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Public institution governing boards: the invisible key factor in diversity planning efforts in higher education.


LATELY, THE COLLEGE LANDSCAPE HAS BEEN IMMERSED in several diversity-related incidents that have received national attention. In October 2015, the president of the University of Louisville had to make a public apology after he was photographed wearing a sombrero in what he described as a symbol of support for Hispanic Heritage Month. His gesture was met with criticism as some saw his attire as a depiction of long-held stereotypes of Mexican culture (Mytelka 2015). In the fall of that same year, a group of African American students at the University of Missouri's flagship campus in Columbia held a series of protests over long-standing issues related to racism and feelings of isolation and marginalization that have lingered for decades (McMurtrie 2016). While making up only seven percent of the entire student population, the group and its supporters held rallies, protested homecoming festivities, and mobilized others, including members of the football team, leading eventually to the resignation of both the campus chancellor and the president of the University of Missouri System. What made this particular situation at Missouri stand out is that it wasn't until the system's governing board, the Board of Curators, stepped in that the leaders of the institution saw fit to relinquish their positions in response to criticisms of their mishandling of diversity on campus. This display of oversight and action by the board only strengthens the notion that if diversity efforts are to have a chance on college campuses, then governing bodies have to be active players as they hold the invisible key to the implementation of, if not the final decision on, such efforts.


By virtue of its position, "the board is the public face of an institution" (Schwartz 2010, p. 37). As board members seek to effectively represent and fulfill the institutional mission, some consideration might be given to the value of diversity as it pertains to governance (Schwartz 2010). The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (n.d.) has embedded within its Statement on Board Accountability the notion that a trustee shall work to ensure the institution is "inclusive" in its general admission and operating practices. Schwartz (2010) notes that, although the general population and student enrollment are increasingly diverse, "the majority of board members are white" (p. 36).

In a 2010 survey of governing boards at public colleges and universities, it was found that 23.1 percent of board members were from racial and ethnic minority groups. Broken down, 15.8 percent were African American, 4.1 percent Latino, 2.1 percent Asian and Pacific Islander, 0.7 percent American Indian and Alaskan Native, and 0.4 percent represented other groups (Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges 2010). Additionally, the gender distribution was 71.6 percent men and 28.4 percent women (Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges 2010). When compared to their independent counterparts, public governing boards are more than twice as diverse in their racial and ethnic composition (Schwartz 2010).

It is important to note about public governing boards that often their members' selection is determined by either the state's governor or an advisory committee with legislative confirmation (Schwartz 2010). In some states, governing boards are elected by the citizens; governance can also involve a multicampus or system governing board structure (Kezar 2006). Regardless of their structure, public boards serve a common goal of "supervising higher education institutions for the public good" (Kezar 2006, p. 969). As Chun and Evans (2009, p. 46) note, "Because trustees play an instrumental role in the formulation of institutional direction, they can insist on the creating of policies, programs, and processes that support diversity." Governing boards have a significant role in setting and pushing the diversity agenda in higher education as evidenced in the University of Wisconsin System where the Board of Regents has "embraced the need for diversity on [the] campuses and been a key driver of efforts to diversify [the] student body and [the] workforce" (Reilly 2009, p. 36). Diversity efforts by the Wisconsin board included long-range diversity plans, established goals with time lines, minority retention strategies, campus climate discussions, K-12 bridge programs, and a rigorous self-assessment (Reilly 2009). There is the fear that when it comes to diversity efforts, some board members, not to mention the president, will "resist diversity because they believe it will take faculty and staff away from important priorities and will reduce quality on campus" (Kezar 2012, p.198). The extensive steps taken by the Wisconsin system board on diversity action and accountability are evidence that "as advocates of the public interest, our boards can lead that [diversity] charge" (Reilly 2009, p. 36).

