Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Jessica Kimmel


Arcelia Fannin-Johnson


Carolyn Powell


Research Focus. Women and minorities have struggled historically in American society due to inequality, racism, and restrictions to advancement, and have turned to education to better their quality of life (Littlefield, 1997; Synnott, 2008). Research indicates there is growing concern about the lack of ethnic minority women at the higher education administrative level, especially for African-American women as the chief executive officer–university/college President (American Council on Education, 2011). Seltzer (2017) has reported no change in the growth of African-American women university/college presidents. The basis for this study is the prevailing lack of information on African-American women’s success factors in leadership roles in higher education, and lack of experiences with internal and external daily activities and leadership role activities necessary to remain a college president. The focus of this research identified two primary objectives. The first objective is to examine the African-American university/college presidents’ successful experiences with higher education. The second objective is to investigate the internal, and external daily lived experiences of African-American women university/college presidents that determine what was needed to remain in a successful presidency role.

Research Methods. A qualitative methodology was used to addresses research purpose and questions based on human experiences that occur in the natural environment (Holliday, 2015). An ethnographic case study approach was used with six current and former African-American women university/college presidents. An ethnographic case study informs multiple forms of data (i.e., participant observation and interviews), to capture strong exploration, description, and provides perspectives from the context of a participant (Wolcott, 1994). It is inquiry used to study a cultural group by collecting data in interviews and observations in a natural setting (Hammersley, 2018; Yin, 2011). Case study research explores in depth events and activities, as well as processes for one or more persons (Hancock & Algozzine, 2016; Merriam & Tisdell, 2012). Analysis of data was in two parts. The first part involved reviewing campus information and participant biographies after interviews to gather information about their professional and/or personal backgrounds; second, this researcher conducted confidential semi-structured interviews, and transcribed written and recorded data into a script format. The script format set the groundwork for the spoken word transformation into a more organized written context. The script form permitted words to stand out on paper and revealed emergent patterns and themes of words that helped with authentic data analysis.

Research Results/Findings. Five major themes came from this study. Theme 1. Unintentional ascension to Presidency. This theme reveals how participants did not seek out to be an university/college president, reached the presidency role unplanned, non-traditionally, and inadvertently. Theme 2. Knowledgeable of African-American Women History. Shared responses showed a considerable amount of historical knowledge about the plight of African-American women from childhood. Theme 3. Passion for student success. Each participant desired students to be their best and described ways to provide students with the tools necessary to be successful while at their institution. Theme 4. Passion for Teaching. Passion for teaching has a high level of enthusiasm, belief of importance, and showing of pride in the ability to teach in a program that supports students reaching their goal of graduation. Theme 5. Mentorship. Participants discussed the importance of mentorship. They acknowledged how a mentor or confidant helped when there was a need to work through challenges or advise and support when they come to with obstacles.

Conclusions from Research. Metaphorically speaking, the conclusions from the research show that it is “in her DNA.” African-American women describe four “Rs” of daily lived experiences that contribute to success and achievements in a higher education environment. First is having radical passion for institutional excellence. For the purpose of this study, being radical is not a negative connotation, but as the participants indicated, an ability to have an uncompromising voice represents an institution that fosters student success, effective teaching and learning, and promote supportive community. Second, an ability to reflect on personal and professional experiences to know what does and does not work when leading a college campus. Third, these women presidents can relate to others with confidence. Fourth is a reciprocal role model. To be able to link with someone outside of the campus to think “aloud,” or share ideas while also being a model for others by balancing multiple roles as counselor, advisor, and supporter.