The pursuit of real diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) involves changing campus cultures, including collective efforts among presidents and other administrators, faculty, staff, and students. The list of responsible campus actors must include trustees. Governing boards must do much more than oversee the hiring of a chief diversity officer. They must also ensure that the policies and practices for which they are responsible remain free of the kind of unconscious bias that the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements have identified within many institutions.
In 2020, nearly 80 percent of trustees at private colleges were White and nearly two-thirds were male, according to the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. At public institutions, about 65 percent were White and 63 percent were men. Because of this current makeup, many college and university boards of trustees are ill-equipped to foresee the impacts their decisions might have on a student population and a workforce that are increasingly diverse.
Many trustees bring to the boardroom life experiences that are often quite different from the experiences of today’s students and staff, and this frame of reference makes it difficult for some trustees to consider whether institutional policies or practices could be affecting different constituencies in different ways—helping some groups of students or employees or applicants while creating disadvantages for others. For example, some admissions policies use formulas favoring students with Advanced Placement credits from courses unavailable in under-resourced schools predominantly attended by students of color. Decisions about whether to offer affordable childcare on campus disproportionately affect female students and staff. And when COVID-19 caused many boards to shut down their campuses, how many trustees considered the impacts on low-income students who could not afford to fly home, having used all their resources to sign leases and prepay tuition and meal plans, and who counted on work-study jobs for income? A board that includes members who share lived experiences with its diverse constituencies is likely to recognize such disparate effects.
Creating a diverse, equitable, and inclusive community doesn’t depend only on campus culture. It also requires changing the culture of the boardroom to foster an inclusive and collaborative environment for trustees with diverse backgrounds to express their diverse views.
We base our comments here on our work producing two reports on nonprofit educational and medical institutions. The so-called eds and meds are the largest and most influential nonprofits and have a major impact on the well-being of consumers (students and patients), employees, and communities in which they are located. These eds and meds are often related since many universities control medical systems.
As members of the Women’s Nonprofit Leadership Initiative, we collaborated with La Salle University to produce the fall 2019 report The Gender Gap in Nonprofit Boardrooms, the first census of female board members in the top fifty nonprofit medical and higher education institutions in Greater Philadelphia. Women made up only 33 percent of the twenty-five eds boards of directors, with nine boards at 20 percent and below and only women’s and formerly women’s colleges at 50 percent or above. Women of color were the most underrepresented group.
Recognizing the lack of trustee diversity, we undertook a national study to understand how governing boards of eds and meds select their members, what barriers to greater board diversity exist, and how the inclusion of female trustees and trustees of color can affect board decision-making. We published Increasing Gender Diversity on the Boards of Nonprofit Eds and Meds: Why and How to Do It in spring 2020.
We conducted in-depth interviews with fifty-nine diverse female board members and male and female board leaders (presidents and CEOs) across a variety of private nonprofit institutions in every region of the United States. We focused on private colleges and universities that select their own trustees rather than public institutions, whose boards are largely appointed by government officials. Our sample included twenty-nine trustees from major universities (some Ivy League) and colleges, including a historically Black college, one women’s college, several co-ed institutions that originally had been single-sex colleges, and two religiously affiliated institutions. The overall gender gaps and racial gaps on these boards were similar to the Philadelphia-area institutions in the 2019 report.
Respondents told us that female trustees, more than men, typically focus on the effects that decisions and policies have on people, particularly how students and faculty experience campus life. By comparison, male trustees are more interested in the financial effects of board decisions. Female board members are likely to raise questions about admissions, tuition, financial aid, student services, and campus safety. Across such policy areas, female trustees and trustees of color are often the ones reminding the board about the diversity implications of different issues, which can help boards recognize when and how their decisions might have inequitable impacts on different segments of the staff or student body.
To increase the diversity of their membership, boards should critically examine their process for filling vacancies, especially the importance they assign to the financial capacity of board candidates. Some boards explicitly require a substantial contribution. Even though some interviewees told us that their deliberations about potential trustees did not consider access to wealth, we learned that the development offices at those institutions had prequalified nominees by ascertaining a candidate’s financial capacity before the nomination reached the board level. This preoccupation with access to wealth contributes to the predominance of White male nominees since men are often assumed to control the money in high-wealth households in the United States—an increasingly false assumption.
One way colleges and universities can reduce reliance on financial capacity in choosing trustees is to separate fundraising from governance by establishing a foundation board that leads fundraising efforts. That dual board structure permits greater socioeconomic diversity on the governing board. It also allows institutions to operate with smaller governing boards.
Among the institutions in our study, 72 percent of the boards of colleges and universities had more than thirty members, while only 14 percent of health-care boards, which often adopt the dual board structure, were that large. Our respondents serving on smaller boards (which we defined as boards with fewer than fifteen seats) were more likely than other respondents to describe the experience as inclusive, participatory, and conducive to good
The boards of US for-profit corporations have achieved measurable progress in diversifying their boards because stakeholders—the groups or individuals who have an interest in or may be affected by the institution—have prodded companies to diversify. Most important has been pressure from activist shareholders, especially institutional investors who hold large blocks of stock and vote on board membership. Although higher ed trustees are not accountable to shareholders, they do have important stakeholders—including students, faculty and staff, alumni, and donors—who will expect them to heed the growing national support for DEI at all levels of the institution. Such stakeholders, particularly if they organized, could exercise considerable influence on board composition.
Illustration by Kim DeMarco