A Question For Eileen B. Wilson-Oyelaran, PhD

Why is justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion critical for boards?

By Elena Loveland    //    Volume 29,  Number 4   //    July/August 2021

Eileen B. Wilson-Oyelaran, PhD, is a president emerita of Kalamazoo College and serves as senior fellow and senior consultant for AGB. She is the author of the AGB Board of Directors’ Statement on Justice, Equity, and Inclusion and Guidance for Implementation.

Why is justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion (JDE&I) important for boards to advance at their higher education institutions?

The imperative of addressing JDE&I at our institutions is multifaceted and grounded in the public purposes of higher education.

Governing boards are charged with safeguarding the public purposes of private nonprofit and public higher education institutions. Among the most sacred is preparing graduates to participate in the economic, cultural, and civic life of a diverse democracy. Colleges and universities must recruit, retain, and successfully educate a diverse student body to ensure the ability of this nation to successfully compete in a post-pandemic, global economy. Governing boards will need to commit themselves to removing barriers to educational success for all students, particularly those in communities that have long been underserved.

Boards also have both a fiduciary and a moral responsibility to deliver on their promise and mission. The fiduciary duties of care and obedience, require governing boards to ensure that the institution is a welcoming, safe, supportive environment for all; and every member of the academic community has an opportunity for full participation and academic success. Many institutions of higher education have achieved increased levels of racial, ethnic, economic, and gender diversity. Despite this progress, students, faculty, and staff from underrepresented groups continue to experience discrimination, a lack of belonging, and inequitable opportunities for success.

As the faculty, staff, and the college-going population become increasingly diverse, trustees will be expected to ensure that their institutions are developing the polices, practices, and learning experiences that promote equitable participation as well as academic and professional success for all students, faculty, and staff, regardless of background. Institutions that fail to do so will find it difficult to recruit and retain faculty and staff and to meet enrollment goals, resulting in risk to institutional brand, reputation, and financial sustainability.

How can boards use AGB’s JDE&I statement to make progress on the first strategy: “Developing and applying an equity lens in the board’s governance, structures, and processes?”

The statement is designed to serve as a tool for boards no matter where they are on their equity journey. Each section has a series of questions designed to guide assessment, reflection, and action. I would encourage boards to engage the questions related to this strategy as a basis for outlining next steps in a strategic manner.

Each strategy requires intentional focus, a specific plan, and constant assessment. Before a board can develop and apply an equity lens in its governance, structures and organization, individual trustees, and the board as a whole, must commit to learning. Many members of governing and foundation boards bring professional experiences that include diversity and inclusion initiatives at their organizations. While there is some overlap, implementing JDE&I efforts at institutions of higher education is more complex given the multiple constituents, varying developmental levels of students, and issues of academic freedom and freedom of expression, among others. Additionally, foundation and governing board members may have had limited personal experience with marginalization. Boards should ensure that meeting agendas and retreat programs provide opportunities for members to expand their understanding of issues of equity at their particular institution and in society more broadly. With these foundational understandings, the appropriate board committee can work with institutional leadership to determine how to best organize board and foundation work to ensure considerations of equity inform board action and institutional decision-making.

Boards should ensure that they are appropriately constituted and organized to provide the leadership required to promote JDE&I in the board room and at the institution. Self-perpetuating boards should assess their composition to ensure that a broad variety of perspectives and lived experiences are present in the boardroom and are welcomed during discussion and decision making. To the extent possible, board chairs and institutional leaders should communicate with appointing authorities regarding the skill sets needed on the board.

With sufficient knowledge, appropriate organization, and “time on task,” the board can build an equity lens into its own deliberations.

AGB’s Toolkit on JDE&I


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