Firsts in Higher Education

As our country and our campuses become ever more diverse, it is increasingly important for colleges and universities to ensure that underrepresented students are not the only focus of recruitment and retention efforts. Diverse faculty and administrators enrich campus communities by bringing new perspectives and values, serving as role models for underrepresented students, and ensuring that academia welcomes and provides professional opportunities for all individuals.

Here, we recognize academic and administrative leaders who have broken new ground for underrepresented professionals in higher education.

FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN PRESIDENT OF A MAJORITY WHITE UNIVERSITY IN MISSISSIPPI

Rodney D. Bennett

Since accepting his historic role in 2013 as president of University of Southern Mississippi (USM) in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Rodney Bennett, EdD, has striven to increase support services to a diverse population of students by introducing programming designed to improve retention and graduation rates. He has also attracted more highly qualified students to the university; in 2014 he enrolled the most academically talented freshman class in the university’s history. Prior to joining USM, Bennett was the vice president for student affairs at the University of Georgia, where he worked to improve campus facilities, increase service learning opportunities, and promote diversity on campus.

FIRST LATINO PRESIDENT OF CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY, FRESNO

Joseph I. Castro

Joseph I. Castro, PhD, is the first Latino and first San Joaquin Valley native to serve as president of California State University, Fresno (CSUF), an institution where roughly one third of the students are Hispanic and the vast majority are low-income residents of the region. Like many of CSUF’s students, he is the descendant of farmworkers from Mexico and the first person in his family to graduate from college. Castro earned his PhD in higher education policy and leadership from Stanford University, after which he served as a faculty member and administrator at four University of California campuses: Berkeley, Davis, Merced, and Santa Barbara. A dedicated advocate for accessible education, he is a recipient of the Ohtli Medal — the highest honor granted by the government of Mexico to leaders in the U.S. — for his efforts to create educational opportunities for younger generations irrespective of their immigration or economic status.

FIRST FEMALE PRESIDENT AND FIRST MINORITY  PRESIDENT OF MONTANA STATE UNIVERSITY

Waded Cruzado

A native of Puerto Rico and a passionate advocate for student success, Waded Cruzado, PhD, has used her presidency at Montana State University (MSU) to oversee the establishment of increased student support services to improve retention and reduce student debt. For example, in 2012, she launched the “Freshman 15” and “Know Your Debt Letter” programs, designed to motivate students to add more “weight” to their class schedules and graduate in a timely manner. Furthermore, her work to establish MSU’s Center for Mental Health Research and Recovery was honored with the Hero Award, presented by the National Alliance on Mental Illness in 2015, and her efforts to establish a Veteran’s Center at MSU helped the school earn designation as a Military Friendly institution. An outspoken advocate of land grant universities’ threefold mission of education, research, and public outreach, Cruzado was elected in 2014 to serve a three-year term on the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities Board of Directors. In 2012, she was appointed by then-President Barack Obama to the Board for International Food and Agricultural Development, an advisory council on issues related to global food insecurity, among other topics. Prior to joining MSU, Cruzado served as executive vice president and provost at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.

FIRST DEAF WOMAN PRESIDENT OF AN AMERICAN COLLEGE OR UNIVERSITY (GUILFORD COLLEGE) 

Jane K. Fernandes

Born to a deaf mother and a hearing father, Guilford College President Jane Fernandes, PhD, was raised in an oral education program, eventually learning American Sign Language as a graduate student. After studying French and comparative literature at Trinity College and the University of Iowa, she went on to assume leadership roles in the field of deaf education, starting in Boston as acting director of American Sign Language Programs at Northeastern University and then leading sign communication programs in both Washington, D.C., and Hawaii. Prior to joining Guilford, she served as provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs as well as professor of education at the University of North Carolina-Asheville. An ardent promoter of diversity, Fernandes served as a Senior Fellow at Bennett’s Johnnetta B. Cole Global Diversity and Inclusion Institute from 2007 to 2011, where she collaborated with other chief executives and diversity officers to discuss challenges and best practices related to diversity and inclusion.

