In my time in higher ed, I have seen some strides made in developing more diversity on college campuses, with the recruitment of more women and minorities in graduate programs and faculty hiring. However, as an administrator it became clear relatively quickly that support for diversity had to come from the top in order for it to be widely accepted in an institution.
Boards of trustees and regents often don’t represent the diversity of the institutions they serve. Depending on their backgrounds, they may also not understand the value of diversity. This is often seen in the results for hiring university presidents and other high-level administrators.
As an African American woman in higher ed, I was often the first woman and/or minority to gain promotions, and as I moved into administration I had very few role models. Bias at the level of boards often impacted my ability to succeed or even simply do my job. We need to do much better with making sure that diversity is valued at the highest levels in academe.
The Association of Governing Boards (AGB) has focused on this issue, including in an article “Why Boards Must Become Diversity Stewards.” In this article, campus leaders discuss the importance of diversity and the role of boards in supporting campus leaders.
Evaluating the success of diversity initiatives
A focus on campus composition can perpetuate the notion that campus diversity is the institution’s end goal. More salient questions for evaluating the success of diversity initiatives include:
- How many employees across different subpopulations and identity groups rate their managers as treating them fairly and inclusively?
- Is faculty engagement, satisfaction, and productivity consistent across all subpopulations and identity groups?
- Does the institution have mechanisms for cultivating a climate of fairness that combats favoritism and tokenism?
- Is the institution’s educational approach working equally for students across all subpopulations and identity groups?
- Is the institution graduating students with the skill sets needed to succeed in a pluralistic society?
- Do potential new senior-executive hires demonstrate a capacity and aptitude for diversity and inclusion? In addition to questions about prior experience, qualifications, and vision, boards can make it a priority to identify senior leaders with training on unconscious bias and diversity.
Of course, having diverse boards would help to ensure that they are pursuing these mandates. Having diverse voices in the room is an important component of ensuring inclusivity on campus. Campus leaders need support in the work that they are doing, and they also need mentoring, which board members from diverse backgrounds can provide.
As Westminster College president Bethami Dobkin has written in another excellent article from ABG titled “Creating Inclusive Board Cultures”:
High-performing boards recognize that compositional diversity is not only a visible marker of representation for various campus constituents, but also valuable for the perspectives gained from the lived experiences of members belonging to diverse, socially identifiable groups. Visible markers of identity—race, ethnicity, gender, and ability, for example—shape both how people are treated throughout their lives as well as their access to resources. I am aware that the language choices people use around me, the services they may or may not offer, and the expectations they have about how I should behave may all be influenced by their assumption that I am female.
Although some trustees may recognize the limiting assumptions and behaviors that can be experienced based on a gender identity, they may not realize how successfully navigating these behaviors can build valuable skills and insights. In this way, compositional diversity adds more than a visibly notable change in group membership; it also adds to the diversity of thought that is more commonly valued in boards.
What can higher administration leaders do to increase board diversity and support for diversity initiatives?
Make diversity a priority
First, they can emphasize the importance of diversity in recruitment for top administrative positions. Given changing demographics, it is an important component for attracting a student body that reflects the range of diversity in our country, including ethnic and racial minorities, veterans, neurodiversity, and non-traditional/older students. Students want to see people like themselves in leadership positions.
Educate board members on the importance of diversity
Second, it is imperative to educate board members on the need for developing an inclusive environment for students, and developing the resources to allow those students to succeed. There are many student success initiatives that are providing evidence for the success of many of these initiatives, including work being done at my former employer, The University of Texas at Austin.
Actively recruit diverse board members
Third, for private colleges, it is important to work with board members to find candidates from diverse backgrounds and look beyond traditional networks to engage with a broad range of candidates. Networking will be an important component of recruiting board members with a vision for the future.
There are many challenges facing those who are working to make college campuses more diverse and inclusive. It can no longer be claimed that there is a pipeline issue – in this day and age, there are many great candidates who can become important supporters and potential board members for colleges and universities. It is an important part of the diversity puzzle that can’t be ignored.
About the author
Terri E. Givens is the former Provost at Menlo College in the San Francisco Bay Area; Professor of Government and European studies at The University of Texas at Austin; Vice Provost overseeing undergraduate curriculum and spearheading global initiatives as its chief international officer. She formed The Center for Higher Education Leadership (CHEL) to provide academic leaders with information and a supportive community for improving management and leadership skills in an environment of changing demographics, financial challenges, and advances in educational technology. CHEL was born of Terri’s experiences navigating these fields and learning along her journey through academe, from professor to vice-provost and provost at universities in Texas and California.