Boards of trustees govern colleges and universities. Governing boards are typically composed of an odd number of members from business, education, government, religion, and other industries. In accordance with regional accrediting agencies, trustees hire, fire, and evaluate the president or CEO, assure fiscal viability, and periodically examine the institution’s mission (SACSCOC Standard 2.1).
Good boards focus on governance, leaving campus operations to the president, provost, cabinet, and other unit heads. Campus leaders manage organizational structure, cast a dynamic vision crafted by the hands of many, and set institutional priorities, or key performance indicators (KPIs). KPIs guide workflow, strategic planning, and resource allocation. KPIs set by campus leaders—often ratified by governing board vote to show alignment and support—enable tracking of incremental progress toward target achievement. Monitoring progress allows for course correction, all while ensuring short-term profitability and long-term business continuity. A sense of belonging has become a major KPI for different campuses across the country. The University of Virginia, William & Mary, Colgate, Kent State, and Amherst College all incorporate belonging into their inclusive excellence framework, strategic plan, or other campus-wide initiatives.
Sense of Belonging
A sense of belonging—defined as “a feeling that members (of a group) matter to each other and to the collective”—is substantially affirmed, reflected, and communicated through institutional policies, programs, and practices that plainly communicate: You belong here. New studies reveal that people want to belong at home, school, and their job. For college students, belonging means feeling important and valued by others on campus. It also shows trust in people and the institution to meet one’s needs.
Workplace belonging is feeling appreciated, connected, and included in a safe and secure work environment where you can be yourself, contribute meaningfully to the organization’s goals, and receive support, appreciation, and constructive feedback from colleagues and management. College instructors and staff thrive in collegial, egalitarian, just, supportive, and inclusive campus environments abounding in opportunities for advancement, meaningful participation, and professional development.
While the evidence is clear and compelling that a sense of belonging matters for faculty, staff, and students, and other studies suggest promising practices (for example, living-learning communities, employee resource groups) for boosting belonging, much of this work depends on campus-based operations of administrative leaders, faculty, staff, and student-peers. Trustees’ ability to govern belonging is rarely discussed. I spoke on this topic at the board of trustees’ meeting at HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College, on March 7, 2023, and at Kentucky’s Council on Postsecondary Education’s statewide conference.
I discussed the importance of a sense of belonging for professors, staff, and students in six PowerPoint slides, with more graphics than text, and provided evidence-based recommendations for trustees to encourage it in their key spheres of influence. My primary points are summarized below.
I call it “governing belonging,” referring to the role that trustees play in creating conditions that foster belonging for the campus community at large, including people living, learning, and working on and off campus, in-person or remotely. Studies have shown that feeling important—that one matters—makes people feel like they belong. The four components of mattering—attention, reliance, importance, and ego-expansion—are positively correlated with belonging ratings.
Appointing presidents, CEOs, and senior leadership helps boards create a sense of belonging. Board members must ensure that the institution employs leaders who prioritize unity and diversity, fully support a spirit of inclusiveness, and have a track record of working with others to build an atmosphere that values and supports all persons. This should shape the job description, leadership profile, interview questions, and selection criteria.
An effective board of trustees connects with the college or university community, understands its needs, and collaborates with the administration to design policies and activities that foster belonging. Trustees can encourage the design and implementation of diversity, equity, and inclusion policies and measures that enhance constituents’ well-being and belonging. To meet community needs, these policies should be evaluated and revised periodically. Engaged trustees may ask:
- Are academics and staff paid fairly? How will you close the biggest gaps?
- How is turnover managed?
- What are the top five reasons faculty/staff/students have left the school in the past 12-18 months? How is this information used?
- Do faculty/staff/students feel like they belong?
I have lectured and written that belonging costs. This obviously affects institutional finances and financing priorities. The CEO, executive team, and CFO usually set campus budgets. Trustees play a crucial role in approving institutional budgets. Caution: Avoid viewing student/staff support services, community-building efforts, time-honored traditions (for example, convocation), faculty/professional development, or accessibility modifications as frivolous, nonessential, “add-ons,” or ancillary to the institution’s purpose, vision, and KPIs. They are mission-critical and boost our bottom-line outcomes, ranging from profits to persistence.
When institutional leaders “show up” for their people—faculty, staff, and students—they, in turn, will show up for you, which improves class attendance, reduces sick leave, boosts productivity, and deepens dedication. Just remember, belonging is a feeling and feelings cannot be forced. They take time, resources, and deliberate actions. These cannot remain unfunded mandates to “do more with less,” but rather strategic investments in a constellation of programs, policies, and practices that promote, energize, and foster a sense of belonging. Thus, I urge trustees to prioritize beings over buildings, people before profits, understanding that taking care of people takes care of the rest. Ask these questions while approving budgets:
- How does this budget reflect our institution? Does it match our KPIs?
- Does it emphasize faculty, staff, and students? How much?
- Does it mistakenly suggest that some groups (or areas/units) are more significant or valued?
- How does it honor employees?
Several factors govern belonging. Clear, transparent, and inclusive decision-making structures help faculty, staff, and students feel safe, secure, and appreciated as core members of the campus community. True membership should allow full participation in the institution’s life, including governance. Trustees can develop or improve opportunities to listen, learn, and lead diverse people. For instance, cutting-edge belonging boards have voting members who represent student, professor, and staff voices. Boards may also hold frequent town hall meetings, virtual summits, or online feedback loops (for example, pulse polls, surveys) where campus leaders and students can share their thoughts with trustees.
Board composition affects belonging. Hence, board chairs and executive committees should create or amend rules and procedures for appointing and retaining trustees whose personal and professional values match the institution’s. This demands trustee accountability or course correction when discontinuities occur. Board diversity increases organizational belonging and profitability. Chairs, CEOs, and board members should create on-ramps to board service for women, persons of color, LGBTQIA+, and disabled leaders. Women-, minority-, and LBGTQIA-owned businesses, HBCUs, and tribal colleges produce diverse and highly competent potential board members. Questions include:
- Who sits on the board? Who does not?
- Who wants in but can’t gain access? What are their barriers?
- How are we intentionally taking steps to invite others to the table to join us, just as they are?
In conclusion, the board of trustees helps faculty, staff, and students feel more connected. By prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion; appointing diverse and inclusive leadership; and creating policies and opportunities that bring people together, boards can help build stronger, more inclusive university communities that benefit all students, staff, and faculty—signaling and showing in direct, tangible ways that they matter and belong.
Terrell Strayhorn, PhD, is visiting scholar and director of the Center for the Study of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) at Virginia Union University, as well as diversity scholar-in-residence at HACC.
1 Strayhorn, T. L. (2019). College students’ sense of belonging: A key to educational success for all students (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.
2 Strayhorn, T. L. (2021, December 13). Exploring Ethnic Minority First-Year College Students’ Well-Being and Sense of Belonging: A Qualitative Investigation of a Brief Intervention. American Journal of Qualitative Research, 6(1), 42–58. https://doi.org/10.29333/ajqr/11422
3 Dueñas, M., & Gloria, A. M. (2020, January 19). ¡Pertenecemos y tenemos importancia aquí! Exploring Sense of Belonging and Mattering for First-Generation and Continuing-Generation Latinx Undergraduates. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 42(1), 95–116. https://doi.org/10.1177/0739986319899734
Opinions expressed in AGB blogs are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the institutions that employ them or of AGB.