AuthorRall, Raquel M.


American colleges and universities care deeply--or at least claim to care--about the diversity of their student bodies. When the U.S. Supreme Court last fall agreed to hear cases on affirmative action at Harvard and the University of North Carolina, many higher education institutions and trade associations signed amicus briefs in support of race-conscious admissions policies, and then disagreed vigorously when the justices invalidated those practices in a 6-3 decision in June.

But does concern about diversity extend to the boards of trustees that govern colleges and universities? Do governing boards, whether for a single institution, multiple campuses, or an entire state system, practice what they preach? It's an important question, because boards of trustees (sometimes called regents or visitors) appoint the school's president and together with that leader shape institutional strategy, budgetary priorities, and organizational values. These decisions affect students on multiple fronts, from admissions policies to academic programs, tuition and fees, and campus climate.

It stands to reason that the more the demography of a board mirrors the demography of the student body, the more likely it is that the college will solicit and appreciate the perspectives of all its students and endeavor to create equitable opportunities and outcomes for them.

Surprisingly, however, data on the diversity of college boards of trustees is not publicly posted or otherwise readily available. As a first step to determine the race and gender of trustees, we examined the websites and public records of a representative sample of 100 institutions drawn from the top, middle, and bottom of the Washington Monthly's 2022 college rankings. We then compared these numbers with the gender and racial composition of each school's undergraduate student enrollment as collected annually by the U.S. Department of Education database and publicly available through the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). As a final step, we ranked the schools based on the degree to which the demographics of the boards and the students were aligned.

To be considered well aligned (19 institutions), the match between the demographics of the board and the students had to be within 10 percent of one another on both gender and race; somewhat aligned boards (58 institutions) had a match between 50 and 90 percent; and poorly aligned boards (23 institutions) had a match of less than 50 percent.

(You can view the rankings beginning on the opposite page.)

Here's what the numbers reveal:

Politics matters. Perhaps the most noteworthy, but predictable, finding is that colleges in reliably Democratic (blue) states have boards that are more demographically aligned with their student bodies than colleges in reliably Republican (red) states. Of the 19 well-aligned institutions, 14 are in blue states and five are in purple states--Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin, which fluctuate between Republican and Democratic electoral victories. By contrast, 12 of the 23 poorly aligned schools are in red states, four in purple states, and seven in blue states.

It is not hard to guess why this might be the case, at least for public institutions. At almost all public four-year colleges and universities, governors appoint the trustees. Unsurprisingly, governors tend to choose trustees who share their views and support their policies and priorities, which, in turn, represent the views of the voters who elected them. In general, Democrats have a more racially diverse, more liberal constituency, and, therefore, governors in blue states are more apt to appoint women and people of color to college and university boards. In contrast, Republicans depend heavily on conservative white voters, a political reality reflected in fewer diverse appointments.

One might not expect to see such differences at private institutions, where electoral politics does not play a role in trustee selection. At most private colleges and universities, trustees are selected and approved by the incumbent board, with the rest elected or nominated by alumni or appointed by denominational authorities. Yet our data shows that there was not great variation in board alignment between private and public institutions. Nine private and 10 public institutions were well aligned; 19 public and 39 private schools were somewhat aligned; and 8 public and 15 private institutions were poorly aligned. The geographic pattern among public and private colleges was very similar: College and university boards in blue states are more aligned with their student bodies than boards in red states. The bottom line is that the degree of alignment at both public and private colleges generally reflects the state's political leanings. As Tip O'Neill, former speaker of the house, famously observed, "All politics is local."

Quality matters. Sixteen of the 19 well-aligned institutions have a six-year graduation rate above the national average of 62 percent. By comparison, nine of the 23 poorly aligned institutions have graduation rates below the national average. Moreover, of the 19 well-aligned schools, 17 are highly ranked (in the top 50) by the Washington Monthly. By contrast, none of the schools sampled from the Washington Monthly's lowest ranks has a well-aligned board, although a few highly ranked institutions (e.g., Brigham Young University and the University of Florida) have poorly aligned boards.

Many factors influence quality, such as selectivity in admissions, available resources, and faculty competence. The role boards play cannot be easily untangled, but the overall patterns on these two indices of quality suggest, at the very least, that well-aligned boards, more often than poorly aligned boards, are associated with institutions that have favorable outcomes and ratings.

Gender, race, and power matter. Among the 100 sampled institutions, there is greater disparity on gender than race between board composition and undergraduate enrollment. Only 20 schools are well...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT