When Raymond E. Crossman, Ph.D., arrived in Chicago from Hawaii in order to assume the role of president at Chicago's Adler University in 2003, one of the first calls that he made was to Charles R. "Chuck" Middleton, who had become president of Roosevelt University one year earlier.
Crossman told Windy City Times that, at the time, he didn't know anybody else who was an openly gay individual leading an institute of higher learning. "It was really just us and a woman who was an open lesbian at the University of Maine," he said.
Over the next 12 years, Middleton and Crossman formed a solid friendship while each leveraged his own unique experiences to transform their schools. In Roosevelt's case, the school has a student-driven environment and a historic addition to the Chicago skyline within which is a dormitory inclusive of all genders and gender identities. At Adler, a significant community of LGBTQ students and educators has exponentially grown, forming part of the evolution of not only a new generation of psychologists and therapists but also social-justice practitioners who are prepared to engage in and change their communities for the better.
Meanwhile, through what Crossman termed "hallway conversations" that took place during seminars and conferences that higher education leaders attended, a comparatively small group of LGBTQ presidents and chancellors realized that more could be done to advocate for and encourage other educators to follow in their footsteps despite the blockades often thrown in front of them by conservative-minded university hiring firms and search committees.
They helped to plant the seeds for what was to become LGBTQ Leaders in Higher Education.
The organization will hold a first-of-its-kind conference, "Shaping Our Futures," at Adler University June 26-28.
Five years earlier, Middleton and Crossman had collaborated to bring those few out gays and lesbians in a position of leadership at United States colleges and universities to a meeting in Chicago. Nine people attended.
"Before we even got to queer issues, our conversations were exactly what you'd expect any group of [university] presidents to be having: 'How are you doing with recruitment?' 'I'm having this issue with my board. What do you think?'" Crossman recalled. "Then we talked about our own particular issues."
Out of those discussions an organization was created that would help put an end to what Crossman termed a "pink glass ceiling" in higher educationone that still exists today even though the membership rolls of LGBTQ leaders has since grown to around 50.
"Keep in mind that's 50 out of approximately 4,500 of these kinds of jobs in this country," Crossman cautioned. "We know, percentage-wise, there should be more of us. We hear stories every day about people who aren't getting hired."
Through a series of plenary sessions, workshops and keynote speeches delivered by Middleton and openly gay U.S. Congressman David Cicilline ( D-R.I. ), Shaping Our Futures aims to change that narrative. It aims to do so by providing "professional development for the advancement and promotion of LGBTQ leaders, including advancement and promotion to the presidency, and community-building and networking to support LGBTQ voices and leadership," according to its website.
"We're doing a mentorship model," Crossman said. "The conference will be an opportunity to talk with presidents from all over the country about things like how to come out, fundraising, dealing with heterosexism and hate."
"It's [Crossman's] energy that has really driven so much of this," Middleton told Windy City Times. "I'm deeply appreciative of that. This has always been about the development and notions of networking and career support for senior LGBT leaders in higher education. Younger people coming along in their careers have a lot of talent and energy and could make a great contribution to their current institution and one that might hire them in the future."
"There will be all kinds of models for successful presidents at this conference," Crossman said. "I believe that LGBTQ people lead in different ways than straight people. We have different experiences that create our leadership style. [LGBTQ] people can see creative solutions because they've had to assemble creative solutions to live their lives. We're looking to support those different kinds of queer leadership."
"I think that even within our group of hardy LGBTQ presidents, we have many different life stories," Middleton added. "There are other variables that we bring to the conversation. Some of them are generational, some of us have been married to people of the opposite sex, some of us grew up in parts of the country that even today are not particularly giving and we have a common cultural heritage. We are remarkably diverse. That said, there's one thing that binds us togetherLGBT people know what it means to be discriminated against based on who you are as a person. The end result is that we are sympathetic to all our students on issues such as bullying, we get it, we've been there."
As of publication, Crossman said he is expecting more than 100 attendees which he added is a significant number given the challenges of a university president's schedule. Nevertheless, they will find time to march in the Chicago pride parade June 28.
Middleton will officially step down from the Roosevelt University presidency two days later. "I am counting up to leaving," he said. "I'm climbing the stairs to the next doorway that will open into a new world of different, energizing and interesting opportunities. I see retirement like I see commencement at universitiesas the beginning of something."
For more information about LGBTQ Leaders in Higher Education and Shaping Our Futures, visit www.lgbtqpresidents.org .