Invisible Injustice: Higher Education Boards and Issues of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusivity

Invisible Injustice: Higher Education Boards and Issues of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusivity

Raquel M. Rall, Demetri L. Morgan, Felecia Commodore
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-5724-1.ch016
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Given the juxtaposition of student demographic shifts in public higher education with the near stagnancy of postsecondary leadership demographics, this chapter illuminates and critiques scholarship at the intersection of equity and academic governance, specifically focused on boards of higher education. Implications, grounded in a comprehensive literature review, frame a new conceptually focused research agenda concerned with (1) challenging homogeneity and hegemony that slow institutional change efforts, (2) pushing for a board representative of and accountable to the public, and (3) extending the research, knowledge, and conversation centered on higher education boards in general and diversity of boards in particular. The chapter per the authors first highlights the prominence of higher education governing boards then shifts to a critique of how governance has traditionally been researched. Afterward, the authors discuss why a concentrated look at issues of diversity and equity within the governance context is of paramount importance.
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Since their inception, governing boards have played an important role in the life, culture, and sustainability of higher education institutions. Boards not only appoint and work alongside chancellors and presidents to make vital leadership decisions, but also play a major fiduciary role in institutions of higher education (Association of Governing Boards [AGB], 2015). Some of the integral responsibilities of boards include asserting the overarching purposes of higher education, acting as a buffer between postsecondary institutions and the government, policy formation, strategic planning, and making central recommendations (Davies, 2011; Heron, 1969; Lane, 2013; McLendon, 2003).The decisions made by governing boards affect all facets of an institution—affecting everything from institutional operations to student life—yet knowledge and discussion of this entity in higher education is limited. While there is a finite knowledge of the roles of governing boards in general, it is even more alarming that little is known about the board’s influence on the policies, practices, and procedures that affect the experiences of diverse students on college campuses, particularly in the public sector.

Higher education governing boards were fashioned under the premise that a board composed of individuals without direct institutional investment would govern in the best interest of the public (Berdahl, 1971; Kerr, 1993). These boards physically represent and reflect the goals, values, and mission of an institution (Chait, Holland, & Taylor, 1996). Thus, traditional assumptions about board practices might suggest that nestled within the board member selection process, there exists a desire that board members of these institutions are representative of the “public” of which their institutions serve. Yet, although the “public” has changed considerably since the inception of the current governance model, governing boards have not followed suit. At the same time, public higher education institutions have also experienced iterations of changes regarding the demographics of the students they serve and the faculty and administrators that make up their campus communities. Again, public governing boards have not demonstrated an analogous adjustment. While “the challenges facing higher education today are greater than those it has faced in the past, and substantially different,” the guardians who,

are charged with protecting institutional autonomy, educational quality, and academic freedom, with guaranteeing the perpetuity of the institutions they hold in trust, and with ensuring that higher education serves the public good

remain noticeably unchanged (AGB, 2011, p. 1).

Contrary to AGB’s recommendation that governors recruit and appoint board members who possess the “…ethnic diversity required to oversee today’s increasingly complex and diverse higher education institutions and systems” governing boards remain 74.3% white at the same time when the U.S. and postsecondary population looks much different (AGB, 2013, p.2). At present, the U.S. population is approximately 66% white, 15.4% Latino, 12.2% Black, 4.4% Asian/Pacific Islander, and .8% American Indian, and college enrollees among this representation are 44.2%, 32.1%, 25.8%, 57.6%, and 21.9% white, Black, Latino, Asian/PI, and American Indian respectively, (AGB, 2013; Aud, Fox, & KewalRamani, 2010). Additionally, white men predominantly chair and comprise boards of higher education (AGB, 2010a). In essence, this means that those in the position to make institutional, and in some cases, system level decisions that can have far-reaching effects on the operation and life of any institution, are mostly not representative of the persons whom will experience the greatest impact of these decisions. To go a step further, if boards of public institutions are to represent the values and mission of an institution, the question is what values boards devoid of racial and ethnic diversity1 represent? Furthermore, how does the overrepresentation of white male members impact the policies, practices, and culture found in higher education institutions?

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