Kaye Monk-Morgan, an administrator at Wichita State University and a loyal Shocker, has built a career on breaking down barriers and helping others do so as well. It’s a leadership skill that’s becoming increasingly important in Kansas higher education as more and more students arrive on campuses from varying backgrounds.
Kaye Monk-Morgan’s mother taught her early that she would not “blend” and to expect more scrutiny.
“So when you walk into a room, know that everybody’s going to see you,” she says. “There’s always been a sense of people are watching.”
Today, in the upper echelons of higher-education administration, Monk-Morgan is regularly the “only” in the room. The only person of color. The only woman.
“I’ve never felt more black and more female in my life than I do now,” she says. “Because the rooms I go into now are different. The composition of the leadership is different. Now I would argue, and I think the data supports, that Wichita State, particularly in the highest level of leadership, has done a really good job with the number of women who serve as vice presidents on our campus. Our institution and our leadership has had a keen eye toward making sure that women are represented. We have not done as great a job when it comes to diversification with regard to ethnicity or racial background. That can be tough.”
Monk-Morgan, the assistant vice president for academic affairs at Wichita State University, navigates those rooms with poise and purpose – and always, her colleagues say, with an eye to breaking down barriers for others who do not come from a place of privilege.
She is a Shocker through and through, studying chemistry as a first-generation college student on a prestigious Gore Scholarship, earning a master’s degree and spending her entire professional life employed by the university. She met her husband at Wichita State, and now her two sons study there. She’s also pursuing her doctorate from the university.
As a result, Monk-Morgan has a special vantage point to observe the challenges and successes that the university faces in recruiting and retaining a diverse student body and faculty.
Monk-Morgan has held her latest post at Wichita State since August. Her primary responsibilities are strategic planning, program accreditation, and student learning outcomes and assessment.
Before that, other than a relatively brief stint in the dean’s office of the liberal arts college, she spent 20-plus years running the university’s Upward Bound program, designed to help low-income, disabled and first-generation students navigate post-secondary education.
Over the years, Monk-Morgan resisted opportunities to leave Upward Bound and advance within the university. The direct connection was important to her, and she knew her student contact would inevitably go down as she took on greater positions of authority.
Eventually the timing became better for her family, and she became convinced that her influence on policy decisions would have an even greater impact for the students she serves, namely students of color or a lower socioeconomic class.
“These are rich talent pools that have not historically been represented in high numbers on our college campuses,” she says.
Over the next few decades, the African American population in Kansas is expected to grow by 50 percent, while the Hispanic population is expected to grow by nearly 287 percent, to more than 1 million, according to a 2018 demographics report by the Kansas Health Institute for the Kansas Health Foundation. At the same time, the non-Hispanic white population is expected to decline over the same period.
However, white adults in Kansas currently have significantly higher levels of educational attainment, on average, than African Americans and Hispanics. A significant portion of those students will be among the first in their families to attend college. As Kansas diversifies, it will be increasingly important for higher education to effectively serve the needs of black and brown students who will be a growing part of the workforce.
Yet a report last fall from the University of Southern California Race and Equity Center suggested considerable room for improvement. Kansas four-year colleges and universities ranked among the worst in the nation in terms of graduating black college students. And Latino students graduate at a rate, 38 percent, that’s 11 percentage points lower than their white counterparts, according to Excelencia in Education, a nonprofit group that aims to accelerate Latino success.
Understanding Students’ Plight
Through her years leading Upward Bound, Monk-Morgan served as a surrogate mom for countless students. A key part of the program was a summer spent living in the dorms, so she would take her own boys along on nights and weekends to help students navigate this first taste of independence.
Monk-Morgan was the oldest of four and the oldest grandchild of 29. Her father died when she was 15, and she took on a co-parenting role for her youngest sister. A counselor at Wichita North High School stepped in and helped her secure scholarships and connect with Wichita State.
She credits her mother and grandparents for encouraging her to attend.
Monk-Morgan marvels at the changes her grandfather observed in society in a full century of life. He left home at 12 and worked on a sharecropper’s farm.
“The dream of grandparents was for me to go to college. That was a big deal,” she says. “For my kids to go to college – not a big deal because that’s the expectation.”
She is motivated to help those who are in a position where she once was. Joseph Shepard, director of multicultural engagement at Newman University, says Monk-Morgan inspired him to work in higher education. “It is very clear that she is invested in their success outside the four walls of the institution.”
He was an undergraduate and graduate student at Wichita State and said Monk-Morgan was well-known, particularly among students of color.
Shepard describes Monk-Morgan’s style as “tough love,” given with candor and care.
