Even as U.S. universities grow more diverse, the people in charge of them remain overwhelmingly White and male. A group of Maryland researchers wants to change that.

With the support of a $3 million grant, faculty from the University of Maryland in College Park, the University of Maryland Baltimore County and Morgan State University are set to study the disparities in college leadership — and help usher more women, faculty of color and humanities scholars into those top jobs.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which supplied the grant, believes the three-university partnership will “be a powerful force for positive change within Maryland and the extended region,” said Phillip Brian Harper, the foundation’s program director for higher learning. And “we were also struck that, with each of them having an African American president, these institutions already manifest the type of leadership that we are trying to promote within the U.S. academy.”

The three-year project, which was announced earlier this month, is being led by six female faculty members from across the three campuses. That representation already sends a message, said Kimberly Moffitt, the initiative’s lead principal investigator.

The dearth of women and people of color in top positions “is something that has been on our minds for a long time,” said Moffitt, who is also a professor at UMBC and interim dean of its College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. “And we are just ecstatic to have the opportunity.”

Researchers have titled the effort “Breaking the M.O.L.D.,” an acronym for “Mellon/Maryland Opportunities for Leadership Development.” Moffitt’s team next will recruit dozens of faculty members from the three campuses to undergo training, participate in workshops and receive mentorship “to address some of the barriers they feel like they run up against when they try to seek and attain leadership roles,” she said.

Researchers also will develop a framework for universities in Maryland and elsewhere to address the systemic issues that block many women and people of color from ascending. Female associate professors, for example, are more likely than their male peers to take on “service” roles, such as department chair or division head, Moffitt said, which hampers their ability to do their own research and rise through the ranks.

Similarly, faculty of color spend a disproportionate amount of time mentoring minority students who look to them as role models — taking time away from scholarship and other activities that could lead to promotions.

“It becomes almost a caste system that keeps them from ever being able to have the opportunity to become a full professor and, hence, a leader,” Moffitt said.

The share of non-White students in the United States grew from roughly 30 percent in 2000 to about 45 percent as of 2018, federal data shows. But less than one-fifth of college presidents are racial minorities, according to the American Council on Education. Just 5 percent are women of color.

The disparities are reflected in other leadership positions on U.S. campuses as well. More than three-quarters of chief human resource officers, provosts and chief academic affairs officers, and chief student financial aid officers are White, an American Council on Education report found.

Psyche Williams-Forson, one of the Maryland initiative’s principal investigators, as well as professor and chair of U-Md.’s Department of American Studies, said there is an urgent need to establish a pipeline for more women and people of color to lead campuses.

“Not only is it a matter of modeling, that students see people who look like them” in top roles, Williams-Forson said, “but this now opens up a plethora of ways of seeing the world and ways of establishing networks.”

In addition to addressing racial and gender diversity, the Maryland researchers want to find ways to catapult humanities scholars into leadership. Roughly 4 percent of college and university presidents at doctorate-granting institutions received their highest degree in humanities and fine arts, according to the American Council on Education’s most recent American College President Study.

“We all know that, just based on our experiences and experiences of our colleagues across the country, it’s a challenge for humanities practitioners and scholars to get into these senior leadership positions,” said Patricia Williams Lessane, another principal investigator, who is an associate professor and associate vice president for academic affairs at Morgan State.

The country’s polarization over major cultural issues only heightens the importance of such diversity, Williams Lessane added.

“We need the humanities to be front and center in higher education,” she said. “Having more humanities scholars in leadership roles will make sure that the academy is being true to its original precepts, which is to develop civic-minded citizens who can tackle complex problems and who are interested in leaving the world a better place than it already is. … That’s what the humanities have been doing since Socrates and Plato, asking those complex questions.”

The grant program builds upon existing efforts across the three Maryland institutions to diversify leadership. U-Md. President Darryll J. Pines said in the spring that his university will invest $40 million over the next five years to hire and support women and faculty of color. The campus also sponsors a year-long professional development program designed to prepare faculty for leadership roles.

At UMBC, the Postdoctoral Fellows for Diversity program trains its participants for faculty positions. And Morgan State President David Wilson “has been very earnest and deliberate about developing pathways for ascension for professors who are associate professors,” Williams Lessane said.

The project’s goal, Williams-Forson said, is to make lasting changes to the way leaders are recruited, selected and installed on campuses.

“We’ve been hearing a lot in the last several months, in the last year, about systemic racism,” she said. “What we’re really hoping for here is some substantive, systemic, institutional change.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly said Psyche Williams-Forson is an associate professor. Williams-Forson is a full professor. This article has been corrected.