Asians and Pacific Islanders Are Scarce in Higher Ed Leadership, but a Strong Community Is Working to Change That

While it is unclear just how many Asians and Pacific Islanders (APIs) hold senior-level positions in higher education, some people may be surprised to learn how vastly underrepresented they are as college and university presidents and chancellors.

According to American Council on Education (ACE) data from 2012, only 1.5 percent of college and university presidents in the U.S. are APIs. At 7 percent, Asian Americans lead all other minority groups at the tenured-faculty level, but comprise only 3 percent of deans.

[Above: California State University, East Bay President Leroy Morishita and his wife Barbara with university students outside the recently opened Student and Faculty Support Center]

Audrey Yamagata-Noji says it’s difficult to get a grasp on the actual number of API presidents and chancellors. She is vice president of student services at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, Calif., and has been tracking the representation of Asian Americans in higher education, including at the senior administrative levels.

“What’s interesting is that there’s really no way to get a number, so we guess for the most part,” she says. “We’ve developed this wild network of people who send updates of who’s who and track them that way. … Is it that our numbers are so small that no one tracks it, or is it that we mean so little in the diversity conversation?”

Yamagata-Noji points out that many people assume Asian Americans are overrepresented in upper-level positions due to their relative academic success. And, in fact, Asian Americans are the best-educated — and fastest-growing.— racial group in the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center.

Many of the reasons APIs are underrepresented as college presidents are believed to be related to cultural traditions and unconscious biases people have about Asian Americans, which prevent them from pursuing presidential positions.

“Faculty tenure has traditionally been the route to the presidency,”  Yamagata-Noji says. “Many APIs work in science, and based on our interviews, they want to do their research and not get into the politics of being a college president.”

“We’ve also heard numerous times that APIs shoot themselves in the foot in interviews,” she adds. “They were raised humble, and they don’t like to brag about their accomplishments. And many people frequently think humility does not make for a good leader.”

Despite cultural norms that may hold APIs back in competitive environments, Yamagata-Noji thinks those same values can be an asset in senior leadership.

“Asian Americans are good listeners [and] great team players with a group-oriented mindset, and they have high standards of excellence,” she says. “An Asian American president is conscious of how best to work together and brings a lot to the table.”

Yamagata-Noji is also program director and lead facilitator for the Leadership Development Program for Higher Education (LDPHE), an intensive professional development experience for APIs offered by Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics, Inc. (LEAP), in partnership with Asian Pacific Americans in Higher Education (APAHE). The program is meant to encourage more APIs to pursue senior leadership positions in higher education.

Over four days, participants engage in mock interviews and hands-on workshops, receive mentoring and coaching from senior administrators, and cultivate networks with other vice presidents, deans, and faculty department chairs. The program culminates with presentations in which individuals assess their progress and declare to the group their future goals.

“It’s extremely emotional,” says Yamagata-Noji. “Participants get in touch with deep-rooted issues that are holding them back and commit to moving ahead.”

The LDPHE originated out of the concerns of two prominent API administrators in the 1990s: Bob Suzuki, president of California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and Chang-Lin Tien, chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley. They were concerned about the future of API leadership in higher education and challenged LEAP and APAHE to do more.

“They asked, ‘Where’s the pipeline? We made it; now what’s next? What are you going to do about it?’” says Yamagata-Noji.

Since it began, the LDPHE has graduated more than 300 participants and boasts alumni at various levels of senior administration in higher education.

Accidental Presidents
The California State University (CSU) system has 23 campuses, and as of July 1 — when Judy Sakaki assumes the presidency at Sonoma State University — Asian American presidents will lead three of those.

All three say they never aspired to be in senior leadership but came into their positions through the encouragement of others, recognizing and taking advantage of opportunities, and calling upon their traditional Asian values.

Sakaki, who is currently vice president of student affairs in the Office of the President at the University of California, says growing up, she thought she would become a nurse or a preschool teacher. Instead, she was the first in her family to go to college and studied to become a high school counselor. She eventually landed a job as a part-time outreach coordinator at CSU Hayward (now East Bay), working to encourage African American and Latino students to pursue higher education.

Her grandparents were Japanese immigrants, and her parents were interred during World War II. Their example of taking advantage of opportunities, combined with the encouragement of others throughout her career, projected Sakaki up the ladder of higher education administration. But her path was not without challenges.

“Unfortunately, there are not many Asians or women of color at leadership tables,” she says. “It can be challenging and a bit lonely. There are questions about who you can trust and who can advise you when you hit a bump in the road or [encounter] a situation you’ve never experienced before. … It’s important to create a cadre of mentors who you can rely on and use, who will be willing to pick up the phone and respect your confidentiality.”

When she takes office, Sakaki will become the first Japanese American woman president of a four-year university in the U.S. and the first female Asian American president of a four-year university in California — two facts she was surprised to learn. She says the designation brings with it a sense of responsibility to give back to the next generation of leaders and serve as a role model.

“We don’t boast enough about what we can do; we just do it,” she says. “[Because] people reached out to me when I was a young professional and asked what was next for me, I feel a responsibility to mentor undergraduates, graduates, young professionals, and especially women.”

She says although her path to the presidency did not follow the traditional dean-to-provost-to-president trajectory, Sakaki thinks her experience as a vice president has prepared her well.

Leroy Morishita, president of the East Bay (CSUEB) campus, similarly did not set out to become a university president. He grew up on a 40-acre farm in the Central Valley of California and attended a school where half the students were Chicano. Although his father dropped out of the ninth grade and his mother did not attend college, they instilled in him and his siblings the expectation of a higher education.

Initially, he aspired to become an attorney but instead earned a degree in psychology.

Leroy Morishita
Leroy Morishita

“I thought I would go into counseling so I could offer students the opportunities I had,” he says. “I thought about my Chicano buddies who were tracked into technical schools and not encouraged to go to college, who didn’t have the opportunities I had.”

Like Sakaki, Morishita says other people — colleagues and mentors — encouraged him to continue his education and pursue more senior roles in higher education. He says the thought of becoming a president never occurred to him.

“I’m not trying to brag, but it was not an issue of could I do the job of being president, but why would I want to,” he says. “I think a lot of Asians shy away from administration, and they prefer to do research because they’re more in control of their own destiny.”

Morishita says some people questioned his ability to lead effectively because of biases they held about Asian Americans. They were unsure that he could be outspoken and opinionated and questioned whether he would be able to fire people. Morishita said he was fortunate to have people around him at CSUEB who understood his values and could draw him out when they saw that he was not being forthcoming with his opinions.

He says by virtue of being an Asian president, he is a role model for all API students at his university — a feeling that Sakaki and Les Wong, president of San Francisco State University (SFSU), share.

Les Wong
Les Wong

The three presidents all actively volunteer with LEAP’s LDPHE and mentor rising API leaders. However, Morishita would like to see change happen faster.

“None of us has felt like a success in bringing in more Asian presidents,” he says. “When you know all of them out there, that’s kind of bad. Change is occurring, but it’s not as fast as I would like.”

Wong has about a dozen mentees — primarily deans who are “on their way to the presidency” — and takes his role as mentor seriously.

“A lot of people think Asian Americans don’t have the spine to be a university president,” he says. “You have to work through the initial stereotypes to get to the substance. I tell my mentees to honor their culture. … The skills we have in listening to people, the respect for our elders, and our ability to pay attention to what matters — these are all good traits for a president.”

Wong dealt with stereotypes when he became president of Northern Michigan University (NMU) in 2004, a position he held for eight years. He says the rural community in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan expected a reserved, intellectual scholar but soon learned that he had more in common with them than they expected.

“When I went to Michigan, they were surprised to learn that my wife and I are backpackers, that I’m not afraid to shoot a gun, and that I like contact sports,” Wong says. “Once they saw that I could be like them and also be a scholar — I have never experienced the level of acceptance that I did in northern Michigan.”

During his tenure at NMU, Wong was the only Asian American in senior leadership at an institution of higher education in the upper Midwest, but he says he never felt isolated because of the large API community in Detroit and Grand Rapids.

Wong took office at SFSU in 2012, and although he participates in events in Chinatown and advocates for Asian American students on campus, his priorities remain with the greater university community.

“People thought I would be more ardent with API issues, but at times I wasn’t because it was counter to the entire community,” he says. “Any of us who are presidents have affinities with certain groups — whether that’s as female presidents or Hispanic or African American presidents — and our hearts run deep. We always kind of wrestle with balancing the personal with our duties.”

Recently, students and faculty in the College of Ethnic Studies at SFSU — the first freestanding school of its kind in the country — protested rumored budgetary cuts. Although the situation was trying, Wong says he welcomes the growing awareness he sees among students for issues of diversity and equity.

“Students have been quiet for far too long,” he says.

This openness to the opinions of others that Wong espouses is another traditional value in Asian cultures and an important attribute for college and university presidents to have.

In time, as awareness of the dearth of Asians and Pacific Islanders in senior leadership within higher education grows, many hope their representation in those positions will as well. Fortunately, the tightknit community is one in which APIs can easily find allies who will advocate on their behalf and encourage them to pursue upper-level roles.

“Do not get deflated by fear of the unknown,” Yamagata-Noji tells participants of the LDPHE. “You’re not going to be out there on your own.”●

Rebecca Prinster is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. LEAP is a partner of INSIGHT Into Diversity. To learn more about LEAP and the LDPHE, visit