How Ithaca College’s president stressed diversity and inclusion ‘from the core’

by Joseph K. Clark

Last week, Ithaca College President Shirley Collado announced that she’s leaving to become the president and CEO of College Track, an organization seeking to support low-income and first-generation students from ninth grade through college graduation. The move aligns with her resume but is unorthodox for a college leader.

Collado became the first college president and a veteran of the Posse Foundation’s programming. It recruits, trains, and funds diverse groups of talented high school students from urban schools, sending them in small teams to study at high-ranking colleges and universities. The daughter of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, she was in the inaugural Posse cohort.

She was later executive vice president at the foundation. Before Ithaca hired her in 2017, she held a top administrative role at Rutgers University-Newark.

Collado’s time at Ithaca hasn’t always been easy.

In her first year, anonymous packages arrived at two student newspapers. They contained court documents detailing a no-contest plea she entered to a misdemeanor sexual abuse charge in 2001. She denied wrongdoing, saying she did not have the resources to fight the case when she was a psychologist in her career attempting to help a patient.

More recently, she led efforts to confront financial pressures at Ithaca, focusing on plans to “determine and maintain an appropriate, sustainable size.” In February, despite faculty resistance, Ithaca approved plans to eliminate 116 of nearly 550 full-time equivalent faculty positions.

Ithaca College

Ithaca’s provost will take over for her as interim president in a few weeks, and Collado will become a senior adviser to the temporary and the college’s board through the end of this year. She starts at College Track in January.

Higher Ed Dive talked with Collado about her decision to move to College Track, what she learned while at Ithaca, and her advice for other college presidents. Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

HIGHER ED DIVE: What was your thought process in making this movie?

COLLADO: My presidency and time at Ithaca have been extraordinary and align with my values as a first-generation college student. My life’s work has been wholly focused on access, affordability, enhancing the student experience so that all students can flourish, and creating and mobilizing equitable environments that allow all members of an academic community to grow.

We find ourselves in one of the most urgent times in America around social justice, racial injustice, and this massive divide as we look at what students can do on the college pathway.

This opportunity resonated deeply, personally, and around my core values as a leader. I feel an urgency to address the issues that I just outlined. What College Track does is extraordinary: investing in students nationwide for a decade and identifying that the pathway can’t just be a scholarship or a one-time solution. It takes an entire ecosystem to support first-generation and low-income students.

Do you think the higher ed sector needs to change?

I find that historically when we’re talking about issues of racial injustice, economic mobility, and access to education, the ultimate shortcoming of our sector is that we have expected students from all walks of life over time to start to join our communities. We have a more challenging time understanding that when that happens — when you’re inviting students to be themselves and flourish in an academic community — it forces the question: How is this institution going to change fundamentally?

At Ithaca, I think we have bravely and courageously named those things in the strategic plan, Ithaca Forever. When I began my presidency, we put at the core those tricky questions we needed to address to be a student-centered campus.

To be student-centered often means we have to make decisions that aren’t always comfortable. If you want to be affordable, you will align your values with your resources if you wish all students to come in and feel like full-fledged members of your community, not just visitors. Be concrete: policies, spaces, the curriculum, and what students experience in the classroom. Do they see themselves in the leadership of the institution?

I always tell people: “Yes, first-generation students and students of color, low-income students, see themselves in me. Women of color see themselves in me.” But so do many of my other students — White students, students from different backgrounds than me. And I’m intentional about that.

How do you lead change at colleges, which are decentralized organizations with many interconnections?

For us to deal with issues of equity, diversity, inclusion, and justice in the academy, you’ve got to hit it from the core. It would help if you did the hard work of going to the mainline central DNA and hardwiring the place.

Our plan requires our institution, from the board to the faculty to the students, to home in on what we need to be responsive and agile to the lived experiences of our students today and think eons ahead of what our students will be like tomorrow.

I think about that systemic approach from the power source into the central veins of the place as a healthy disruption. It’s necessary. That’s what our students have been showing us with all the activism across the country.

This year our country faced significant turmoil. Academic communities are not insulated from that. In running College Track, I will be at the helm of an organization that is entirely about these issues, and they are working with students across the country from an early age, well before they get to college. And then these colleges have to invite them in and affirm authentically the promise of who they are and what they bring, not just ask them to adapt.

How do you approach making your case to different constituencies?

It’s multifaceted, and your audience matters. But you’ve got to be consistent across your constituencies.

I came to Ithaca because I was drawn to the vision and the need the board identified, which the community knew it needed to embrace completely. And so I entered an institution when it was ripe and ready, and people wanted to have agency and be honest and name the hard stuff.

What are your hopes for your time at College Track?

I hope that in leading College Track nationally, I’ll do the work throughout the entire higher education ecosystem. We need good leaders within institutions and good leaders in the whole system.

I’ve not grown up with a single model of higher ed. I was willing to move across sectors because I was called to a mission. The future of colleges and our work will require leaders who have operated in different industries and not grown up in one model.

Do you want to share any other advice or lessons you learned for college leaders?

We need to stop talking to just ourselves and what we consider our peer groups. There is so much to learn across our different sectors. It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in. R1s, regional universities, and elite liberal arts colleges are discovering the power of community colleges. Liberal arts colleges can teach a lot to major research universities and vice versa. During the pandemic, our local government in Ithaca, small businesses, and our health systems — completely different sectors outside of what we do — were significant partners.

It does mean reaching across the aisle and doing something completely different, reinventing ourselves in a completely different way. Whether it’s a nonprofit like College Track or a major university like Vanderbilt or Ithaca, none of us can do it alone.

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