From Classroom Leader to College President, One Woman of Color Works to Close the Gap

By  - 
President Katherine Conway-Turner

Growing up in the small town of Clarksville, Missouri, Katherine Conway-Turner, PhD, says she never knew a Black person with a college degree.

Today, she leads a bustling urban campus where 9,000 students, nearly 3,000 of whom are African American, pursue their higher education goals.

As president of Buffalo State College (BSC) in Buffalo, New York, she is among only 30 percent of college and university presidents who are women and the 5 percent who are women of color, according to the American College President Study from the American Council on Education.

[Above: President Katherine Conway-Turner in her office at Buffalo State College.]

While it’s an elite position, climbing the ranks of higher education leadership was never Conway-Turner’s main goal. The only place she set out to be a leader in was the classroom. 

“Students often ask me if I always wanted to be a president and how that happened, and I tell them it was never even on my radar. What I wanted to do was be a wonderful faculty member, the kind that really moves students forward,” Conway-Turner says. 

As a psychology professor from a low-income, first-generation background, she says it has always been apparent to her “how important it is to create a supportive environment for all students, particularly those who are underrepresented or don’t have the understanding of how to navigate the college experience.”

Her dedication to not just teaching students but guiding them through their higher education journeys caught the attention of superiors and mentors early on in her career. They encouraged her to see herself as a leader, she says. 

While Conway-Turner’s personal background would in many ways be considered a disadvantage, she says it was an asset.

“Being from the Midwest, being from a small community, and being so excruciatingly poor when growing up gave me a work ethic, and that’s what has really helped me,” she says. “When I see an obstacle, I find a way around it because the way I was raised, we would not have survived if we took no for an answer. That basic sense of being community-minded and working really hard are attributes which have served me in every role I’ve ever had.” 

Attending the predominantly White campus of the University of Kansas (KU) in the 1970s as a Black woman majoring in microbiology built the foundation for Conway-Turner’s commitment to diversity and inclusion in higher education.

Katherine Conway-Turner participates in Buffalo State’s Day of Service. The annual civic engagement event helps the Buffalo community via neighborhood cleanups, family reading activities, volunteering, and more. (Photo courtesy Buffalo State College)

Groups such as the Black Student Union helped her find a sense of community while supportive faculty members “helped this young girl who really didn’t know anything about the college experience find success,” Conway-Turner says. The encouragement of her faculty advisors helped her decide to pursue graduate school and eventually earn her PhD in psychology at KU in 1981. 

Since then, she has taught psychology, family studies, and women’s and gender studies at universities in California, Delaware, Georgia, Maryland, and New York. She became a program coordinator, then director, a department head, and then dean. At State University of New York (SUNY) Geneseo, she served as provost and vice president of academic affairs for five years. In 2014, she was appointed president at SUNY’s Buffalo State campus. 

While many mentors have supported Conway-Turner over the years, she says it was rare to find women in senior leadership positions, much less women of color. Unique opportunities like the Kellogg Leadership Fellowship helped her develop her leadership skills. The fellowship connected her to mentor Anne Mulder, PhD, a White woman and former president of Lake Michigan College, who Conway-Turner credits with being an early role model for female leadership. Johnetta Cole, PhD, the first woman president of Spelman College and a famous civil and women’s rights activist, has also had a powerful influence on Conway-Turner’s career through her advocacy of Black female leadership, she says.

“There are many people who may not embody your experience, your gender, and certainly not your racial background who are willing to be supportive and can be a great champion for you in your career,” Conway-Turner says, adding that White male advisors mentored her from the time she was an undergraduate through her postdoctoral work. 

Today, Conway-Turner gives back by “trying very hard to be the role model for other [women of color] that I didn’t have myself,” she says. Her volunteer work includes serving as a mentor for an NCAA program for women who want to become college athletic directors. 

Conway-Turner also recommends all institutional leaders work on their ability to identify faculty and staff who have leadership qualities but may not aspire to leadership roles. This ability is especially important when it comes to supporting the advancement of employees from underrepresented or marginalized backgrounds, she says. 

“You’ve got to recognize the great people that you have and not wait for them to come to you to say they’re interested in advancement, but always be on the lookout for those amazing people on campus who could be your next leader, director, or dean,” Conway-Turner says. “That’s something I would encourage all campuses to consider because [people from some] cultures are just a bit humbler, and they’re less likely to put themselves forward.”

This asset has helped her cultivate a diverse group of senior leaders at BSC that bring both talent and a variety of perspectives to the table.

The diversity of perspective has helped the college evolve into a multicultural campus, increasing the number of students of color from 23 percent in 2010 to more than 50 percent last year, earning it the designation as first in The Chronicle of Higher Education’s 2018 list of public master’s institutions that have grown their student diversity. 

This achievement has also distinguished BSC among SUNY’s 64 campuses. The college was the first campus to receive funding from SUNY’s new Promoting Recruitment Opportunity Diversity Inclusion and Growth (PRODiG) initiative.

The initiative aims to use “research-informed and data-driven best practices to expand the pipeline of talent, improve hiring practices, and strengthen retention policies,” SUNY leadership wrote in a memo earlier this year.

The university system hopes to hire 1,000 faculty members within a decade who are from underrepresented backgrounds in a direct attempt to bridge the gap between the diversity of its students and educators. While nearly 30 percent of SUNY’s students in fall 2018 came from underrepresented racial and ethnic backgrounds, that number was only at 8.6 percent for faculty.

The PRODiG award has already enabled BSC to hire three new faculty members to help “modernize our Africana studies program,” Conway-Turner says, adding to an existing diverse faculty residency program and professional development opportunities.

Growing the careers of underrepresented faculty and staff is an important part of her vision as a leader, and diversity and inclusion is central to that effort. The opportunity to make positive change at BSC inspired her to accept the presidency there, she says.

The diversity of the student body made it a “place where there was already a good foundation to build upon and address the needs and concerns of diversity,” Conway-Turner says.

“You’ve got to be intentional in understanding who you are and what you need to move forward, and I very much knew it was important to me to have people that understand the absolute strength of diversity.”

Mariah Bohanon is the associate editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity. Buffalo State College is a 2013-2019 INSIGHT Into Diversity HEED Award recipient. This article ran in the October 2019 issue.