Activism on Campus: The Board’s Role

By AGB July 1, 2020 May 11th, 2021 Blog Post

In an interview with Lynnette M. Heard, Janet B. Reid, the founder and CEO of BRBS World, a leading diversity and inclusion consortium, shares how best to encourage boards to proactively listen and respond to a new generation of activist students.

Heard:  Why have some equity and inclusion strategies (e.g., affirmative action, special programs, bringing on a chief diversity officer) been difficult to sustain?  It feels like the overall climate in our nation is at a tipping point. Many college campuses known for playing a significant role in advancing antiracism platforms, equity, equality, and justice and inclusion programs and strategies likely will face a vocal student body when classes resume in the fall. We know some campus social justice efforts are highly effective while others have dissipated.

Reid: Many of these types of programs have been stand-alone and not a way of “being” nor a way of life.  In most cases, they are detached from the heart and mission of the institution, and some are without funding or focus. Institutions must understand that such programs are not long-lasting for today’s and tomorrow’s generations of students.  Many of these students are involved in the recent protests or are vocal in the midst of this revolution as a result of their experiences. Stand-alone programs will not satisfy their interests because these students quite simply are multicultural. This is just who they are; multiculturalism is their norm. They are activists who want their voices heard and will not back away from challenges until institutions respond with action and not simply declarations.  It’s not just about being heard but what is done.

Diversity and inclusion statements, declarations, and programs simply aren’t enough. One of the ways to keep voices alive and to ensure campuses are changing is by asking students, “On our campus, what does justice, diversity, and equity look like through your lens?” Listen to their voices, and therein will come the answer. Finally, have the courage to act upon the wisdom they bring.

Heard: What policies and practices should board and campus leaders enact now to proactively and positively prepare for engaging with students, faculty, and the communities they serve?

Reid: I believe practices inform policies. These practices include deep dialogue on systemic racism and policing, which are at the core of protesters’ demands. Campus leaders should look beyond the demands and move towards action. It will be important to engage differently with students and genuinely listen to what they are asking of their institutions. Those of us who are baby boomers or Gen Xers will need to listen with a different ear. Out of this will flow new policies.

Heard:  What are the most important tangible steps campus leadership and boards can take that will be sustainable, enduring, and consequential to achieve a “just community?” In 1990, the distinguished scholar and noted higher education leader Ernest Boyer ignited the theoretical framework and successfully tested concepts surrounding college campuses as “just communities” where “the sacredness of each person is honored and where diversity is aggressively pursued.

Reid: Boards should assess their composition. Ask questions such as, “Who sits on this board and does the board reflect the institution’s composition of the student body now and for the projected future?”  Assess the composition beyond representation by understanding that you can’t lead where you haven’t been.  Boards, to a larger extent, need a deeper understanding of issues of equity, race, and systemic racism as a part of the essential knowledge found in the board education process for all members.

Examine faculty composition, which traditionally has not been as diverse as the student body. Continue recruitment efforts but also examine tenure for faculty of color and the challenges they face. Issues will arise and boards should learn about their concerns so faculty can be treated more equitably. Tenure can be a difficult matter, but it is essential for boards to grasp and assist the leadership in addressing it to achieve equity.

Along with faculty, look at the composition of the senior administration. It is rare to find provosts, chief financial officers, and institutional advancement executives of color who are in leadership roles. Boards should understand the institutions’ efforts to address this gap.

Finally, the next area involves college and university Institutes for teaching and learning, which have become great assets for campuses to help understand the differences in ways students learn today. Adding to their learning experiences must be the inclusion of teaching cross-cultural understanding. Cross-cultural learning needs to be added to the curriculum because just as important as critical thinking is having the knowledge of how to live, interact, work, and create with people who are very different from yourselves. Institutions of higher education are expected to teach students to be smart and effective as global citizens.

Final thoughts

From a very high level, this is a new day.  Current policies and practices need to be re-examined, removed, and changed. Offer relevant experiences to this new generation of students who will demand alignment with their values. If campuses don’t deliver on fairness, justice, respect, and equity, the views of students may cause them to choose other institutions that pivot to meet their needs.  Finally, engage in deep dialogue to explore new ideas. Teach and learn that real dialogue involves a set of learned skills that welcome new ideas.

Learn more about AGB Consulting and Board Assessments.

For more information, please visit our Diversity & Inclusion section in the Knowledge Center.

Janet B. Reid, PhD, is the founder and CEO of BRBS World, LLC, -a private, global management consulting consortium specialized in diversity and inclusion and based in Cincinnati.  She is a former board member of The Ohio State University Board of Trustees and remains an active trustee at Xavier University.   Lynnette M. Heard is a senior consultant for AGB Consulting,


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