Meyers (2010, p. 101) notes that "board members commit themselves to develop their cultural awareness not simply to create more respectful interactions among themselves, but because they truly believe it affects their competence as trustees." Additionally, "a board that leads the diversity agenda by virtue of its own composition and activities is in a position to hold senior administration accountable for creating diversity in the rest of the institution" (p. 101). Chun and Evans (2009, p. 45) note that "diversity among board members is a critical factor in diversity leadership, especially when the chief executive may not share the same level or record of commitment to diversity." By embracing diversity, trustees can be more effective in moving their institution toward inclusiveness (Meyers 2010). To achieve greater awareness with respect to diversity, Meyers (2010) suggests that boards consider the following actions: (1) Ask each member how his/her identity influences views on the issues at hand; (2) As part of board self-evaluation, ask members if there are subgroups or cliques that behave differently than others; (3) Have students and faculty from different cultural groups talk with the board about what their experiences have been like at the institution; and (4) At the end of discussion, ask each member: Whose voices were missing from this dialogue? What difference might it have made if we had a way to include those voices? In a study of presidential efforts toward diversity, Wilson (2015) concludes that it is imperative for leadership in this area to come from the top of the organizational hierarchy. Wilson (2015) adds that the president has the power and influence to send the message to the entire campus community that diversity is important and valued. Because of their position, of course, college presidents can hold subordinates accountable for actions or inactions taken on diversity. But even more compelling is the position and power bestowed upon members of the governing board. It is, after all, the governing board that oversees the job performance of the president and can likewise carry out the same review of any perceived action or inaction on diversity. Members of the governing board are ultimately responsible for the ongoing operations of the institution(s), including matters related to diversity. For this reason, the research presented here sought to assess college governing board leaders' perceptions of diversity.



Information was obtained to assess college governing board leaders' perceptions of diversity. A survey was administered to gather essential information pertaining to board involvement with diversity efforts. The sample included leaders or chairpersons of governing boards at the nation's 50 flagship universities (see figure 1). Because responses were anonymous, a determination of which institutions were represented in this study could not be made. Institutional Review Board approval was granted to conduct this research.


In August 2013, a database was created of e-mail addresses of governing board leaders at U.S. public flagship institutions in all 50 states. First, the institutional website was searched for governing board contact information. Once the governing board web page was located, a search was made to identify the board leader and a contact e-mail. For those board leaders whose contact information was not available on the website, the board office was contacted via e-mail or telephone to request it. Contact e-mails were secured for 49 of the 50 board leaders identified. One governing board office would not release a contact e-mail for its board leader.


The questions on the survey instrument sought to address (1) board composition and involvement in diversity efforts, (2) perceptions about diversity, and (3) personal characteristics and attitudes toward diversity. The survey questionnaire was designed to solicit information regarding respondents' assessments of diversity efforts. Early draft questions were revised for clarity until the questions were finalized. The appendix includes the survey questions in their exact wording and sequence. Survey participants were also asked to read the informed consent and, if they were agreeable to proceeding with the survey, to accept the terms of the study. All board leaders were asked the exact same 18 questions relating to their assessment of diversity efforts at the institution(s) they oversaw.


The surveys were distributed, collected, and analyzed through the electronic survey tool The 49 board leaders who were chosen for this study were contacted by e-mail to notify them of their selection. They were then asked to log in to the survey website using the link provided in the e-mail. Once the due date passed, the survey was closed and the survey responses printed out for review and analysis.

During the course of the study, a reminder e-mail was sent. Of the 49 board leaders solicited for participation, 20 percent responded.

Survey answers were then analyzed and interpreted. Some survey questions solicited a written response that allowed respondents to provide as long or as short an answer as they chose. As a result, the predominant analytical method was content analysis. A Holsti (1969) method was used as a guide to interpret the meaning of written responses through a process known as latent content, and all written responses were analyzed in this manner. Using a printout of the responses grouped by question, responses were coded for emerging themes. All of the answers were analyzed in a similar manner. The study is limited in that it only looked at governing board leaders at the 50 public flagship institutions (one public four-year institution per state). Therefore, conclusions cannot be drawn about other public institutions (four-year or community colleges), private institutions, or for-profit institutions.



