These leaders’ commitment to DEI got them the nod for president

Another notable mention includes University of Oregon's president-elect John Karl Scholz, whose focus lies on student career readiness and postgraduate success.

Despite recent pushback against diversity, equity and inclusion among several states, a number of colleges have recently hired presidents based on their commitment to that principle. Several of them are also coming in as either the first woman or the first of their race or ethnicity to lead their school.

Notable mention: John Karl Scholz, University of Oregon

Before we dive into the list of recent colleges and universities with a particular interest in promoting diversity and inclusiveness, it’s important to mention the University of Oregon’s 19th president, John Karl Scholz, who takes the helm of a Carnegie R1 research university and a member of the Association of American Universities.

John Karl Scholz (Photo: UO Website)

With experience as a professor, economist and provost (which he currently still serves at the University of Wisconsin-Madison), his focus at Oregon will be student career readiness and postgraduate success. Outside academia, Scholz served the U.S. Treasury Department and the Council of Economic Advisors.

Other notable mentions:
  • Dr. Stuart Rayfield, Columbus State University
  • Dr. Cheryl McConnell, Saint Joseph’s University, the school’s first female president. She is also a first-generation student.

Safa Zaki, Bowdoin College (Williamstown, Mass.)

Before being unanimously selected as Bowdoin’s first female president by a 19-person search committee, Safa Zaki had her hand in many different pots at Williams College (Williamstown, Mass.). As Dean of the Faculty, she reviewed their recruitment, appointment and promotion; additionally, she oversaw the budget, personnel and graduate programs across multiple academic departments. She also served as chairperson for three different committees focused on governance: the Committee on Appointment and Promotions, the Faculty Steering Committee, and the Committee on Priorities and Resources.

Born in Egypt, she attained her bachelor’s from the American University in Cairo and eventually earned her Ph.D. from Arizona State University in Psychology. Her list of published work is exhaustive with a special interest in using “computational approaches to model cognitive processes that focus on how people divide the world into categories,” according to Bowdoin College’s website.

Safa Zaki (Photo: Bowdoin College website)

“Her exceptional career in the academy, her appreciation for the humanities as well as science and technology, and her commitment to the imperatives of diversity, equity, and inclusion coupled with an authentic and engaging approach to leadership and team building make Safa the right choice for Bowdoin,” said Scott Perper, chair of the Bowdoin board and a member of the Presidential Search Committee, in a statement.

Zaki will start her role this July.

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Garry W. Jenkins, Bates College (Lewiston, Maine)

Garry W. Jenkins is set to become Bates College’s first Black president in its 168-year history. He will be arriving this July from Minnesota Law School where he served as dean and set a record-high $106 million in fundraising, mightily surpassing its $80 million target in 2021 and doubling the school’s endowment overall at the end of his tenure.

Garry W. Jenkins (Photo: Bates College website)

Aside from his proven track record in fundraising, Jenkins is also a champion of diversity in non-profit law with wide recognition. He is a board member for Equal Justice Works – a nonprofit organization dedicated to employing talent in public service – and the National Woman’s Law Center. In 2022, he earned a Diversity and Inclusion Award from Minnesota Lawyer and made the Lawyers of Color‘s “Power List” in 2020 and 2023. His experience and notoriety made him a sought-after speaker to address anti-racism and racial justice in law school curricula and hate speech on college campuses.

John Gillespie, chair of the Bates Board of Trustees, lauded Jenkins’ ability to “expand access and remove barriers” in a university statement. Both Jenkins and Gillespie noted that Bates’ commitment to the liberal arts made Jenkins a great fit to foster “student engagement” and a “culture of collaboration.”

Dr. Susana Rivera-Mills, Aurora University (Aurora, Ill.)

Born in El Salvador, Dr. Susana Rivera-Mills will become Aurora University’s first Latinx president, following in the footsteps of Becky Sherrick, AU’s first woman president.

As a young girl who fled her native country’s civil conflict and climbed this country’s academic ladder to become a first-generation college student, her experience in university admissions and governance reflects a similar thread. As the provost of Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., she helped broaden the school’s admission of diverse students, specifically those of first-generation standing. She also championed diversity and inclusion in faculty and staff hiring and promotion practices.

“AU’s resilience and strength are evident in all of its accomplishments, and we will continue to courageously tackle these challenges, said Rivera-Mills in a school statement. “More than that, we will be a model of excellence and innovation for what the future of higher education needs as we serve a diverse community of learners.”

Rivera-Mills begin this June.

Laura A. Rosenbury, Barnard College (New York, N.Y.)

As the first woman Dean at the University of Florida Law, the graduating classes during her tenure experienced an explosion in diversity and prestige, climbing the U.S. News Ranking’s public law school ranks 18 spots to #6.

“Every step on her journey – from an undergraduate education steeped in humanities, arts and sciences, to a law career focused on advocating for women and families, to her leadership as a professor and dean dedicated to expanding opportunities for all students – has prepared her uniquely for this institution. Our students will have the incredible privilege of being led and inspired by her,” said Cheryl Milstein, Chair of Barnard’s Board of Trustees, according to a statement.

Rosenbury received her A.B. summa cum laude in women’s studies from Harvard-Radcliffe College and her J.D. cum laude from Harvard Law School. Some of her work has explored how law and social norms interact in family law, as well as employment discrimination law.

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and Florida Gator alumnus. A graduate in journalism and communications, his beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene, and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador, and Brazil.

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