In many parts of the United States, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer (LGBTQ+) communities have enjoyed increasing recognition of their social, political, and economic rights. However, LGBTQ+ individuals have historically been second-class citizens in the university community, pushed out by both direct and indirect hostile climates (Bilimoria and Stewart 2009; Dolan 1998; Garvey and Rankin 2016). Despite that, according to the LGBTQ Presidents in Higher Education Network, 61 LGBTQ+ individuals currently serve or have served in the top leadership position of as many colleges, universities, and higher education school systems around the United States. Positioned at the intersection of higher education, leadership, and LGBTQ+ issues, the research question this study seeks to address is: What factors may predict when a higher education institution (HEI) will have its first openly LGBTQ+ president?
Existing literature covers longitudinal increases in the number and representation of LGBTQ+ non-presidential leaders and faculty in higher education over time (Breakwell and Tytherleigh 2008; Cook 2012; Keim and Murray 2008; Owen 2008; Song and Hartley III 2012; Wilson and Meyer 2013). In addition to descriptive demographic statistics, several studies have surveyed or interviewed small samples of LGBTQ+ leaders and administrators in HEIs to examine challenges and supports in their pathways to leadership (Bilimoria and Stewart 2009; Garvey and Rankin 2016; Reinert and Yakaboski 2017; Sears 2002). However, these studies do not test explanations for the presence of LGBTQ+ leadership based on the normative, political, and economic contexts in which the sampled HEIs are embedded.
The present study examines the institutional conditions that may predict when a higher education institution will have its first openly LGBTQ+ president. The purpose is to identify mechanisms above the level of the individual, at the level of the institution and beyond, that may be linked to LGBTQ+ leadership acceptance and visibility as benchmarked by the higher education presidency. Based on a representative random sample of 263 U.S. colleges and universities, we identify those that have had an openly LGBTQ+ president and test the explanatory power of various institution-level variables. For example, HEIs with an openly LGBTQ+ leader are more likely to be in states with greater policy protections on the basis of sexual and gender identity, with these same states having passed their first policy protection up to ten years prior to those states that have not yet have an openly LGBTQ+ leader. As another example, HEIs with an openly LGBTQ+ leader are statistically significantly more likely to be among the “Ivy-Plus” portion of our sample. We argue for a normative explanation of LGBTQ+ leadership in higher education, linked to cultural and professional pressures, in addition to political and economic pressures.