Are We “Waiting for Superman” in Higher Education?

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Several years ago, I watched a life-altering, award-winning documentary, Waiting for Superman (2010), directed by Davis Guggenheim which methodically dissected the public education system exploring the many ways in which it is failing the community and society as a whole. One of the participants in the documentary, Geoffrey Canada, believed the issues highlighted (e.g., high attrition, low teacher moral, low quality education) were exacerbated by people waiting for “Superman,” a fictional superhero (or leader) to come in with his super powers to fix all of the problems plaguing the public education system. He went on to opine that people tend to ascribe superhero-like traits to school leaders and become quickly and easily disenchanted when the leader is unable to turn thing around quickly. This documentary raises a key question: Is there a crisis in leadership in higher education?

Although this documentary focused on K-12 public education, there were a lot of similarities to higher education.   Consequently, I began to ponder the question of whether or not there is a “crisis in leadership” in higher education.  Closer to home, “Is there a crisis in Black leadership in higher education?” As colleges and universities become more diverse (e.g., race/ethnicity, academic needs, financial structures, education delivery), the need to employ high quality leaders with multiple talents and areas of intersectionality will become even more important. However, my concern is if we are still operating under the premise of leader as a “superhero”, the African American/Black leader may be easily (and all too often) overlooked.

Truth is, many of us don’t know a lot about superheroes, let alone Black superheroes. This could be for two reasons; Black superheroes are rare and people don’t always recognize them as such. DC Comics and Marvel have cornered the market on superheroes. DC Comics is the home to our most well-known superheroes, such as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Flash while Marvel hosts those such as Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk, Spiderman, and Captain America. None of their top ranking superheroes are Black superheroes.  However, diehard comic fans may be familiar with the Black Panther, Luke Cage, Blade, Storm, Green Lantern, Cyborg, or Black Lightening. So, even though Black superheroes exist, they tend to not be first ones that come to mind.


Again, this issue of “crisis in Black leadership in higher education” becomes increasingly important, especially if one is looking for “Superman,” because Blacks may not be the first ones considered.  This sentiment of a limited number of Blacks in leadership in higher education is echoed in an article by Flowers and Moore (2008) entitled “Unraveling the Composition of Academic Leadership in Higher Education” in which the authors summated that racial and ethnic minorities in leadership positions in higher education were underrepresented. They also noted that these numbers are increasing slowly, yet they continue to lag behind the increase in diversity observed with regard to the student population. Furthermore, Flowers and Moore found when Blacks were in leadership positions, they were more likely to hold positions at a two-year institution than a four-year institution.  So, if we believe there is a “crisis in Black leadership in higher education” how then do we begin to usher in a shift in leadership that ensures that Blacks are being prepared and considered for leadership opportunities.

If people continue to look to the ‘old superhero archetypes’ as leaders to solve the challenges of higher education, especially as they relate to diversity in leadership, things will only get worse.  Viewing an educational leader as superhero is no longer a viable argument.  We can longer wait for Superman.  We have to think more realistically about the challenges in higher education and who is best able to facilitate this change.  Therefore, we need a paradigm shift in educational leadership identification, preparation, and function.  Eckel and Hartley (2011) said it best in their American Council of Education (ACE) Report:

Higher education’s traditional approaches to preparing new leaders will likely be insufficient in the future. Instead, higher education must intentionally seek those with leadership abilities, especially in nontraditional places; make leadership development a strategic institutional priority; rethink ways in which leadership is currently discussed (i.e., pipeline and ladder metaphors); focus on building leadership teams; and reshape the search process. (para 4)

If we take seriously the suggestions of Eckel and Hartley, we can begin to usher in this new way of thinking about leadership.

Fortunately, long before the ACE Report, the American Association of Blacks in Higher Education (AABHE), even as the former Black Caucus of the American Association of Higher Education (AAHE), recognized the fallacy in leader as lmi-logosuperhero myth.  They sought to remedy the crisis in Black leadership in higher education by joining the conversations and calls for action to ensure Blacks would be a part of the conversations regarding leadership identification, preparation, and function.  Since 1995, AABHE has recognized exemplary educational leaders through the Harold Delaney Award, such as Drs. Reginald Wilson, Asa Hillard, Norman Francis, Carolyn Callahan, Dorothy Yancy, Barbara Sizemore, Derrick Bell, Charles Nelms, and Gloria Ladson Billing just to name a few.  Consequently, AABHE created the Leadership and Mentoring Program (LMI) to identify and nurture emergent leadership talents, especially those in nontraditional places, through a week of intensive leadership development and life-long mentorship.  Since the inaugural class of 2003, LMI has graduated over 230 alumni who have and are ready to advance to the next level of academic leadership within higher education.

So, if we were waiting for Superman as we seek ways to address this crisis in Black leadership in higher education, we can wait no longer.  We see the leaders we want to emulate, we know how to develop the skills to advance in leadership, and we know how to change the conversations about what constitutes good leadership.  Now, we have to continue to move forward. Let’s continue to soar.


Submitted by: 

Dr. Henrietta Williams Pichon

Assistant Professor, Educational Leadership and Administration (ELA), New Mexico State University

LMI Associate Director of Recruitment & Marketing




 Eckel, P. D., & Hartley, M. (2011). Presidential leadership in an age of transition: Dynamic responses for turbulent times. Washington, D.C.: American Council of Education.

Flowers, L. A. & Moore III, J. L. (2008). Unraveling the composition of academic leadership in higher education: Exploring administrative diversity at 2-year and 4-year institutions. Journal of Thought, 43(3/4), 71-81.