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Diversity & Inclusion with Your Board of Trustees

by Cynthia Woolbright

While incremental changes on boards are occurring at our colleges and universities, we are still woefully short from true diversity on our boards.

The Association of Governing Board, in its Report on Consequential Boards (2014), recommended that “boards must improve their own capacity and functionality through increased attention to the qualifications and recruitment of members.”

Higher education finds 32% of its student population racially and ethnically identified, with women representing just over 50% and LBGT persons representing 12%. Contrast that Boards comprising 74+% white at public and 87+% at private; women are under 30% at both private and public.

While incremental changes on boards are occurring at our colleges and universities, we are still woefully short from true diversity on our boards.

How can you increase diversity and inclusion on your Boards?
  1. Lead from the top. Is your top leadership committed to a Board that reflects the diverse student population it serves? Is your Board equally committed, including your board chair and governance committee chair, to take a leadership role in making this change happen?
  2. Developing board member competencies in these areas is imperative and should become part of your annual board assessment of its overall effectiveness. Consider a diversity audit that analyzes the board culture and policies.
  3. Benchmark against peer and aspirant institutions. As we become increasingly transparent, we can ask board members to sign not only a “conflict of interest” statement, but also to commit and sign a diversity plan to be implemented and evaluated annually.

Now that you’re committed, what might your board expect?

  • Ensure that new, diverse members are welcomed, engaged and integrated into the Board’s work in a meaningful way.
  • Communication styles will be challenged as we engage individuals from other backgrounds. Today’s “sameness” in style and tone will be changed. There will be challenges in the level of involvement and engagement, especially early in the process as individuals from diverse backgrounds contribute.
  • The board culture will change. Recognize that change will demand strategic and focused leadership. It will require your Board members to become better listeners. Board training should be provided and seen as a valuable tool in this process.
  • Build strategies that will enhance your efforts to build value for diversity and inclusion in your board.
Why commit to diversity and inclusion?

Your board will expand its ability to have deeper, richer and more well-informed conversations relating to policies governing your institution.

You’ll enhance your relationships and opportunities for strategic alliances visa vie business, arts, and other key areas through broader, more diverse participation of the board. Students gain access to broadening opportunities in career exploration, internships and mentorships.

You’ll also gain access to a more diverse pool of potential donors, individuals, corporations and foundations, who might otherwise not contribute.

To be sure, conversations on topics of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation can be challenging to deeply held views and perspectives. But the result will be a stronger depth and breadth of values and vision for your institution. One that can be held in high esteem and one that can inspire students.

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