Governing Boards and Race

It’s time for them to weigh in, but they don’t know how, contends Raquel M. Rall.

October 22, 2020
 
 
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Not long ago, I read an opinion piece in Inside Higher Ed titled “It’s Time for Governing Boards to Weigh in on Race” and thought, “Yep.” I’d actually go a step further and say it is past time for boards to weigh in on race. But while I think -- and hope -- many people would agree with this sentiment, the reality is that boards don’t know how to weigh in on race, and in truth, some just don’t want to.

Please note, I did not say that they don’t care about race. Indeed, I am hopeful that the people entrusted with the ultimate decision-making authority in higher education care about race (although I’m under no assumption that they actually do). Moreover, I am optimistic that even if some haven’t cared before, they are at least starting to hear more about race and therefore, at minimum, must consider it.

But that isn’t the point. The point is that, sadly, most boards have been noticeably absent from conversations about race in higher education. They’ve been able to stay on the sidelines for several reasons that deserve attention, and until they address those reasons, they won’t be able to meaningfully contribute to the race conversation.

First, those individuals with the most de jure control over their institutions are the least diverse. Governing boards by and large continue to be primarily comprised of white men, despite increased diversification of the student body, the faculty and the staff on campuses around the nation. According to report of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, “2016 Policies, Practices, and Composition of Governing and Foundation Boards,” racial/ethnic minorities account for less than one-quarter (24 percent) of all public board members and less than 15 percent of independent board members in public higher education.

The numbers are worse when the data for minority-serving institutions are disaggregated from the total population. The percentage of minority trustees among the boards of public institutions falls to 17 percent and the percentage among independent boards drops to just 11.1 percent. So this means that, despite various diversification efforts in higher education, public boards remain approximately 75 percent white, and independent boards remain 85 percent white; Black, Latino, Asian, Hawaiian, Pacific Islander and Indigenous people combined don’t even make up a quarter of the board. The lack of diversity in their composition makes it so boards often do not have to consider race within their own membership, so it isn’t far-fetched to assume that race is not a top-of-mind issue when they make decisions on behalf of their colleges and universities. Boards are not familiar with using an equity lens to do their work, and what’s more, they lack a diversity of perspectives to recognize why for some individuals, race is always part of the conversation.

Further, board members often possess little expertise in higher education. That lack of expertise is especially profound in the higher education space where differences -- in race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, ability, age and so forth -- are salient to the everyday lives of those who live, learn and work on campuses. Board members can often go through their entire terms not setting foot on a campus apart from their episodic board meetings four to six times a year. They seldom interact with various stakeholders like students, staff and faculty.

Yet our nation’s colleges and universities today have racial and ethnic compositions that are noticeably different from the composition from when many board members were students. So they aren’t in the practice of interrogating race within the board context, and their distance from the diversity on the campus makes it so they often are not forced to confront such issues outside of the boardroom, either. Meanwhile, despite their lack of expertise in higher education, board members retain the ultimate responsibility for the institution and hold the ultimate power of authority for key policy decisions.

Finally, public boards are absent from the conversation because they can be and because we allow them to be. Virtually no accountability measures are in place for boards, and while the chief executive officer of the institution (and even the system) serves at the pleasure of the board, there is no formal check-and-balance structure for boards.

What’s more, the process for board appointment and selection has remained unchanged for years. The predominant method for board selection at public institutions is still via gubernatorial appointment. According to the Center on the American Governor at Rutgers University, as of January 2020, 47 of the nation’s governors are white, and all but nine are male. So we find ourselves in this self-perpetuating cycle where white male governors appoint white male board members who then select white male chancellors and presidents (according to 2017 data from American Council on Education, only 17 percent of campus presidents are nonwhite), and so on.

That’s not to say that a group of white men couldn’t actively engage in and commit to conversations about race and improve policies, practices and procedures related to race. It’s just that the data tell us that marginalized groups must frequently carry the burden of this work. Take, for example, the words of this scholar of color: “My colleagues have not experienced being a person of color in our society and may neither recognize, nor have the same need to fight, more subtle racism. Our differing perceptions and definitions led to dissimilar levels of commitment and divergent ways to work towards the goals of our social justice perspective.” Boards may not instigate or champion race work because they haven’t had to personally deal with the implications of race in their everyday lives.

So whether boards are ignorant of the racial imperative, too far removed from the topic or simply don’t want to engage in the work, I’m concerned that they wouldn’t know how to effectively enter the race conversation even if they wanted to. We must require -- and expect -- more of them. That means pushing them past the popular, in vogue issues of diversity, equity and inclusion to, as Estela Bensimon writes in a 2018 article, the point where they “reclaim the racial justice focus that is the rightful meaning and intent of equity.” Boards must recognize and accept that their duties and fiduciary responsibilities necessarily include ensuring educational equity, and further, that they also consider race.

At present, the United States is engaged in debates of issues pertinent to diversity, equity and inclusivity in higher education policy, the courts, the news and in popular discourse about issues like affirmative action and test-optional decisions. In all facets of institutional decision making within higher education, boards have a responsibility to model best practices. Boards can indeed be effective stewards of diversity on their campuses, but they can’t stop there. They must also be stewards of racial justice.

Moreover, we can’t just tell them this is what needs to happen. A governing board policy statement on racial equity is a necessary but insufficient first step. Those of us who are well versed in the research and practice of postsecondary governance also need to step up. We need to guide boards in how this work is to be done. We need to engage them in these tough conversations. If we want to increase the likelihood race will be part of the board’s work, we must: 1) challenge board homogeneity and hegemony that slow institutional change efforts, 2) push for a board representative of and accountable to the public, and 3) extend the research, knowledge and conversations centered on higher education boards in general and composition of those boards in particular.

College and university boards will need to leverage outside experts at the intersection of governance and race, because if being an effective board member, in general, requires socialization, assuming a role as proponents and models of racial justice also requires intentional work. Boards that strive for optimal effectiveness must have access to the right experts, tools and training to pursue this goal. It starts with inquiry and the acknowledgment that there is great room for improvement. A peripheral diversity committee on the board is not going to cut it. This is every board member’s burden to bear. Training is necessary. Guidance is required. Accountability is paramount. Board investment in enriching and efficient training related to these issues related to diversity, equity, inclusion and race is long overdue.

Boards must be willing to acknowledge, confront and deal with the discomfort that comes with aligning words and actions. The majority of boards are not currently engaged in the business of race, but they should be, and I hope that as we continue to identify additional areas of growth at the intersection of governance and race, they will be. I agree with the authors of the opinion piece I cited earlier that “Governing boards should develop, ensure implementation of and advocate on behalf of a formal board policy statement on racial inclusion and opposition to systemic racism,” but a policy alone just won’t cut it in today’s climate. We must also put boards on notice that they need to take timely, relevant, consistent and demonstrable action. But first, they need to know more than that they need to weigh in on race. They need to know how they can weigh in on it.

Bio

Raquel M. Rall is assistant professor of higher education at the University of California, Riverside. She is a member of the Critical Higher Education Governance Collaborative (CHEGC), the mission of which is to investigate, challenge, examine and influence current governance practices and research within higher education through a critical lens, focusing on the intersection of leadership, governance, race, power and equity.

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