Empowering Social Justice

Raymond E. Crossman, co-chair of LGBTQ Presidents in Higher Education and president of Adler University, emphasizes community and inspires others


During his 12-year tenure at Adler University, President Raymond E. Crossman, PhD, has successfully guided the university community by continually asking himself one important question: “What would Alfred Adler do?”

Adler University — named after community psychologist Alfred Adler, who practiced in Austria in the early 1900s — is a post-baccalaureate, nonprofit institution headquartered in Chicago.

As a psychologist and family therapist who practices Adlerian psychology, Crossman leads the social justice institution with an emphasis on community health over individual health, one of Adler’s major tenets. Because of his leadership, over the last 12 years, the school has expanded from one campus and 200 mostly part-time students to three campuses — including Chicago, Vancouver, and a global, online campus — and more than 1,200 students, the majority of whom are full-time.

“[When I came to the university], I was really interested in having a conversation about what would Alfred Adler want us to do if he was around now,” Crossman says. “Adler was interested in community-level health — beyond individuals, looking at populations. He was interested in education and other forms of community intervention beyond psychotherapy, and — more than what’s in your head — he thought that what’s important is what goes on between people and a community in order to create health.”

In addition to his academic and administrative background, Crossman’s personal experiences as a gay man have influenced the way he leads the university, with a special focus on inclusion.

“We pay attention to pluralism and inclusion, and that’s really built into the fabric of our education here and into the learning environment,” Crossman says. “My experience growing up as a gay kid made me look at the world in a particular way and made me interested in social justice. It really was an experience that in many ways shaped me into a leader who is a good fit for leading an institution [focused on] social justice.”

“I think it’s important to gay students on this campus that there’s a gay leader. It’s very empowering.” 

— Raymond E. Crossman, president of Adler University

Although he claims that being an “out” gay college president doesn’t necessarily make him better at addressing the needs of Adler’s LGBTQ student community, Crossman serves as a role model on and off campus. As co-chair of the group LGBTQ Presidents in Higher Education, he works to advance LGBTQ inclusion within academia.

Empowering Others
Established in 2010 as a result of “hallway conversations” at the American Council on Education and a news article identifying several out presidents, LGBTQ Presidents in Higher Education works to address barriers to college presidency for people who are LGBTQ. It also seeks to make leadership at universities more inclusive and advocates for LGBTQ issues at these institutions.

“I think it’s important to gay students on this campus that there’s a gay leader. It’s very empowering,” Crossman says, “but I also think it’s important for women and people of color to see a gay person in a leadership role, [so they think] ‘yes, people who are in the minority can be leaders.’ I make sure that I come out in as many professional interactions as I can, because I think that’s empowering for folks.”

More than an outlet for advocacy, LGBTQ Presidents provides Crossman with an inclusive space in which he can share experiences with others much like himself.

“[It’s] been very helpful to have another network of presidents who share this similarity; the same as women presidents or presidents of color find it helpful to get together, I find it helpful to get together with other presidents who are LGBTQ,” Crossman says. “And, interestingly, when we do, the first thing we talk about is not LGBTQ issues. The first thing we talk about is what any president’s group talks about when it gets together: We talk about our enrollment, we talk about managing our campuses, we talk about working with our boards.”

The group has grown steadily over the last five years and now has about 50 members, all of whom are college and university presidents from across the country. In June, the organization held its first annual LGBTQ Presidents in Higher Education conference, hosted by Adler’s Chicago campus, with Crossman as its chair.

Members of the LGBTQ community throughout higher education attended the event, where they learned how to address issues related to leadership development and overcome barriers to the presidency and other administrative positions. Crossman says the event was a “wild success” and an experience he won’t soon forget.

“This really sweet thing happened on the first Friday [of the conference],” he says. “I’m at the podium giving the opening remarks, and that’s when the Supreme Court’s decision [on same-sex marriage] was announced. It was just an amazing moment. That’s how the conference started.”

Innovating Social Justice
At Adler, Crossman leads the effort to produce “socially responsible practitioners.” Students go beyond traditional practices to understand how structures and systems work to create advantage and disadvantage, justice and injustice.

“We make something specific in the world,” says Crossman. “We are an institution that’s interested in creating a more just society. So what we prepare our students to do and what we expect them to do is to stimulate social change, to work to build a more just society.”

Because of his own training in psychology, Crossman says he has trouble disassociating from that part of his background — which frames how he views and approaches issues in his role as Adler’s president. “As a psychologist, I tend to look at how systems operate — as a family therapist, too. I think it’s a tired metaphor to think of an organization as a family, but I do think about it as a system, what the strengths and weaknesses within the system are, and how culture shapes [that] system,” he says.

The same is true of his childhood — when Crossman developed a keen sense of what makes a community thrive.

“I believe that if you grow up with an experience of oppression, you look at the world in a specific way,” he says “so I’m interested in not just what works, but what works for everybody. … I’m always looking for collaborative, inclusive solutions to move us forward, and I think that’s, in part, because I grew up as a gay kid. I think that growing up on the outside can force you to be more creative.”●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity.