3 women, each a leader in education, talk paths to college presidency

Nov. 13, 2019, 11:27 p.m.

Three women, each acclaimed for their leadership in the field of education, sat together in Levinthal Hall at the Stanford Humanities Center sharing stories of their pathways to leadership. Each of the panelists had once been a president of Foothill College, a top community college in California, and had overlapping journeys in which each successor sought the help of their predecessor. 

Foothill-De Anza chancellor Judy Miner took her colleague Bernadine Chuck Fong ’66, MA ’68, Ph.D. ’83 to lunch when she was first applying for the job at Foothill. Miner described “picking [Fong’s] brain” about what the role of the presidency might entail. Thuy Nguyen, the first Vietnamese-American college president in the country, met Miner at a conference and immediately asked her to serve as her mentor. 

“Asking people of privilege for money, especially as a woman of color, is no easy task,” she said. “So I wanted [Miner’s] mentorship.” 

Fong, now a leadership initiatives director at the Stanford Office of the Vice Provost for Graduate Education (VPGE), began by describing her academic path to administrative work. She applied for the newly created administrative position at Foothill because she thought it would be good practice for her Ph.D. dissertation. 

“One thing led to another, and then I became president,” she told the audience. “It wasn’t exactly planned or thoughtful.” 

Miner was introduced to the world of academia when she became the registrar at Lone Mountain, her alma mater. After holding several other positions, including the dean of admissions, she fell in love with the mission of community colleges. 

“I loved being on the ground with the students and wanted to be established in the greater community,” she said. 

After a position opened up at De Anza college, Miner moved her work from San Francisco to the Los Altos area. Miner reflected on her Latina and Pacific Islander heritage, which made her a role model for other young women of color. It was ultimately these women who encouraged her to apply for the presidency at Foothill College and eventually the chancellor position that she currently holds. 

“I know this will be my last job,”  said Miner with a smile. “No one can convince me to go anywhere else.” 

Nguyen compared her journey to that of Fong and Miner, emphasizing the nontraditional route she took.

“Dr. Fong took the instructional path [and] Dr. Miner took the student services path,” she said. “As a consequence of people breaking the traditional mindset around who can be a college president, there are now different paths.” 

Nguyen’s own path to the presidency began when she was working on accreditation issues as the chief lawyer for the Carleton school district in the East Bay, she said. Despite initially being reluctant to get involved with academic work, the chancellor of Nguyen’s school district personally requested her help with the initiative. After completing the work, the chancellor told Nguyen that she had to apply for a community college presidency. And so she did. 

In her work at Foothill, Nguyen drew upon the intersection of law and academia to increase access to opportunities for Foothill students. She helped design the “2+2+3” (two-year associate’s degree, two-year bachelor’s degree, 3-year Juris Doctorate) program, which provides a pathway to special consideration for community college students to go to law school. Last year, three of the 21 community college transfers to Stanford were from Foothill. 

Fong’s ending message was one of work-life balance, and Miner encouraged students to pursue their passions, rather than chasing a title or position. Nguyen agreed. 

“Treat the work that you are doing as work of service,” she said. “Think about how you can serve society and make it better. That becomes your real value added to the community.” 

Contact Sarina Deb at sdeb7 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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