FIRST HISPANIC PRESIDENT OF THE UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI

Julio Frenk 

Born in Mexico City to the descendants of Jewish immigrants who fled Germany in the early 1930s, Julio Frenk, MD, PhD, has demonstrated a lifelong passion for improving the lives of underserved and marginalized populations. During his tenure as Mexico’s Minister of Health he expanded access to health care for over 55 million previously uninsured citizens. His illustrious career also includes serving as a Senior Fellow of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Health Program, founding director of Mexico’s National Institute of Public Health, and dean of Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Frenk has received a number of awards recognizing his commitment to health education and policy, including the Clinton Global Citizen Award for influencing the way policy makers think about health, and the Bouchet Leadership Award Medal from Yale University for promoting diversity in graduate education.

FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN PRESIDENT OF ROBERT MORRIS UNIVERSITY

Chris Howard

Chris Howard, DPhil, is one of the youngest college presidents in the nation. Prior to his leadership at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh, he served as president of Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia and as vice president for leadership and strategic initiatives at the University of Oklahoma. Along with his academic accomplishments, Howard has led a distinguished career as a U.S. Air Force pilot, earning the Bronze Star for his service in Afghanistan. He graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy and earned a doctorate in politics as a Rhodes Scholar from the University of Oxford. He also has corporate experience working with General Electric and Bristol-Myers Squibb. President Barack Obama appointed Howard to the National Security Education Board, and he has served on the MyVA Advisory Committee for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. In 2000, Howard founded the Impact Young Lives Foundation, which brings South African college students of color to the U.S. for summer educational and cultural tours.

FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMAN TO LEAD A TOP-RANKED RESEARCH UNIVERSITY 

Shirley Ann Jackson

One of the most well-known trailblazers for African American women in STEM, Shirley Jackson, PhD, has served as president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) since 1999. She is the first African American woman to earn a doctorate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to serve as chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and to be elected to the National Academy of Engineering. Her public service career also includes serving as co-chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board and member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology under Barack Obama. Her many achievements at RPI include leading The Rensselaer Plan, which succeeded in transforming the university to a state-of-the-art research institution by securing $1.25 billion in funding and by establishing numerous research centers and endeavors. She is the recipient of more than 50 honorary doctoral degrees and the National Medal of Science — the U.S.’s top honor for contributions to the fields of science and engineering.

FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMAN TO LEAD A TOP 25 BUSINESS SCHOOL IN THE U.S.; FIRST BLACK WOMAN TO LEAD EMORY UNIVERSITY’S GOIZUETA BUSINESS SCHOOL

Erika Hayes James

In addition to serving as dean of Goizueta, Erika Hayes James, PhD, is a speaker and consultant for Fortune 500 companies focusing on executive leadership skills and cultivating workplace diversity. She has written and presented extensively on topics related to women in business leadership, such as how psychological factors influence the pay gap between male and female executives. She is a leading advocate for increasing the representation of women in Master of Business Administration (MBA) programs, and, as senior associate dean for executive education at University of Virginia Darden School of Business, she founded the Women’s Leadership Program. In 2014, she was named to Ebony magazine’s Power 100 list.

FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN TO SERVE AS PRESIDENT OF WELLESLEY COLLEGE

Paula A. Johnson

Prior to her 2016 appointment as the first African American president to lead the all-female Wellesley College, Paula A. Johnson, MD, MPH, had an extensive career in supporting women’s health and improving the field of medical education. As a professor, researcher, and physician for Harvard University Medical School and its associated teaching hospitals, Johnson led efforts to identify and dispel gender bias in patient care in order to provide better physician training and improve services for female patients. Her contributions to medical education and improving the lives of women earned her an induction into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Johnson is also an International Women’s Forum honoree.

FIRST KOREAN AMERICAN WOMAN TO LEAD A FOUR-YEAR UNIVERSITY 

Ellen Junn    

Ellen Junn, PhD, was named the 11th president of California State University, Stanislaus (CSUS) in 2016. During her 30-year career in higher education, she has held leadership positions at four schools in the California State University (CSU) system. Previous to assuming the presidency at CSUS, Junn served as provost and vice president for academic affairs at CSU Dominguez Hills. While there she created and reformed several innovative programs for underrepresented and underserved students, including expanding a summer bridge program for incoming freshmen and establishing weekly study skill and advising workshops for first year students. Her efforts led to the school’s highest freshman retention rates in 25 years. She is widely published and has written professional journal articles on topics such as supporting the success of underserved students, the importance of university-community engagement, and strategies for supporting non-tenure track faculty, especially women and minorities.

