Welcome to Race on Campus. In recent months we’ve seen how much college governing boards can influence an institution’s policies or hiring decisions. But what about a college’s diversity, equity, and inclusion plans? New research shows that if boards are plugged in, they can bolster their college’s DEI work. The challenge is getting and sustaining that attention.

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Boards as Electrical Sockets

College governing boards have dominated headlines this year. This summer, Nikole Hannah-Jones’s tenure saga with the University of North Carolina’s Board of Trustees made national news. In March, Louisiana State University’s former president, F. King Alexander, alleged that its Board of Supervisors had micromanaged athletics decisions, including personnel decisions.

In 2018, long before those battles played out publicly, three scholars began to research how governing boards affected diversity, equity, and inclusion work at their institutions. The scholars’ work, published last month in the journal Research in Higher Education, analyzed four years of data from 22 public and private college boards.

The scholars found that governing boards act as “electrical sockets” when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion work: When board members devote attention to DEI work, or “plug in,” they provide power and valuable connections to those who want to carry out diversity plans. But boards can also disconnect from this work, leading to sporadic, rather than sustained, action.

When the scholars began their research, there were two dominating hypotheses about how boards do DEI work, said Demetri L. Morgan, an assistant professor and chair of the higher-education program at Loyola University Chicago, and one of the researchers. On one side, governing boards were mostly hands-off in creating policy only rubber-stamping presented plans. Inversely, some boards were too involved in day-to-day institutional management.

Morgan and his co-authors — Lucy A. LePeau, an associate professor of higher education and student affairs and program coordinator at Indiana University at Bloomington, and Felecia Commodore, an assistant professor in educational foundations and leadership at Old Dominion University — initially sought to interview and observe board members, but many didn’t want to speak on the record, Morgan said. So the group studied meeting minutes, student reporting in campus newspapers, and other available data and records.

They found that many board actions were episodic, Morgan said. At some institutions, board meetings would regularly cover enrollment, budgets, and construction or capital planning. But DEI work was sporadic.

However, during President Trump’s administration, social-justice and equity issues began to come up during board meetings, Morgan said.

For example, a push for sanctuary campuses — places where college officials would vow not to assist efforts by federal immigration authorities to deport undocumented people on campus — were among the first of the social-justice issues that boards dealt with after Trump took office, Morgan said. Many boards issued or approved statements that showed solidarity with their undocumented students, faculty, and staff. But two years later, there was little to no board follow-up on plans to better support undocumented people, Morgan said.

Some college presidents were criticized last summer for issuing similar solidarity statements about racial-justice protests while not providing plans to improve racial diversity on their campuses. Turns out, some college boards have pulled that move for years, Morgan said.

Researchers also found that the people with whom board members interact members of the president’s cabinet, student activists, or other stakeholders are important. In recent years, many colleges have hired chief diversity officers to work under the president, but CDOs had inconsistent face time with board members, Morgan found.

“If the president and your enrollment-management officer and your chief financial officer have face time with the board every single meeting which all of the institutions we looked at, they did why doesn’t the chief diversity officer, if they’re a cabinet-level person?” Morgan said.

Forging Better Partnerships

To illustrate how boards succeed or fail at carrying out DEI work, the scholars developed a matrix. The tool is meant to help boards see their own participation in such work and identify an appropriate involvement level, Morgan said. In the matrix, the y-axis shows how the board enacts and sustains DEI policies and plans, and the x-axis shows how quickly or when a board acts on a plan or policy change.

“Our hope is that it drives dialogue and conversation that we need to be better partners, just like in any relationship,” Morgan said.

Before this study, there was research on the racial makeup and diversity of board members but not much on governing boards’ DEI work. Among other things, the researchers wanted to create a paper trail documenting how college governing boards are involved in DEI work, Morgan said.

There’s still plenty to be done. Morgan has questions about the training provided to board members, accountability measures, and the boards’ interactions with constituents. He and his co-authors are still trying to get into those closed-door meetings.

Are You Worried About Teaching Race?

Are you concerned that your teaching may come under increased scrutiny this fall because of “divisive concepts” bills and debates? Beth McMurtrie is continuing to follow the issue, and your story will inform her reporting. Write to Beth at beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com

Read Up

  • Many American grocery stores still have an ethnic aisle. How do stores decide which products to stock there and which to spread among other aisles? (The New York Times)
  • The number of Native students enrolled in college for the first time fell by nearly a quarter in the fall of 2020, according to figures from the National Student Clearinghouse. Experts worry that if those students don’t get on track after the pandemic drop, there may be long-term consequences for Native communities. (The Hechinger Report)
  • Newly released U.S. Census data show how the racial makeups of cities have changed. Take a look at your city or neighborhood here. (The Washington Post)