To serve on a governing body such as a college or university board is viewed as an honor and considered to be prestigious. In some states, such as Nebraska and Nevada, the official name associated with the governing board that regulates and oversees public postsecondary institutions is "regent." In addition, regents within these two states are elected by the citizens rather than appointed by the governor or other entity. As a result, those wishing to serve in this official capacity must make their appeal directly to the public. This situation is represented in this study as, in an attempt to understand the dynamics and characteristics of the board leaders, respondents were asked how they came to serve on their respective boards; 80 percent indicated they were appointed and 20 percent were elected. This supports the notion that to secure a position on a college governing board, the traditional route is through governmental appointment, usually by the governor.

The average tenure on the board for survey participants was as follows: 40 percent had served one to four years, 40 percent had served five to nine years, and only 20 percent had served 10 or more years. As to the degree of their oversight, half (50 percent) of the board leaders served on single-institution boards where they oversee the affairs at one institution, while the remaining half served on multi-institutional boards with multiple institutions under their jurisdiction.

A common element within postsecondary governing boards that has stayed relatively consistent over the decades is their membership. The trend has been that most members are White males. This study supports that notion, at least in the leadership post of the board. The racial/ethnic composition included 83 percent who identified as White and 17 percent who identified as Hispanic. As to gender, 83 percent of respondents identified themselves as male and 17 percent female. It is worth noting that this only represents the leader of the governing board and not the entire board composition. There may be instances in which the racial and gender dynamics are more evenly distributed. However, in this study looking at the leadership within public flagship governing boards, there wasn't much diversity.


Board leaders, at 88 percent, were generally satisfied with current diversity efforts at the institution(s) they oversaw. Twelve percent felt that they did not have enough information to make that determination. Similarly, when asked whether they were satisfied with the handling of diversity at their institution(s) by their president, the majority (88 percent) were satisfied while 12 percent could not make that determination for lack of information. Board leaders were then asked whether they evaluated their president's performance on diversity, and 63 percent responded that there was such an evaluation while 38 percent indicated there was not. Of those indicating that an evaluation process was in place, all noted that diversity is covered during the annual evaluation by the board. Twenty percent noted some type of meeting with the president to discuss diversity, and 20 percent indicated that as part of an evaluation of the president by students, faculty, and staff an assessment is sent out to measure performance in this area.


A key focus of this study was to understand board leaders' perceptions about diversity. In surveying them on what diversity efforts they perceived to be already underway (see figure 2), all (100 percent) identified faculty recruitment/retention as one of their institution's diversity initiatives. In addition, 86 percent of the participants noted the presence of a chief diversity officer (CDO) to spearhead these efforts within their institutions. When it came to recruiting and retaining students, 86 percent could recall some type of effort being made. In addition, the same 86 percent noted that avenues were in place for securing student input on matters related to diversity.

As far as institutional messaging regarding diversity, 71 percent of respondents acknowledged the presence of a diversity mission statement. That same percentage (71 percent) also indicated that a diversity strategic plan was in place to specifically deal with institutional diversity planning efforts. In the area of programming, 43 percent of participants believed their institutions had consistent programming when it came to diversity. Also worth noting, 71 percent could identify some means or measures in place for assessing diversity efforts.

Presidential action on diversity has huge ramifications for the diversity agenda at an institution. In this study, we learned that 57 percent of board leaders knew of the presence of a presidential task force or committee on diversity. When asked whether they knew if their president had an actual statement on diversity, 57 percent indicated they were aware of such a statement. Board leaders, at 43 percent, also cited success with establishing external partnerships outside the institution to better advance diversity efforts within the institution. This suggests that institutions are responding to community needs by including outside constituents in this important issue.


