Many presidents and trustees are wondering how they will respond to this new wave of student activism when it bubbles over on their own campuses. (I’m sure many also give thanks that the headlines they’re reading about recent demonstrations, protests and occupations aren’t about events at their own college or university.)
As a trailing boomer, I look back with some fondness to memories of marches, sit-ins, and streakers on campus in the 60s and 70s. I was a student at UMass Amherst, and we had our share of youthful idealism, political conflict, and demands for change. Civil rights, equal rights, and peace were and are important, strongly held values. There was an excitement then about the world becoming a better place and, on my more optimistic days, I see some of that desire for change gaining momentum now, moving the country toward greater equality.
Student activism and shared governance are at an interesting crossroads now, not unlike the 60s. Students (then and now) complained that their voices aren’t being heard, that board members don’t look or think like them, and that they have limited input into decisions of consequence. Some of the protests in recent years have occurred on campuses that have successfully pursued a commitment to increasing student diversity and now are struggling to meet those students’ needs and expectations for a campus that is as inclusive as it is diverse.
Recently, students on one campus demanded to have more access to trustees, to see people who look like themselves on the board, and to have public reports after board meetings. Not far away, students at another college held a week-long protest and building occupation aimed at creating a safe and inclusive campus. Elsewhere students voted no confidence in the president for grievances related to the racial climate on campus, including unequal treatment by campus police. Like many colleges that have succeeded in attracting a much more diverse student body, they have found that preparing for diversity and inclusion requires changes in policies, practices, and personnel to create a safe, inclusive, welcoming environment for people of different backgrounds.
AGB’s 2016 survey of board composition found 32 percent of board members are women at both public and independent institutions and 24 percent of public board members and 14 percent of independent board members are from minority groups. In contrast women account for more than half of college students today and, students from minority groups account for 41 percent of enrollment at public institutions and 32 percent at independent institutions. Boards will find that the experiences, languages, and appearance of their members are less and less like the students they serve and those they seek to attract, unless they commit to diversifying themselves.
At the beginning of this academic year, AGB released its Board of Directors’ Statement on Campus Climate, Diversity, and Inclusion. It’s a good place to start to get more comfortable talking about issues of race, gender, religion, and other aspects of campus culture, in the board room and out. A facilitated conversation about the difference between diversity and inclusion, and the characteristics of a healthy campus climate may help prepare the board for the challenges that lie ahead. AGB Consulting is available to lead such conversations.
The times they are a-changin’ indeed. What would it take to have an inclusive welcoming culture on your campus? A look around the board table might trigger a conversation about board composition and the perspectives and experiences needed to address the challenges of the day—and tomorrow. Boards should also consider ways to enhance communication with students to ensure the board is well informed about student needs, and that board decisions are better understood by the campus community.