Leadership & Governance

Diversity Remains Fleeting on Colleges' Governing Boards, Surveys Find

November 29, 2010

College trustees remain overwhelmingly white, male, and over 50, according to the results of two surveys released today by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

The two surveys, which yielded responses from 195 public and 507 private institutions, also looked at a wide range of board policies and practices, such as meeting frequency, and members' term length and annual giving rates. Reports on the surveys are available for purchase on the association's Web site.

Women and minorities gained little ground in the six years since the association's last survey. Whites account for 74.3 percent of the trustee spots at public institutions and 87.5 percent at private institutions, compared with 77.7 percent and 88.1 percent, respectively, in 2004.

Minorities made the largest strides between 1969, when they were largely nonexistent on boards, and about 1985. Since then, growth has slowed.

The arrival of female trustees has also tapered off in recent years. Men outnumber women more than two to one on boards of both private and public colleges. The percentage of female trustees at private colleges (30.2 percent) is double what it was in 1977, but the rate of increase has slowed in recent years. At public institutions, the share of women serving on governing boards now (28.4 percent) is less than it was in 1997 (30 percent).

Trustees are getting older, as baby boomers continue to dominate boards. At private colleges, 83.1 percent of trustees were over 50, up from 79.8 percent in 2004. Meanwhile, the percentage of trustees who were 30 to 49 declined from 30.1 percent in 1977 to 16 percent. At public colleges, that age group's share decreased from 37.2 percent in 1985 to 14.3 percent.

The older age of board members and their lack of diversity may be related, said Merrill P. Schwartz, the association's director of research and author of the reports. Minorities and women were much less likely to attend college during most trustees' prime college-going years, when many institutions were just beginning to admit them.

"Our boards look more like folks who graduated college 30 years ago," Ms. Schwartz said.

But that is no excuse, she said, as trustees are typically "exceptional people" and boards should be able to find women and minorities who buck the norms of college participation.

About half of all trustees have backgrounds in business, and that share has been increasing. Among private institutions, the percentage of board members who hail from education and professional occupations, such as lawyers and doctors, held steady. However, those in the "other" category, which includes government officials, homemakers, clergy members, nonprofit executives, and more, dropped to 11.3 percent from 22.7 percent in 1997.

Boards are more interested in business acumen and experience than diversity, said Rita Bornstein, president emerita of Rollins College and an expert on the presidency, because of the increasing demands of board membership.

"It's ironic that now that students are becoming increasingly diverse, boards are less so," Ms. Bornstein said in an e-mail message. "We need to educate a pipeline of minorities and women to prepare them for board work."

Among the two surveys' many findings about board practices, perhaps the biggest shift was the rise of audit committees. Among public institutions, 55 percent of boards had separate audit committees, compared with 23 percent in 2004. That change, which also occurred among private institutions, was most likely influenced by tougher accounting standards in the corporate sphere.

Ms. Schwartz called audit committees a "best practice" and the survey findings a "step in the right direction."

The reports used data to create profiles of the average board in each sector. Snippets from those profiles follow:

Public Institutions

The average board has 12 voting members, including nine men and three women.

Nine members are white, two are black, and one is another race.

One trustee is under 30 years old, two are 30 to 49, eight are 50 to 69, and one is over 70.

Half are alumni, two are retired, and six have worked primarily in business.

The board meets seven times a year, and the business portion of each meeting lasts about 4.5 hours.

Private Institutions

The average board has 29 voting members, composed of 20 men and nine women.

Twenty-five board members are white, two are black, one is Hispanic, and one is another race.

Five board members are 30 to 40 years old, 20 are 50 to 69, four are over 70, and none are under 30.

Half are alumni, five are retired, and 15 have worked primarily in business.

The board meets three or four times a year, and the business portion of each meeting lasts about five hours.