The board members who oversee America’s colleges and universities are still overwhelmingly white and male, though institutions have diversified their boards somewhat in recent years, a new report from the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges shows.
The new report—titled “Policies, Practices and Composition of Governing Boards of Colleges, Universities and Institutionally Related Foundations”—draws on survey responses from more than 530 colleges, universities, systems and higher education foundations about the makeup and practices of their governing boards in 2020. Report authors warn that data should be interpreted with caution due to the low response rate last year.
Men hold the majority of seats on boards for public and private institutions, as well as for the foundations that typically manage fundraising activities for public colleges. In 2020, women held 37 percent of seats on public boards and 36 percent of seats on private boards—up 12 percent since 1969, when AGB first surveyed institutions. Women hold 35 percent of seats on foundation boards.
Board members from racial or ethnic minority groups accounted for about one-third of public board members and 17 percent of private board members in 2020, according to the report. After excluding minority-serving institutions from the sample, those percentages fell to 19.8 percent for public boards and 15.7 percent for private boards. At foundations, racial or ethnic minority board members comprised about 12 percent of board membership.
Efforts to diversify board membership differ from institutional initiatives to diversify students and employees. Public institutions in particular have little control over who sits on their boards, as members are often elected or appointed by the state’s governor.
Institutions that appoint their own boards look to create a balance of gender, race, ethnicity, educational background, alumni status, profession and philanthropic capacity, said Henry Stoever, president and CEO of AGB. Philanthropic capacity refers to an individual’s ability to give money to the institution.
“If an institution has more financial need than what it can get from the state—if it’s a public institution, for example—or from tuition, they need more apertures through which they can generate cash flow,” Stoever said. “That’s where some institutions say, ‘We have significant financial needs that extend beyond traditional tuition and public support.’ So they might prioritize philanthropic capacity more than others.”
While boards have been slow to diversify, they have kept pace with the gender, racial and ethnic makeup of college presidents, provosts and other higher education leaders, said Lesley McBain, director of research at AGB.
“It’s important to consider the perspective that boards are part of an ecosystem of higher education, which is embedded in American society,” McBain said. “Therefore, change is not always quick.”
Recruitment is not always easy, in part because of pipeline issues, McBain said. It takes time to identify and train board members to serve. Stoever also pointed out that recruiting board members differs from recruiting employees because members are not formally compensated.
“When you’re hiring for somebody to take a job, they’re going to be paid. They have expectations of the work,” Stoever said. “By contrast, citizen trustees are not paid … they exist to oversee.”
Stoever and McBain agreed that a diverse board is a strength.
“Boards need to make holistic, well-informed, strategic decisions,” Stoever said. “That group of board members can have a better likelihood of coming to a well-informed, diverse outcome when they have diversity of perspectives and backgrounds as part of that dialogue.”
The average size of governing boards has held steady for a decade. In 2020, the average board at a public institution consisted of a dozen voting members. The average board of a private institution had 28 voting members, and the average higher education foundation board included 29 voting members.
A substantial majority of board members—77 percent of those on public boards and 82 percent of private boards—were over the age of 50 in 2020. About 15 percent of public board members and 21.6 percent of private board members were 70 or older, according to the report.
The pandemic had a significant impact on meeting frequency and length, the report showed. Public boards met an average of 7.7 times in 2020, compared with 7.4 times in 2015. Private boards met 4.6 times in 2020 compared with 3.7 times in 2015, and foundation boards met 3.8 times in 2020 compared with about 3.5 times in 2015. Many meetings in 2020 took place online.
“It will be interesting to see how boards evaluate those pandemic-necessitated adaptations to customary meeting structures and practices and whether they make sense for the future,” McBain said. “Zoom fatigue may also play a part in these decisions. There is also the issue of public open meetings laws and other such laws or regulations that public boards in particular would have to consider.”