lost one of its pioneers and champions in academia with the suicide of Denice Dee Denton, the openly gay chancellor of the University of California, Santa Cruz. However, this tragedy also offers us the opportunity to celebrate Denton's achievements and legacy and to reflect on the prospects of gay and lesbian leadership in higher education.

I remember yelping with delight when I read the groundbreaking announcement of Denton's appointment back in December 2004. To my knowledge, Denton was then the first openly gay woman to take the reins of a major research university. According to Denton's biography from the U.C. president's office, after taking her doctorate in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology she became a well-respected faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and later the dean of the college of engineering at the University of Washington. Denton won numerous awards, including a 2004 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring, and held memberships in the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Denton was eminently qualified for her position, and though media-driven suspicions about inappropriate spending marked her tenure, the faculty, students, and alumni of UCSC admired and proudly supported their gay chancellor.

In 2004, Denton joined a miniscule roster of openly queer college presidents. According to the Point Foundation, Charles R. "Chuck" Middleton became the first openly gay college president when he was appointed to head Roosevelt University in Illinois in July 2002. The LGBT community went through a two-year dry spell after Middleton's appointment, but then two announcements in rapid succession gave hope to the idea of greater inclusion in the leadership ranks of U.S. colleges and universities. First came word of Denton, followed by the April 2005 announcement that Ralph J. Hexter, executive dean of the University of California, Berkeley, and a professor of classical and medieval literature, would assume the presidency of Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. (though not a student there, I took vicarious pride through Hampshire's membership in the Five College Consortium to which my alma mater, Amherst College, also belongs). The fact that Denton's and Hexter's life partners would accompany them to their new posts only raised their trailblazing profiles higher.

The achievements of Middleton, Denton, and Hexter are especially significant when considered in the context of their profession. College and university presidencies have traditionally excluded minority Americans of all kinds. According to the latest available statistics from the American Council on Education, three out of four college presidents are male, and 87% are white. No one tracks statistics for gay or lesbian college presidents (perhaps because you can count them on one hand), but The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that only 0.5% of college presidents claim a "domestic partner." As recently as 2001, Brown University's Ruth Simmons made history when she became the first African-American woman to become president of an Ivy League college. Considering the institutionalized biases that have plagued higher education, it is a wonder there have been any gay or lesbian college presidents at all.

Of course, college presidents should not represent specialized agendas but rather the entire school community. As Hampshire College's Hexter noted in an interview with The Advocate, "Obviously, I am the president of all students and want to be involved." At the same time, however, there is no denying that the appointment of an openly gay or lesbian college president has special meaning for LGBT students at the institution. Just as research conducted by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network demonstrated that having an openly gay or lesbian teacher can improve student achievement in secondary school, having an openly gay or lesbian college president presents a message of hope and possibility to young gays and lesbians at a time when the prevailing national climate tells them to sit down, shut up, and accept their second-class citizenship without a fight. Many gays and lesbians are now rising through the faculty and administrative ranks across the country. In my own time at Amherst, I knew of gay and lesbian department chairs, and an openly gay dean always made time to attend LGBT student events. One might even argue that gays and lesbians are particularly suited for college and university presidencies; in a job where being inclusive is paramount, who is more qualified than someone who has known all his or her life the anguish of being excluded?

So here's my plea. To all of the closeted gay and lesbian college presidents out there: Please come out. We need you. We need your voice. We need your example, because, like it or not, you're already in a position to be a role model. And to all of the college and university trustees out there: Please consider hiring a gay or lesbian candidate as your next president. They are out there: talented and passionate men and women who can define brilliant strategic goals and inspire your faculty and raise millions of dollars for your endowment. Make it a priority to consider women and gays and lesbians and people of color over status quo candidates, not only because they are just as capable professionally but, more important, because they often prove even more effective socially: They serve as reminders that equal opportunity is not a catchphrase but a reality.

A future where the presidents of colleges and universities truly reflect the diversity of this country is a future that Denice Denton worked toward and one that would have made her proud. It is, indeed, a future that will make us all proud.

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