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Why Queer Leadership Matters

By Melinda Plastas

LGBTQ Leadership in Higher Education, ed. Raymond E. Crossman. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022.

In 2000 only one college president was publicly out, but by 2022, Raymond E. Crossman notes in his editor’s introduction to LGBTQ Leadership in Higher Education, there were “101 LGBTQ presidents and chancellors.” Crossman’s book, the first to explore the intersections of queerness, leadership, and higher education, invites us to think about what constitutes successful leadership and how identity and discrimination have shaped access to presidential and chancellor positions and queer leadership styles. LGBTQ Leadership in Higher Education is a timely book, as the corporatization of higher education and continued backlash against diversity, equity, and inclusion constrain progressive institutional change. The essays included in this collection examine “why LGBTQ leadership matters” and will appeal to anyone interested in thoughtful reflection about what we mean by successful and leadership.

The book consists of twelve thematic chapters that present personal narratives authored by fifteen current or former presidents and chancellors representing geographically diverse public and private higher education institutions. While the authors have in common that they are out queer leaders, not leaders “who happen to be gay,” they hail from different generations and have different gender identities and racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds. The first three chapters explore the question of what might be qualified as LGBTQ, feminist, and intersectional leadership modes and ethics. The next set of chapters takes up the dynamics of being an openly queer leader in a heteronormative and homophobic world. In the final chapters, the authors look to the future and the importance of role models and mentorship, selfcare, and the creation of LGBTQ professional networks.

This collection does not offer a neat laundry list of queer leadership styles or claim that there is such a thing. Instead, the reader is invited into the personal journeys that contributed to each author’s approach to leadership—for instance, the impact of coming of age during the era of HIV and AIDS, anti-immigrant politics, and feminism. Crossman, who has served as president of Adler University since 2003, notes that “growing up queer, I never believed I would be a leader. Growing up as a gay man in the 1980s in New York City, I never believed I would live past 30.” Ericka Endrijonas, currently superintendent-president of Pasadena City College, writes: “Leadership doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s equal parts personal identity, life experience, and a sense of responsibility.” Daniel López Jr., president of Harold Washington College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago, notes that as an “immigrant, non-native speaker, former undocumented student, Latinx, and queer man,” he has to had to “convince others to focus on my skills and accomplishments,” not only his identities.

How to “lead with a centered mind and heart” connects these personal narratives of the interplay of structural inequities and leading as an out queer college president. All of the presidents and chancellors represented in the book are committed to creating a just learning environment and know that this commitment entails responding to local, state, and national issues. But as one author notes, “my fabulousness comes from my struggle of living in a heteronormative world but my fabulousness is not only driven by oppression.”

The book does have its limitations. Most important, it is missing a nuanced discussion of the pitfalls of the politics of inclusion. Increased queer representation in the upper echelons of higher education (or national politics) does not necessarily generate attention to central concerns including academic freedom, faculty governance, and labor equity. Readers will find slight discussion of these topics in LGBTQ Leadership in Higher Education. Yes, queer role models in higher education, especially in these times of resurgent homophobic and transphobic attacks, are important. Yet college presidents and chancellors, ideally, do more than serve as role models. This book would benefit from a deeper engagement with critical conversations in academic labor, which are, after all, central to any question of equity and leadership.

Melinda Plastas is a senior lecturer in the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies at Bates College. Her email address is [email protected].

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