How Diverse Is Your Board?
This article originally appeared Inside Higher Education and is reprinted with permission.
In December, we were able to publish a four-episode late-fall season for our podcast “View From Venus.” We had some phenomenal women as guests: Jacqueline Rodriguez, vice president at the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education; Shana MacDonald, faculty member at the University of Waterloo; Becky Petitt, vice chancellor at UC San Diego; and Felecia Commodore, faculty member at Old Dominion University.
We have hosted conversations with college presidents, faculty members, staff members, artists, politicians, activists and entrepreneurs—all amazing women doing great work. One goal of the podcast is to lift up, amplify and celebrate this great work and share it with a larger audience. It is also about building connections and introducing the world to these women and the differences they are making in the world.
Our final episode of 2021 was published on Dec. 23, so you might have missed it. I want to draw your attention to it because it features Felecia Commodore, and she is a dynamo! Felecia’s work focuses on leadership at historically Black colleges and universities and on university boards. I first met Felecia when we served on a webinar panel at the American Council on Education, and then I came across her work again during several presentations at the annual Association for the Study of Higher Education conference in 2020. Some of my recent work focuses on the lack of gender and racial equity in higher ed leadership—both at the executive level and on our boards—so I kept choosing to attend panels where Felecia was presenting!
Too often our boards remain hidden, and there are many situations where a predominately white, male board has hired a woman, a person of color, a woman of color as president of their college or university without doing the necessary work to really support that president. In our conversation with Felecia, we asked her about the equity, diversity and inclusion work that our boards need to be doing. As students demand diversity in their faculty members and boards put pressure on provosts and presidents to diversify the faculty, are the board members doing their own equity and diversity audits? Are they turning the EDI lens on themselves? Can our boards stand up to the same scrutiny with which we assess our faculty and students?
This seems to be particularly compelling as our student bodies become more female and more racially diverse. I just started reading Nathan Grawe’s The Agile College, and it is clear that many of our institutions are going to need to figure out how to better attract, retain and successfully support a more racially diverse student body if we want to keep our doors open. It seems likely that an institution with a more racially diverse board has a better chance of supporting the success of a racially diverse student body and faculty, and I would argue that a BIPOC president probably has a better path to successful leadership with a racially diverse board. If everyone on your campus is engaged in required diversity training but your board members, you have a real disconnect. The conversation with Felecia got into further detail, and I recommend you give it a listen here.
She also gave us a road map on how alumni can build a path to becoming board members at their own alma maters. For some of us, that might be impossible given requirements for public institutions. I am honored to be on the board of the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology here in Boston, and BFIT has a majority BIPOC board. The institution is diverse, and the board chair is a BIPOC man. The president is a BIPOC woman. The students are majority male and majority BIPOC. It is a special place, and I am thrilled to be part of it. I highly recommend following Felecia’s recommendations for your own alma mater or another local institution whose mission resonates with your values.
Mary Churchill is the current associate dean for strategic initiatives and community engagement at Wheelock College of Education and Human Development at Boston University. She is co-author of When Colleges Close: Leading in a Time of Crisis and an ICF certified leadership coach.