FIRST FEMALE CHANCELLOR OF THE UNIVERSITY OF HOUSTON SYSTEM; FIRST INDIAN IMMIGRANT TO LEAD A COMPREHENSIVE RESEARCH UNIVERSITY IN THE U.S.

Renu Khator

As the University of Houston (UH) System president, Renu Khator, PhD, has far-reaching responsibilities; she oversees four universities that collectively serve 71,000 students and operate with an annual budget of more than $1.7 billion. Under her leadership, UH has seen record research funding, enrollment, and private financial support. For example, the university launched a $1 billion campus expansion program, including a 74-acre Energy Research Park that houses several startup companies and academic programs. In addition, Khator is a distinguished scholar in the field of global environmental policy and an author of numerous books on the topic, including Environment, Development and Politics in India. Born in Uttar Pradesh, India, Khator received the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award from the country’s president for “significant contributions” to her homeland, as well as the Outstanding American by Choice award from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

FIRST TRANSGENDER PROGRAM DIRECTOR FOR YOUNGSTOWN STATE UNIVERSITY  

Megan List

As director of the Women’s Initiative at Youngstown State University (YSU), Megan List, PhD, provides safe sex trainings and mental health awareness education to promote the wellbeing of students regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation. List also oversees the ongoing development of the YSU Women’s and Gender Resource Center — a hub for education, connectivity, and campus safety. Through the center, she will be able to help students who may feel discriminated against or who are experiencing sexual assault, suicidal thoughts, or other forms of crisis. Given her own experience growing up as the transgender child of two steelworkers in Butler, Pa., she deeply understands the need for college students to explore their identities and find a safe place to be themselves. She is also a scholar on women and gender, teaching such courses as LGBTQ Issues in History and Popular Culture at YSU. Regarding her status as the first transgender director at YSU, List told The Vindicator, Youngstown’s daily newspaper, that she’s “just a normal human being doing normal human being things.”

FIRST FULL-TIME FEMALE ATHLETIC DIRECTOR AT THE UNIVERSITY OF PITTSBURGH

Heather Lyke

Heather Lyke, JD, oversees 19 intercollegiate sports programs and more than 475 student-athletes at the University of Pittsburgh (PITT). Prior to her role at PITT, she served as vice president and director intercollegiate athletics at Eastern Michigan University. While serving as the senior associate athletic director at Ohio State University, she oversaw 10 athletic programs and supervised the sport performance division. She was also a color analyst for softball on the Big Ten Network for four years. In her current role, Lyke is the second female athletic director to take part in the AAC. Lyke frequently shares her expertise as a presenter at national conferences, and she serves on the Board of Directors of Women Leaders in College Athletics. She is a former student-athlete in softball, having played first base at the University of Michigan. Lyke earned her law degree at University of Akron in Ohio.

FIRST FEMALE DEAN OF THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN SCHOOL OF DENTISTRY  

Laurie McCauley 

Laurie McCauley’s (DDS, PhD)appointment as dean at the University of Michigan (U-M) School of Dentistry is the result of years of study and hard work. After earning her doctor of dental surgery, master’s in science, and PhD in veterinary pathobiology at Ohio State University, she rose through the academic ranks at U-M, becoming a full professor in both the School of Dentistry and the Department of Pathology at U-M Medical School. As dean, she has a wealth of career experiences to offer, including clinical, classroom, research, and administrative roles. And she keeps a hand in all of them, even as a full-time administrator, seeing patients in the school’s faculty practice and working in her research lab when she has time. Meanwhile, under her leadership, U-M has established a new interdisciplinary health sciences resource center led by the School of Dentistry. Scientists, engineers, and clinicians from several U-M divisions as well as researchers from the University of Pittsburgh, Harvard University, and private companies use the center’s resources.

FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN TO LEAD A CLAREMONT COLLEGES UNDERGRADUATE CAMPUS

Melvin L. Oliver

Melvin Oliver, PhD, was named president of Claremont University’s Pitzer College in 2016. He previously served as executive dean of University of California, Santa Barbara’s College of Letters and Science, where he increased faculty diversity and increased enrollment for underrepresented students at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. An expert scholar in racial inequalities, Melvin previously served as vice president of the Asset Building and Development Program for the Ford Foundation, where he was an advocate and fundraiser for underserved minority communities. He is also co-director of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Center for the Study of Urban Poverty and a former UCLA sociology professor. In addition to being an award-winning professor, he is the co-author and co-editor of several groundbreaking works on race relations and economic inequality in America, including Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Equality, the recipient of numerous awards from sociologists and human rights advocates. (Photo by William Vasta/Pitzer College)

FIRST MALE LATINO TO LEAD A U.S. NURSING SCHOOL; FIRST MALE LATINO IN THE U.S. TO EARN A DOCTORATE IN NURSING

Elias Provencio-Vasquez

Elias Provencio-Vasquez, PhD, has served as clinical nurse, nurse researcher, nurse educator, and school administrator. As a researcher, he focused on neonatal and pediatric care and helping new mothers to reduce their risk of substance abuse, HIV exposure, and intimate partner violence during and after pregnancy. As dean of the University of Texas at El Paso School of Nursing — where 79 percent of students are Hispanic — Provencio-Vasquez serves as a leader and role model for aspiring nurses whose ethnic and racial identities remain underrepresented in the healthcare field. He also serves on the National Advisory Committee for New Careers in Nursing (NCIN), which provides scholarships to underrepresented groups and students from disadvantaged backgrounds. (Photo: UTEP Communications)

FIRST LATINO DEAN OF AN ACADEMIC COLLEGE AT RICE UNIVERSITY

Peter Rodriguez

Upon accepting the role of dean at Rice University’s Jones School of Business, Peter Rodriguez, PhD, told Houston Public Media that his appointment meant “a great deal of responsibility and opportunity … to bring a voice at a table where there was previously no voice.” One way he fulfills this mission of inclusivity is through an online journal he created called Rice Business Wisdom, which publicizes the school’s research for lay readers. An avid researcher himself, Rodriguez specializes in the study of international business and trade with an emphasis on understanding and mitigating the effects of corruption on economic development. He is an award-winning professor of international macroeconomics and business-government relations, teaching courses on global economics to the Canadian Heads of Ministries, the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy, and multinational corporations. He has held previous professorships at several prestigious U.S. research universities.

FIRST JAPANESE AMERICAN WOMAN PRESIDENT OF A FOUR-YEAR UNIVERSITY   

Judy K. Sakaki

As a first-generation college graduate and president of Sonoma State University, Judy Sakaki, PhD, is dedicated to improving educational opportunities for all students and recognizing their achievements. Her efforts to increase educational access for underserved populations include hosting the largest group of young people in the university’s history — approximately 500 elementary and middle school students from racially diverse, low-income areas of Sacramento — to give them a glimpse of college life. Additionally, she has helped the university achieve eligibility as a Hispanic Serving Institution and begin work on establishing a center to help meet the needs of undocumented students. In 2009, she co-chaired a task force, Recognizing Students Interned During WWII, that culminated in awarding honorary degrees to approximately 700 Japanese American students who had attended the University of California from 1941 to 1942.

FIRST FEMALE PRESIDENT OF ST. MICHAEL’S COLLEGE

Lorraine Sterritt

Prior to her presidency at St. Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont, Lorraine Sterritt, PhD, served as president of Salem Academy and College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. During her 30 years in education leadership, Sterritt has served in a variety of administrative and teaching roles at Wilson College, Harvard University, Stanford University, and the University of Pennsylvania. At Harvard, she served as dean of freshmen and the director of academic advising as well as a member of the faculty of arts and sciences. Born and raised in Ireland, Sterritt earned her bachelor’s and master’s in French at The Queen’s University of Belfast, Northern Ireland. She earned a second master’s and a doctor of philosophy at Princeton University.

FIRST FOREIGN-BORN PRESIDENT OF THE UNIVERSITY AT BUFFALO; FIRST INDIAN-BORN LEADER OF AN ASSOCIATION OF AMERICAN UNIVERSITIES INSTITUTION

Satish K. Tripathi

An internationally recognized computer scientist and innovator in higher education access and teaching, Satish Tripathi, PhD, joined the University at Buffalo (UB) as an administrator in 2004. Prior to assuming the presidency in 2011, he served as provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, during which time he formed collaborative partnerships with schools in India, Canada, and other nations to successfully grow UB’s international presence. He was also a principal creator of a strategic plan to achieve academic and research excellence, recruiting faculty researchers and significantly increasing the university’s number of federally awarded research grants. In addition to professorships at University of Maryland and other schools at home and abroad, Tripathi was dean of University of California-Riverside’s Bourns School of Engineering. He is a board member of the Association of American Universities and the NCAA Division I and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMAN TO RUN AN ATHLETIC DEPARTMENT AT A POWER FIVE SCHOOL 