When asked specifically about the board and its role in diversity efforts, 71 percent felt their board took an active role. This is in contrast to the 29 percent who felt their board had no direct or indirect impact on diversity whatsoever. When asked whether they considered their board to be diverse, 71 percent responded yes, it was diverse, while 29 percent indicated their board lacked diversity. As to whether board leaders knew of steps taken by other board members to develop their own cultural awareness, 71 percent felt that their colleagues did seek out opportunities to expand their awareness of diversity, while 29 percent felt they did not have enough information to make that determination.

In assessing what initiatives the board specifically had in place to promote or better address diversity, 86 percent noted that their particular board had a committee on diversity. To add further context, one board leader described the committee as more of a "board subcommittee that oversees diversity efforts on campuses." In this scenario, board leaders are afforded the opportunity to at least see in the form of a summary or presentation by the campus leaders themselves what is being done at each institution regarding diversity.

To gain insight into whether board leaders were interested in seeing an increase in diversity efforts, participants were simply asked if their institutions need to do more. Eighty-six percent of respondents indicated that they would like to see an increase in diversity efforts at their institution(s). Participants were then asked to identify areas where they thought more work on diversity was needed (see figures). Here, when asked for specifics, there was almost a consensus (80 percent) among board leaders that faculty recruitment efforts should be stepped up. This is interesting in that previously, all respondents had indicated that faculty recruitment/retention efforts were one of the things they could identify their institutions as doing in relation to diversity. Other areas identified included an increase in diversity within the administration, more outreach, and additional efforts to improve student and faculty retention; all of these were identified by 60 percent of respondents. Lesser identified areas included expanding diversity programming and student recruitment at 40 percent each and hiring additional personnel (20 percent).


Since a key part of this study focused on board leaders' perceptions of diversity efforts, it was imperative to probe whether they felt that the institution(s) they oversaw were doing an exceptional job with diversity or were marginal in their efforts. Board leaders were specifically asked to identify whether they deemed diversity efforts to be at a beginning, average, or advanced level. Sixty-seven percent considered diversity efforts at their institution(s) to be advanced. This was a high percentage, well over half, of board leaders who were confident in their institution's attention to diversity. It is common to take pride in the work done by an organization with which one is affiliated. In this case, a considerable majority of board leaders at the nation's flagship institutions felt that when it came to diversity, their institutions were performing at a high level. While 33 percent felt that their institution was average, surprisingly, none of the board leaders categorized their institution as being at the beginning level of diversity efforts. Institutional pride evidently runs high. It is worth noting that it may very well be that all of these institutions have advanced or at least average diversity efforts.

As was the intent of this study, one can only rely upon the judgment and opinion of the sample. In speaking of opinions, board leaders were asked whether they felt that diversity had been a priority at their institution(s). In this instance, all of the respondents (100 percent) felt that diversity was, in one way or another, a priority. In responding to whether they saw diversity actually framed as essential in the institutional mission statement, 67 percent felt confident that diversity was mentioned or detailed as essential, while 33 percent did not think diversity was essential within the mission statement. Typically, if something is viewed as important then it often appears in writing. What better way to signify a commitment to diversity than through the institutional mission statement?

Another survey question sought to understand the extent to which diversity was a personal priority. In this case, all board leaders (100 percent) responded that diversity was in fact a personal priority. This overwhelming personal connection to diversity by the board leaders of our nation's flagship institutions is remarkable and speaks to the value these individuals place on diversity. Lastly, in direct reference to the board itself and its support for diversity, all (100 percent) felt that their board was supportive of diversity efforts. This is symbolic in that there is, at least in the minds of college governing board leaders, a place for diversity in higher education.


A governing board can impact an organization in many ways. Indirectly, it presides over meetings and passes down policies that affect the organization. Directly, it has oversight of the chosen leader of that organization. In this instance, the organization is a college campus, the chosen leader is the campus president, and the issue is diversity.

