College governing board demographics haven’t changed much, report shows

Dive Brief:

  • Members of college governing bodies at both public and private institutions remain majority White and male, despite some small shifts in board demographics over the last five years, a new report found
  • The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges surveys colleges every five years to gauge the composition of college boards and related foundation boards, as well as other leadership and financial trends. It cautioned that the pandemic likely affected this year’s results, which were gathered in 2020 and early 2021, resulting in low response rates.
  • AGB reported an overwhelming majority of private colleges and half of public colleges said they were trying to diversify their boards.

Dive Insight:

AGB has surveyed colleges on board composition since 1969, but the latest iteration of the report comes as as the U.S. undergoes a racial reckoning. 

The association’s report notes that a lack of board diversity and equity mirrors similar gaps in higher education broadly, as other research has estimated that racial parity for college presidents won’t be achieved for many years.

The 2020 survey found about 30% and 17% of public and private college board members, respectively, said they belonged to racial or ethnic minority groups. This is up by about 6 percentage points and 4 percentage points respectively, from 2015, but AGB said the poor response rate may have influenced this result. 

About 15% of public institutions and 32% of the private colleges AGB attempted to survey submitted responses. 

The poll also showed that about 37% of public college board members were women, with private colleges trailing by 1 percentage point. This is up by more than 4 percentage points for both institution types from five years ago.

Board chairs were overwhelmingly men in public and private colleges. Nearly 70% of public board chairs were White, down from about 76% in 2015. Private board chairs were 88% White, down from about 93% in 2015. 

The trends were as AGB predicted, said Lesley McBain, its director of research. Progress in these areas are often sluggish, which is why the survey is administered every five years. 

“I would have been surprised if we had radical change,” McBain said. “Change is slow.”

Many colleges said they intended to diversify their boards, but fewer public institutions reported they would do so. That’s likely because many appointments to public colleges’ governing boards are gubernatorial, meaning the boards themselves have little control over their composition. But public colleges tend to emphasize diversity more generally because they are in the public eye, McBain said. 

Only 28% of public colleges and 31% of private colleges reported they had a solidified diversity, equity and inclusion plan. Most of these plans applied to an entire campus or system, not just a governing board. 

About 31% of public institutions and 38% of private colleges said a diversity plan was “under discussion.” What this would mean was not clearly defined and not in the scope of the survey, McBain said.

Only a small fraction of boards had a standing or ad hoc diversity committee. 

Colleges were asked to pick demographic categories in which they would like to diversify. The most frequently selected was race and ethnicity, and the second most common was professional background.

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