GW must consider diverse candidates for the presidency

GW marked its 200th year with a tradition it needs to abolish: appointing only white men to the presidency. On Jan. 1, 2022, Mark Wrighton was appointed interim president of GW, and it was incredibly disappointing to see that most of the student body will not be represented, once again.

A total of 21 permanent or interim presidents have led the University and not a single one of them has reflected the students of color and nonmale students that attend GW. This is by no means a problem unique to GW – only about 5 percent of university presidents in the United States are women of color. But the Board of Trustees has a responsibility to break the cycle of excluding marginalized people from the top position at higher education institutions and choose a president that comes from at least one marginalized group.

Historical stereotypes and oppression continue to influence the way society views marginalized groups by creating implicit biases. This is an issue of systemic sexism and racism – whether it is intentional or not – and the Board must be conscious of their biases in their search for a permanent leader.

Women are often kept out of leadership positions because of the belief that women are not as fit to lead or that they are too authoritative and emotional. Women make up half of the U.S. workforce and receive more bachelor’s and master’s degrees than men. Yet, women only hold approximately 8 percent of CEO positions by optimistic estimates.

Whether it is seeing women as less competent or simply less likeable, these biases play a large role in the fact that fewer women are in positions of leadership than men. Patriarchal expectations: women staying at home with children and being more emotional than men contribute to society’s bias toward seeing women as inferior. Lack of gender equality creates a false narrative that female leadership is not normal nor acceptable. History is marked with men in most leadership positions because of these hurtful stereotypes – and GW must not buy into it.

The presidential search committee must be aware of its implicit biases against women that have been ingrained in every single human without consciously knowing about them. They also need to actively fight against those biases by prioritizing the appointment of a more diverse president in the upcoming selection. Everyone has implicit biases based on what they have experienced and been taught, so none of this is to say that GW is making the purposeful decision to be sexist. But failing to recognize those biases is what perpetuates them and continuing to appoint men to positions of power will never get rid of those biases.

In a 2019 study conducted by Coqual, a nonprofit think tank and advisory group, 65 percent of Black professionals agreed that Black employees have to work harder to advance while only 16 percent of white professionals said the same. Examples of discrimination that people of color experience in the workforce include racially insensitive language, being perceived as angry or not as intelligent and exclusion from events. This is what perpetuates the harmful biases that society has against people of color and the presidential search committee must be aware of them in their search for a new leader.

Not having a single president of color over the past two centuries comes from racist biases that must be recognized by the presidential search committee. None of this is to say that the Board is being intentionally discriminatory, but moving forward it is important to reflect on the implicit biases that have descended from years of stereotypes and how they shape the University’s decision-making process to not let them affect the next presidential appointment.

Minority students need to see themselves in leadership positions to encourage them to go onto their own leadership positions. Approximately 17 percent of enrolled students were white men in 2021, yet they have been represented in the GW presidency 100 percent of the time, according to the Office of Institutional Research and Planning.

Equal and proportional representation of the student body is important because the president makes decisions that greatly affect all students, including students of color and nonmale students. White men do not face systemic oppression like their counterparts, meaning they do not have any inherent or innate understanding of how the University’s policies could discriminate against students.

In the search for a permanent president, the search committee must prioritize diverse candidates that better reflect the University’s student body. Students should express similar sentiments when officials shortly begin the process of asking for student input on the search process. Demanding and putting more pressure to select a more inclusive president will leave little room for the Board to appoint another white man.

While Board Chair Grace Speights has said the search for a permanent president will focus on inclusion, Wrighton’s appointment does not reflect that statement, and it is imperative that the next selection fall in line with what has been promised. To support students of color and nonmale students, Wrighton must consult them as well as officials that are minorities.

White men have had more than their fair share of the presidency at GW, and it is now time for others to take on that role. The Board needs to reevaluate their implicit biases and work toward eliminating them by appointing a president that is a person of color, not a man or both.

Riley Goodfellow, a freshman majoring in political science, is an opinions writer.

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