She told him: “My responsibility as a staff member is to kick open doors for you, but it’s up to you whether you want to walk through the doors.”
Monk-Morgan also taught him the importance of setting boundaries.
“Don’t give away your hustle,” Shepard says she told him. “You have to understand what you bring to the table. You have to recognize your worth.”
Danielle Johnson, assistant director for Wichita State’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, has had similar experiences with Monk-Morgan, whom she first met as an undergraduate when Monk-Morgan served as an adviser to her sorority.
“She makes sure that other people that look like her have an opportunity, too,” Johnson says. “She definitely leads by example. She will put you in a room and let you showcase your talent.”
Barriers for Students of Color
Monk-Morgan understands the barriers that students of color and economically disadvantaged students face. Among them are gaining the cultural capital needed for success and the nomenclature used in a university setting.
“I’m a poor kid who figured out how to get here, and there are lots of poor kids that figure out how to get here, but how you get them here and sustain them is another matter,” she says. “I’m always the one to ask, ‘I understand how this policy works for this particular population, but if you disaggregate that data, tell me what that’s doing for young African American men.’”
She gives the example of a student not knowing when to contact a professor. He thought that office hours meant the professor was in the office and busy, not realizing that was the time the professor was making available to meet with individual students.
“College wasn’t created for the students that I serve,” she says. “When we think about the history of the development of higher ed, it was for white male landowners who were theologians. So a very narrow scope of folks went to college, and they went to college to develop the aptitude to create knowledge around bringing people to Christ.”
Monk-Morgan says “people power” is crucial to helping first-generation and economically disadvantaged students succeed. Students have to find a way to connect, but many Wichita State students do not live on campus. However, every student interacts with faculty. So she does a lot of faculty development to help professors understand what it’s like to be a first-generation college student – things as simple as explaining what office hours are.
“I love that we’re building housing on campus, but I’m one of the folks in the room that says, ‘How does a poor kid from across the street get access to that?’ How do we make sure, if this is what we know the data says is the optimum way to go to college – how do we create opportunities where everybody gets access to the optimum, rather than if you can afford it, you get the optimum?” she says. “I do feel encouraged that I’m in the space to have those conversations.”
In her new role, Monk-Morgan finds she is continually recalibrating how she manages self, particularly when she is the “only” in the room.
“The politics at this level are much different,” she says.
In one situation early in her new role, as she oversaw an assessment of academic programs for Wichita State’s STEM units, she “was the only woman in the room, telling this room full of men what the standard for their reporting should be. In some cases, the standard had to improve.”
Monk-Morgan got some pushback.
She was the only African American, only woman and, in that particular case, the only person in the room who did not have a doctorate and was not tenured faculty.
“I had to immediately think, ‘How do I play this?’” she said. “I had to determine how to manage that.”
It had been a long time since she had felt challenged by her credentials, knowledge and expertise in the workplace.
“It was a real leadership opportunity for me,” she says. “Like lots of women, I will tell a joke or say something that’s rather self-deprecating in order to open the door as a throwaway.”
In other cases, she might start with, “I’m not quite sure, but … ” when she has an idea but wants to ask for others’ input.
Monk-Morgan has found that is something she can’t do in her assistant vice president role – because then people believe that she doesn’t really know what she is talking about.
She’s cognizant of damaging stereotypes, asking herself, “With how much passion do I advocate for a particular role before I become the ‘angry black woman’? … I can be passionate, but I don’t get to be angry. I even have to be careful in some cases in how I ask a question.”
Monk-Morgan acknowledges that some of it is just being a new administrator and needing to earn her chops.
“Now the decisions that I make have broader impact, so there is a little more anxiety around that, and some of that is self-inflicted,” she says. “It comes from the job.”
In other cases, gender and race do play a role, but it can be hard to tell the difference.
“How do I speak to a group of people in a way that they can receive the message that I want to give but with enough passion that they understand that I’m for real?” she says. “KLC competencies have been extremely helpful for me. As I have been intentional about applying those, my leadership opportunities have grown.”
Monk-Morgan credits her own valued mentors over the years, many of whom aren’t women or people of color, among them retired deans James Rhatigan and Ron Matson and Provost Rick Muma.
And she keeps her focus on her personal mission – which is what led her to accept the role of assistant vice president for academic affairs.
“Sometimes when you lose, you kind of want to go home and lick your wounds a little bit,” she says. “But I know now, just like I knew for 20 years in Upward Bound, that if I do my job right, students have an opportunity to attend college and step out of poverty.
“And that changes your entire life. It changes the life of not just the student who graduates from college, but every child or grandchild or great-grandchild that comes after them has a completely different trajectory.”