Governing boards, by virtue of position alone, carry a lot of weight within an organization. They deservingly carry the tag of "the invisible factor" when it comes to important matters. The influence these select few individuals have is undeniable, and, make no mistake about it, on matters related to diversity, they can make a difference. These individuals happen to supervise the college president. They can, on the president's annual evaluation, ask the much needed question within higher education, "What did you do on diversity"? Imagine the impact it would have on the progress of diversity in the areas of programming, recruitment and retention, and allocation of resources if college presidents knew this key question was going to come up.

Findings from this study suggest the need for continued discussion about public governing boards and diversity efforts and the role boards currently play or could play with regard to diversity at the institutions they oversee. Freedman (2004) identified the primary duties of the college governing board to include (1) selecting and supporting the president, (2) formulating and pursuing institutional mission, (3) overseeing the educational program, (4) nurturing the institution's tangible assets, and (5) caring for the institution's intangible assets such as academic freedom and commitment to excellence.

Presently, minority representation on college boards has not been keeping pace with student enrollment and the U.S. population as a whole (Masterson 2009). Rauh (1969), when writing about board composition, suggested that diversity on governing boards should be considered more broadly to include flexibility and the ability to take up new problems and think creatively rather than in traditional terms of occupation and age. Perhaps we should revisit this suggestion to ensure our governing boards are composed of those equipped to grapple with the complexities of diversity that will surely arrive, if they haven't already, on our institutions' doorsteps.


Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. 2010. Policies, Practices, and Composition of Governing Boards of Public Colleges, Universities, and Systems. Washington, DC: Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

---. n.d. Statement of Board Accountability. Washington, DC: Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. Retrieved July 7, 2016, from the World Wide Web:

Chun, E., and A. Evans. 2009. Bridging the Diversity Divide: Globalization and Reciprocal Empowerment in Higher Education. ASHE Higher Education Report 35 (1). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Freedman, J. O. 2004. Presidents and Trustees. In Governing Academia, ed. R. G. Ehrenberg, 9-27. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Holsti, O. R. 1969. Content Analysis for the Social Sciences and Humanities. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Kezar, A. 2006. Rethinking Public Higher Education Governing Boards Performance: Results of a National Study of Governing Boards in the United States. Journal of Higher Education 77 (6): 968-1008.

---. 2012. Organizational Change in a Global, Postmodern World. In The Organization of Higher Education: Managing Colleges for a New Era, ed. M. N Bastedo, 181-221. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Masterson, K. 2009. Governing Boards Make Gains in Diversity. Chronicle of Higher Education, October 11. Retrieved July 7, 2016, from the World Wide Web:

McMurtrie, B. 2016. 'I Believe I Can Leave this Place Better than I Found It': Black Students Describe Racial Division, Isolation, and Prejudice at the U. of Missouri. Chronicle of Higher Education, January 3. Retrieved July 7, 2016, from the World Wide Web:

Meyers, R S. 2010. Diversity and the Board. Trusteeship 18 (4): 101. Mytelka, A. 2015. U. of Louisville Apologizes After President Is Photographed in Stereotypical Mexican Costume. Chronicle of Higher Education, October 30. Retrieved July 7, 2016, from the World Wide Web:

Rauh, M. A. 1969. The Trusteeship of Colleges and Universities. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Reilly, K. P. 2009. Setting the Diversity Agenda, Achieving Goals. Trusteeship.shin 17 (5): 36.

Schwartz, M. P. 2010. How Diverse Are Governing Boards? How Diverse Should They Be? Trusteeship 18 (6): 36-37.

Wilson, J. L. 2015. Presidential Plans: New College Presidents and Diversity Efforts. Planning for Higher Education 44 (1): 76-86.


DR. JEFFERY L. WILSON is an associate professor and program coordinator in Higher and Adult Education at the University of Memphis. His areas of interest are college student affairs and diversity, specifically leadership and multicultural education. He completed his doctoral studies in higher educational leadership at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and received his master's degree in student affairs administration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.



1. [Consent question] Do you understand your rights as a human subject?

___yes __no

2. [Consent question] Do you agree to participate in this study on governing board chairs?

