LEAP Empowers Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to Aspire to Higher Education Leadership Roles

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Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs), although they consistently rank as one of the most educated and professionally successful of all ethnic groups, continue to lack representation in the country’s top leadership positions, occupying only 3.1 percent of all Fortune 500 company board seats.

AAPIs face a similar situation in higher education. The most represented minority group among tenured faculty at American colleges and universities — at around 7 percent — these individuals occupy only 3 percent of deanships and 2 percent of chief academic officer positions.

But one organization is working to remedy this disparity. By providing leadership and career development training for thousands of AAPI individuals each year, Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics, Inc., (LEAP) has played a pivotal role in the professional advancement of a population that has become one of the fastest-growing in America.

Linda Akutagawa

Linda Akutagawa, president and CEO of LEAP, says the organization was started in 1982 in an attempt to create a collective voice for the AAPI population. “The intent was to bring in and develop more community leaders,” says Akutagawa, who began working with LEAP 25 years ago as a volunteer, “but what we found was [that] more and more people were interested in developing their leadership in other sectors — at work and at school.”

Many AAPI professionals, she says, felt they were being held back in their careers while other, less qualified individuals were able to advance. To help AAPI professionals address this issue and break through what Akutagawa says is still a glass ceiling for many in this group, LEAP shifted its focus to career and educational development. Today, LEAP offers leadership training for AAPI individuals in the education, nonprofit, and corporate sectors.

The organization’s Leadership Development Program in Higher Education (LDPHE) was created to specifically address the lack of AAPI representation in higher education leadership positions. LDPHE — now in its 20th year — brings together AAPI faculty, staff, and administrators from across the country for four days of intensive training that includes workshops, dialogues, and mentoring led by successful AAPI leaders in higher education. To date, more than 600 people have completed the program. Of those participants, Akutagawa estimates that around 70 percent have either advanced to higher positions, achieved tenure, become a chair, or taken on other volunteer leadership roles at their institutions.

“We [realized] there wasn’t a pipeline of people of Asian American or Pacific Islander heritage who could even be considered for a university president or chancellor role,” says Akutagawa, adding that hearing the success stories of LDPHE graduates is one of the most rewarding aspects of working for LEAP. “We’ve had folks come in who were unsure of what they wanted to do, and now they are presidents of community colleges and four-year institutions.”

Currently, LEAP is examining ways to empower younger members of the AAPI community and to collaborate with like-minded organizations to amplify the impact of its work. “To me, it’s not only about working with other AAPI organizations,” says Akutagawa. “We also want to be able to help create the kind of fertile foundation for the growth of diverse leaders who are going to benefit all of our communities and our country.”

To learn more about LEAP, visit leap.org.●

Mariah Bohanon is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. Linda Akutagawa is a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board.