Sit-ins, marches, and campus activists. Lists of demands for presidents and chancellors. Protests about programs and buildings named after men known to have owned slaves and perpetuated racial discrimination.
The turmoil on campuses around the nation increases as students and some faculty use their voices, their physical presence, social media, and even sticky notes to draw attention to important but unmet needs: the need for respect, safety, community, and support on campus; the need for honest dialogue about racial injustice; and the need for students of color to see themselves in those who teach them.
Currently, students who are seeking to change inequality or a hostile campus climate are applying pressure to presidents and chancellors. They are giving little attention to governing boards, the group with final accountability for the institutions and systems they govern.
What would our students find if they looked closely at their institutions’ boards today?
According to a 2015 AGB survey, racial and ethnic minorities make up 14.0* percent of the boards of independent institutions and 24.5* percent of boards of public institutions. AGB’s survey also found that percentages for independent institutions have increased modestly since 2010 when minorities accounted for 12.5 percent of board members. In that same period, the percentage for public institution boards also increased slightly from 23.1 percent.
By taking a longer view, it's possible to see real change in the diversity of higher education’s governing boards. In 1969, only 1 percent of board members at independent institutions and 3 percent at public institutions represented racial and ethnic minorities. That percentage has climbed steadily over the last 45 years. But the percentage is still as disappointing in the boardroom as it is in the classroom.
In 2013, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, African-American students accounted for 14.7 percent of college students. According to AGB, in 2015 African-Americans accounted for 8.3 percent of members of boards of independent institutions and 13.6 percent of members of boards of public institutions. In 2013 Hispanics accounted for 15.8 percent of college students but only 2.4 percent of board members of private boards and 5.8 percent of public board members.
Establishing a quota for board members is not the answer to the valid complaints of minority students. Nor will it guarantee that the climate on campus will become welcoming to the full range of races, ethnicities, beliefs, and backgrounds represented by students. But moving the needle on board diversity in all its forms—race and ethnicity as well as gender, age, sexual orientation, and other categories—is one of the many steps higher education must take given our changing society.
The U. S. Census Bureau has told us that racial and ethnic minorities will become the majority population in the country around 2050. For many communities, that switch has already occurred. If boards are going to continue to add value to the institutions they serve, they, like the presidents and chancellors, need to be able to address the needs of a changing student population. One way to do that is to reflect the diversity of the students for which they are accountable. It’s good for higher education.
*Includes individuals who identified as African American, Hispanic, Asian American, American Indian/Native Alaska, and Other. Data pulled from preliminary findings; the final report will be released in early 2016.