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Black women rise to top leadership roles at N.E. colleges and universities

Deidre Montague
Black women rise to top leadership roles at N.E. colleges and universities
Dr. Melissa L. Gilliam, Boston University president. PHOTO: Janice Checchio for Boston University

As Dr. Melissa L. Gilliam made the rounds at Boston University last week, she met with students, faculty, and staff, and expressed elation after her history-making choice as BU’s next president.

When she starts the job on July 1, 2024, Gilliam, the executive vice president and provost at The Ohio State University, will become BU’s 11th president and the first woman and Black person in the university’s 184-old history.

“I have not typically aspired to leadership positions, but what I’ve learned is that when a door opens, and you have the ability to walk through it — it’s a privilege that not many people get,’’ said Gilliam in an exclusive interview with the Banner.

Gilliam is now a part of an exclusive club of Black women becoming president at major colleges and universities — positions historically dominated by white men.

She will join Claudine Gay, who was inaugurated recently as Harvard University’s 30th president. Other Black female college presidents in the area include Paula Johnson, who became Wellesley College’s 14th president, and Lynn Perry Wooten, who became Simmons University’s ninth president three years ago.

Simmons University president Lynn Perry Wooten. COURTESY PHOTO

Ruth J. Simmons, a former president of Smith College, was named the 18th president of Brown University. She became the first woman and the first African American president of an Ivy League university when she took that post in 2001. 

The population of current presidents is still not representative of the students served, according to the American Council on Education, which conducts a survey every five years, including this year, to better understand leaders at the helm of higher education institutions.

The college presidency remains older, white, and male, the council said, and men still outnumber women two-to-one in the presidency. College presidents of color accounted for a little over one out of four presidents, and women of color accounted for a little more than one out of every 10 presidents, according to the council. 

Eos Foundation — which has been collecting racial and gender data on college and university leaders since 2018 — reports  in its Women’s Power Gap Initiative progress in diversity at the top leadership at Massachusetts colleges and universities.

College presidents in the state who are women of color increased from 6 percent in 2018 to 16.5 percent  in 2023, the organization reported. That figure includes only women who identify as Black and Asian. There still were no Hispanic women in those roles, the group said.

“We really need to have women and people of color leading…because the majority of our student population are people of color [and] are women,’’ said Andrea Silbert, president of the Eos Foundation. 

Gilliam comes to BU with a distinguished record. She is a national leader in faculty recruitment and student success, a champion of diversity and inclusion, and a professor of obstetrics and gynecology and pediatrics whose scholarship focuses on developing interventions to promote adolescent health and well-being, according to BU Today.

A scholar in science and medicine, Gilliam also studied English literature at Yale and got her Master of Arts in philosophy and politics from University of Oxford.

Her late father, Sam Gilliam was a pioneering abstract painter who was known for a career of continuous experimentation and innovation, and her mother, Dorothy Gilliam is a trailblazing journalist, as the first Black female reporter hired by the Washington Post and a former president of the National Association of Black Journalists.

Ahmass L. Fakahany, chair of BU’s Board of Trustees, said the board selected Gilliam after consulting more than 300 people with ties to BU and sought an influential scholar with a balance in sciences and humanities and interdisciplinary foresight who “could invigorate BU’s full range of stakeholders and ignite the student and alumni” base.

Paula Johnson, president, Wellesley College. COURTESY PHOTO

“Dr. Gilliam embodies all these qualities and more,” Fakahany wrote in an email to the BU community.

At BU, Gilliam signals she is ready to take on BU.

“I’ve had the privilege of being part of the world’s great institutions,” Gilliam said to thunderous applause last week as she took the stage at the Tsai Performance Center. “Through higher education, I’ve had the opportunity to be a student, a faculty member, an administrator, a provost, and now a president. And it is difficult to express my joy and gratitude for this opportunity to join Boston University’s extraordinary global community.”

In the Banner interview, Gilliam shared her eagerness to connect with students, faculty and staff. She also said she looks forward to partnering with her counterparts at other institutions.

“It is just such an exciting thing,” she said, calling the opportunity to lead and collaborate an honor. “We lead for all people, and we show all people what’s possible. Then we’ll have the opportunity to be there for one another, so that our institutions benefit.”

Gilliam added that she understands the importance of representation, especially as she steps into this new position.

“I’ve spent so much of my career working on behalf of young people … living in communities where they don’t have all of the advantages of people living in other communities,” Gilliam said.

She said she hopes her ascension inspires all.

“I have always felt like it’s an obligation to take the opportunity that allowed me to have more impact,” she said. “I see service as an obligation, but it also just makes me really happy.”

Students also said they were excited about Gilliam’s appointment. Paris Hugley, a BU student and one of the hosts of the BU radio show, Melanin Matters, met Gilliam as the new president made the rounds at BU last week. Gilliam had greeted students at the Howard Thurman Center and spoke to as many students as she could.

“When she first walked in, she came to our table first,” said Hugley, who discussed meeting Gilliam on the show last week. She said Gilliam introduced herself and asked students their names, majors and future aspirations. Gilliam also shared her vision for BU as well.

“It was very nice. She’s very down to earth,” Hugley said. “She made an effort to present herself as approachable as possible and to focus on the responses of the students.”

Chinanu Okoli, another student DJ, said he was happy to see a larger number of students of color turn out for Gilliam.   

“It was nice to see people I knew,” he said. “It was nice to see folks who are interested in this.”

black women, Boston University, college presidents, Melissa L. Gilliam, Simmons University, Wellesley College
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