How governing boards at colleges help—and hinder—DEI efforts

While governing boards across colleges can help improve efforts in diversity, equity and inclusion, these many boards’ current efforts are scattershot, according to researchers.

Demetri Morgan, an Assistant Professor in the School of Education at Loyola University Chicago and an alumnus of the Higher Education and Student Affairs program, said he was intrigued by Associate Professor Lucy LePeau’s research on presidential councils of diversity and their role in advancing DEI work.

“I though Dr. LePeau’s work on organizational cultures and spanning the student affairs and academic affairs divide was instructive to getting at the processes of changing institutions,” Morgan said. “At a conference we discussed casually if board members were on these presidential councils of diversity, and Dr. LePeau shared that they were sometimes but not consistently. So we wondered how boards would partner with other stakeholders to advance DEI work, and that led us to setting up the study.”

We hope to use this tool as a way to provide boards with clear examples about how they operate and where they might alter their approaches.

Lucy LePeau

LePeau and Morgan, along with Felecia Commodore, Assistant Professor at Old Dominion University, spent over two years analyzing 22 boards across colleges and universities and noted the states of boards was pretty scattershot and driven largely by individual board member’s interests and commitment without many systematic approaches.

"We noted a few episodic examples of boards engaging meaningfully in advancing DEI work. For instance, Arizona State worked with external stakeholders by writing  a statement that the would continue to support DACA students even if the federal government makes a different decision. They wrote a collective statement that they shared with Arizona legislators in this regard,” LePeau added. “Several governing boards in our study, such as John Hopkins, Davenport University and Cornell University, have worked in the local community to support socially responsible suppliers and products of services in their communities. Davenport made concerned efforts to attend to working with enterprises they categorized as minority-owned, women and veteran-owned.”

To help governing boards improve, the team created a matrix to use as a way to look at boards’ current engagement with DEI and reflect if they are content with their approach or aspire to do something different. The matrix is based on the findings from the study, along with the team’s own thinking about the transformative potential of boards partnering with internal and external stakeholders to making lasting and sustained change.

“The typology describes boards as primarily operating as symbolic (i.e., board may unilaterally react in terms of making a statement condemning injustices on or off campus but does not connect with partners or sustain initiatives beyond a single act), ideal (i.e., board members demonstrate equity knowledge, proactively seek ways to address inequities, and leverage resources to meaningfully alter policies and practice on campus), performative (i.e., applauds the work of campus constituents and may do some internal work for professional development related to DEI but no one works with them in the effort), and follower (i.e., tends to endorse DEI initiatives already happening on campus),” LePeau said. “We hope to use this tool as a way to provide boards with clear examples about how they operate and where they might alter their approaches.”

As the team wrote in their conclusion about the research: “As college and university stakeholders begin to understand the value and benefit of DEI work, the necessity for all stakeholders’ full participation becomes imperative. Likewise, the current college and university climate related to class, race, gender, sexuality and other oppressed identities continues to ratchet up expectations of institutions and institutional leaders to engage in substantive and sustained action in the area of DEI. The power and positioning of Boards make them prime to be instrumental partners in said work. The disruption of normative board fiduciary roles is needed because their work is not serving students with minoritized identities well.”