The numbers have been low for decades. But the issue has taken on new urgency amid news reports that question whether elite colleges discriminate against qualified Asian student applicants lest the schools appear "too Asian," and as recent appointments of Chinese American and Korean American presidents serve to showcase their scarcity.
"Things as they have been done are insufficient," Fong said in an interview at Ursinus, where he recently completed his first semester. "You have to press for change. It can be polite. But you have to be insistent."
It's a paradox: The most educated people in the country, who obtain college degrees at rates far higher than those of whites, blacks, and Hispanics, hold by far the lowest percentage of presidencies. Why?
Some authorities cite a "pipeline problem," meaning that a too-small pool of Asian provosts and vice presidents offers an even more limited number of presidential candidates. Others say it's culture, that many Asians focus on group success instead of individual advancement. And some blame racism reaching all the way back to World War II.
The result, experts say, is that colleges can miss out on leaders who have experience in different cultures, are sensitive to racial concerns, and broadly view the world and its people at a time when campuses are growing ever more diverse.
A 2005 study by the Committee of 100, a nonprofit group of prominent Chinese Americans that studies business, education, and social issues, concluded the "bamboo ceiling" was a reality in higher education and cited a hurtful explanation - stereotypes.
Often, the study said, Asians are seen as "perpetual foreigners," never fully integrated into society, perceived as lacking English skills, and pigeonholed as capable employees with little personal ambition. That stereotype can be perpetuated by Asians themselves, who may think they should "assume a compliant persona in the workplace and steer clear of leadership positions," the study said.
A 2011 New York magazine story by Korean American writer Wesley Yang argued that Asians struggle for promotion in education, business, law, and higher education because the values of a traditional upbringing don't translate to the modern workplace - that humility, harmony, and deference to elders aren't useful in a culture that celebrates bold individual effort and self-promotion.
In 2001, Fong was hired as president of Butler University in Indianapolis - and was expected to clean house after a decade of budget deficits. Instead, he fired no one. He kept the management team intact for years, during which deficits turned to surpluses, the endowment soared, and full-time enrollment grew from 3,442 to 4,042.
Fong said that a traditional Western leader, be he a company CEO or football coach, asks two questions when taking over a new organization: Do I have the right people? Are they in the right jobs? A more Eastern leader, Fong said, asks the same questions - but in reverse order.
Leadership isn't doing for others, he has said, but doing with others.
"When we looked at Bobby Fong, we didn't see him as an 'Asian American candidate,' " said Robert Barchi, who led the Ursinus search committee and is president of Thomas Jefferson University. "He came to the top simply because his talents, experience, and accomplishments put him there."
At the same time, Barchi said, "Does he appreciate diversity? Absolutely. That has to be a value added for Ursinus."
John "Jef" Corson, vice chair of the board of trustees and the interim college president until Fong was hired, described a painstaking search that winnowed 100 qualified applicants to four finalists. A vote to rank the four followed.
"There were 25 votes on the committee, and there were 25 votes for Bobby Fong," he said, citing Fong's strong record of leadership. "The fact that he was an Asian American made it that more deciding."
Fong will be formally inaugurated this spring as the 15th president of Ursinus, a private, 1,750-student liberal-arts school in Collegeville.
Statistics differ somewhat, but the best and most current count of Asian presidents at two- and four-year colleges is 40, according to records compiled by Audrey Yamagata-Noji, who runs the higher education leadership development program for Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics Inc. (LEAP).
In January 2011, A. Gabriel Esteban, a native of the Philippines, was named president of Seton Hall University. Six months later Phyllis Wise, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, became chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Wallace Loh became president of the University of Maryland in 2010, a year after Dartmouth College named Jim Yong Kim as the first Asian American to head an Ivy League school.
"More folks would like to move into leadership positions, but it's difficult," Yamagata-Noji said. "When it comes to Asian Americans, we're the model minority - why would we need help?"
The American Council on Education knows why. Its 2006 survey of 2,148 college presidents found that 86.4 percent were white, 5.9 percent African American, 4.5 percent Latino, and 0.9 percent Asian.
"We were really shocked," said Diana Cordova, assistant vice president for leadership programs at the council. Discussions identified some causes as stereotypes, culture and training, and a lack of mentoring and networking.
When the council asked chief academic officers whether they ever had talked to a mentor about becoming a president, 57 percent of African Americans and 50 percent of Hispanics had done so. Among Asians, it was 14 percent. Asked whether they had spoken to a job-search consultant, 39 percent of African Americans and 38 percent of Hispanics said yes. For Asians, it was 7 percent.
"We're making a point of talking to [university] boards, to search firms: You need to pay attention to this population," Cordova said. "It's incredibly talented, incredibly hardworking, and it's not being tapped."
Saigo, who was chancellor of Auburn University-Montgomery in Alabama and president of St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, said the problem isn't the pipeline. Some schools have large Asian faculties - 18 percent at San Jose State University, 23 percent at California State University at Los Angeles - as feeders. And it's not training, because LEAP alone has trained hundreds of executives.
He thinks the dearth is largely the result of lingering racial animosity from U.S. wars against Japan, North Korea, and Vietnam.
On college search committees of 20 or 25 people, "You're going to have somebody who had a family member killed, or a neighbor, or cousins," Saigo said. "They're going to hate you. They will not trust you. You're going to be the gook."
For 70 years, wartime Asian enemies were demonized by politicians and press. To change those impressions, Saigo said, requires a new national effort - through the media and in public demonstrations, academic forums, and courtrooms. To recruit more Asian presidents will require a dedicated staff and budget, perhaps assigned to a collegiate association, he said.
Fong's path began in the Chinatown of Oakland, Calif. Both parents of the U.S.-born son of immigrants from Guangdong province had died before he left for Harvard University, from which he graduated magna cum laude in 1973. Fong earned a doctorate in English literature from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1978, then taught English at Berea College in Kentucky.
During a sabbatical he met Frank Wong, provost at the University of Redlands in California, who told him, "A professor controls the climate of teaching and learning in his own classroom. An administrator can affect the climate of teaching and learning across a campus."
Fong left Berea to become dean for arts and humanities at Hope College in Michigan, then dean of the faculty at Hamilton College in upstate New York.
Butler came calling in 2000. During an interview there, Fong raised the issue of race: Why would a largely white university want an Asian American president?
The answer, he was told, was the school had seen the future: It needed to prepare students for a diverse, global workforce and society. For a whole lot of reasons, Fong looked like that future.
Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415, email@example.com, or @JeffGammage on Twitter.