___yes __no

If both answers are "yes," the individual will be allowed to proceed with the following questions.

3. As chair, were you appointed to this position or elected?



__other (please specify)___________________

4. How long have you been a member of the board?

__1-4 years

__5-9 years

__10 or more years

5. Are you satisfied with the institution(s) you oversee diversity efforts?



__not enough information to determine

6. Are you satisfied with the president(s) handling of diversity at the institution(s) you oversee?



__not enough information to determine

7. Does the board evaluate the president(s) performance on diversity?

a. If yes, how? (check all that apply)

__annual evaluation by board

__evaluation responses sent to campus community (faculty staff, and students)


__other (please specify)

8. To your knowledge, what diversity efforts are already in place at the institution(s) you oversee? (check all that apply)

__presidential task force/committee on diversity

__diversity mission statement

__presidential statement on diversity

__Chief Diversity Officer

__diversity included in strategic plan

__diversity assessment


__student input

__faculty recruitment/retention

__student recruitment/retention

__external partnerships

9. Does the board take an active role in leading diversity efforts?


10. Do you consider the board to be diverse?


11. Do board members take steps to develop their cultural awareness?


12. Does the board have a diversity committee?


13- Would you like to see diversity efforts increased at the institution(s) you oversee?


a. If yes, where would you like to see an increase in diversity efforts? (check all that apply)






__student recruitment

__student retention

__faculty recruitment

__faculty retention

14. How would you classify your institution(s) diversity stage?

a. Beginning stage__

b. Average stage__

c. Advanced stage__

15. In your opinion, has diversity previously been an institutional priority?



__not enough information to determine

16. Is diversity an institutional priority to you?


17. Is diversity framed as essential to the institution(s) mission statement?


18. Is there support for diversity from the governing board?


by Jeffery L. Wilson
Figure 1 List of Flagship Institutions in Sample

University of Alabama,
Tuscaloosa                    University of Montana
University of Alaska          University of Nebraska, Lincoln
University of Arizona         University of Nevada, Reno
University of Arkansas        University of New Hampshire
University of California      Rutgers University (New Jersey)
University of Colorado,
Boulder                       University of New Mexico
University of Connecticut     State University of New York, Albany
University of Delaware        University of North Carolina
University of Florida         University of North Dakota
University of Georgia         Ohio State University
University of Hawaii          University of Oklahoma
University of Idaho           University of Oregon
University of Illinois        Pennsylvania State University
University of Indiana         University of Rhode Island
University of Iowa            University of South Carolina
University of Kansas          University of South Dakota
University of Kentucky        University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Louisiana State University    University of Texas, Austin
University of Maine, Orono    University of Utah
University of Maryland,
College Park                  University of Vermont
University of Massachusetts,
Amherst                       University of Virginia
University of Michigan,
Ann Arbor                     University of Washington, Seattle
University of Minnesota,
Twin Cities                   University of West Virginia
University of Mississippi     University of Wisconsin, Madison
University of Missouri,
Columbia                      University of Wyoming

Figure 2 Current Diversity Efforts in Place

Diversity efforts                                 %

presidential task force/committee on diversity   57%
diversity mission statement                      71%
presidential statement on diversity              57%
Chief Diversity Officer on campus                86%
diversity included in strategic plan             71%
diversity assessment                             71%
programming                                      43%
student input                                    86%
faculty recruitment/retention                   100%
student recruitment/retention                    86%
external partnerships                            43%
Other (please specify)                            0%

Figure 3 Identified Areas for Increased Diversity Efforts

Diversity efforts        %

faculty recruitment     80%
faculty retention       60%
student retention       60%
outreach                60%
administration          60%
programming             40%
student recruitment     40%
Other (please specify)  20%
personnel               20%
resources                0%
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Title Annotation:FEATURE ARTICLE
Author:Wilson, Jeffery L.
Publication:Planning for Higher Education
Date:Jul 1, 2016
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