Carla Williams

Prior to making history as athletic director at University of Virginia (UVA), Carla Williams, PhD, served in various administrator roles, including deputy athletic director for the University of Georgia athletics department for 11 years. Her many responsibilities included overseeing academic support services, NCAA and Title IX compliance, and a $162 million renovations project. A former student-athlete, Williams played basketball professionally in Spain before earning her doctorate in sports administration from Florida State University. Her 2017 appointment at UVA received widespread media attention for breaking barriers for African Americans and women in college sports, leading the New York Daily News to name her “the most important leader in college athletics.”

FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN DEAN AT HARVARD UNIVERSITY; FIRST FEMALE DEAN OF THE HARVARD T.H. CHAN SCHOOL OF PUBLIC HEALTH

Michelle A. Williams

The daughter of Jamaican immigrants, Michelle Williams, ScD, is an internationally recognized epidemiologist and an award-winning educator. She is founding director of Harvard Chan’s Multidisciplinary International Research Training program, which provides study abroad and international research opportunities for underrepresented students in the fields of global health, biostatics, and epidemiology. As part of her own research, she has conducted large-scale studies focused on genetic and environmental factors that influence adverse pregnancy outcomes. The recipient of numerous teaching awards, she was honored by President Barack Obama in 2011 for outstanding mentorship in science, technology, engineering, and math.

FIRST FEMALE ATHLETIC DIRECTOR IN THE ATLANTIC COAST CONFERENCE 

Debbie Yow 

Debbie Yow, PhD, a 23-year veteran of college athletics administration, serves as director of athletics at North Carolina State University (NCSU). Previously, she held the same role at University of Maryland and Saint Louis University. Under her leadership NCSU posted five of the school’s 10 highest National Directors’ Cup finishes for competitive excellence; the award is presented by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA). Yow also led NCSU student-athletes to post the three highest graduation success rates and federal graduation rates in program history. She is the only woman to be selected as president of both the Division IA Athletic Directors’ Association and the NACDA. Yow has also served as head coach of three women’s basketball teams: University of Kentucky, Oral Roberts University, and University of Florida.

FIRST MUSLIM PRESIDENT OF THE NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF COLLEGE AND UNIVERSITY CHAPLAINS 

Imam Adeel Zeb

When Imam Adeel Zeb was voted president of the National Association of College and University Chaplains in February 2017, he told The HuffPost that he hoped his appointment would inspire other non-Christian religious leaders to enter the field of college chaplaincy. As the co-university Muslim chaplain at The Claremont Colleges, Zeb counsels students on broad human issues. He holds degrees in traditional Islamic sciences and Islamic chaplaincy as well as a certificate in Tajweed Qur’anic Studies from the Faith and Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey. Zeb has participated in a variety of interfaith projects across the world and holds multiple certifications in interfaith conflict management. Prior to joining The Claremont Colleges, he served as Muslim chaplain and director of Muslim life at Duke University.

FIRST JEWISH DEAN OF A UNIVERSITY DIVINITY SCHOOL  

Laurie Zoloth

Upon her 2017 appointment as dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School, UChicago President Robert J. Zimmer said Laurie Zoloth, PhD, would help the school achieve a “much richer, informed, dispassionate public discourse on religion.” A former nurse specializing in neonatal care, Zoloth focuses her research on the intersections of bioethics, theology, and moral philosophy and how they can be applied to solve social injustices — particularly in healthcare access and medicine. She also researches the role of religion in public discourse and policy through her work as a founding board member of the Society for Scriptural Reasoning, and she is the author of Health Care and the Ethics of Encounter: A Jewish Discussion of Social Justice. In addition to her role as dean, she is the Margaret E. Burton Professor of Religion at UChicago. (Photo by Seth Joel)

Mariah Bohanon is a senior staff writer and Ginger O’Donnell is an Editorial Assistant for INSIGHT Into Diversity. This article was published in our April 2018 issue.