In the final week of Black History Month, the University of Puget Sound made history on Friday by naming its first African-American president. UPS' appointment of Isiaah Crawford was historic not only for the 128-year-old liberal arts campus in Central Tacoma, but also for the small cluster of universities in Pierce County.
A person of color has never led Pacific Lutheran University in Parkland, nor the University of Washington Tacoma. For that matter, UWT's progenitor university in Seattle has not had a black president, though it did make a seismic move last year when it named Ana Marie Cauce as its first permanent female president after nearly 155 years of patriarchy. (UWT didn't wait to show its commitment to gender equality; since it opened in 1990, three of its four full-time chancellors have been women.)
UPS isn’t merely reflecting the school’s growing racial mix with its appointment of Crawford. It also broke a wall by hiring a gay man. Crawford, 55, said he will bring “levels of diversity” and empathy to his post as UPS’ 14th president.
But let’s set aside his diversity bonafides and simply look at his credentials. He possesses a sterling academic and professional record, Puget Sound ties and a potential to forge a great connection with the Tacoma community. A clinical psychologist by training, he could bring talent, connections and fresh eyes to the mental health crisis here.
That a black leader would be chosen to lead a Tacoma four-year education institution is not a revolution so much as an evolution. On the two-year college scene, Lonnie Howard serves as the current president of Clover Park Technical College, and Lyle Quasim previously held the same post at Bates Technical College. On the K-12 scene, Carla Santorno is the four-year superintendent of the Tacoma School District.
But the higher-education world, as a whole, has some catching up to do. The American Council on Education's most recent survey of college presidents, completed in 2012, showed racial and ethnic minorities comprised 13 percent of top school leaders, a percentage point lower than when the same survey was taken in 2006.
Even more of a concern, the pipeline of potential future minority presidents is not filling quickly. A 2013 survey of senior administrators a notch or two below president level found that over the previous five-year period, the percentage of blacks and other minorities had stayed flat. It’s imperative that people of color be given a chance to climb the ranks through positions such as provost, chief academic officer, vice president and dean. Crawford fits that profile, having served as provost at Seattle University for the last eight years.
As part of its nine-month national search process, UPS leaders enlisted students and invited members of underrepresented groups to participate in candidate interviews. Universities that take inclusive steps like this up front are more likely to avoid confrontations like the one that spiraled out of control at the University of Missouri last year. President Timothy M. Wolfe resigned amid widespread protests and a boycott by the football team over the Missouri administration’s failure to treat episodes of racism seriously enough.
Give credit to UPS for moving away from a reputation of white privilege that dates back several decades. Since 1996, the percentage of its students who identify as belonging to one or more racial minority groups has increased from 16 to 26 percent. Among other UPS initiatives, the Tacoma Public Schools Commitment gives aid to local students from low-income families, students of color or those who – like Crawford – would be the first in their families to graduate from college.
The campus atmosphere has changed from two decades ago, when racist fliers and graffiti were found more than once and controversy erupted over an attempt to form a Euro-American Students Union.
UPS President Ronald Thomas has carried the legacy of Logger progress for the last 13 years. Now, with the appointment of Isiaah Crawford, it appears to be in capable hands.