How Diverse Are Governing Boards? How Diverse Should They Be?

By Merrill P. Schwartz    //    Volume 18,  Number 6   //    November/December 2010

Choosing who will serve on a governing board and taking account of the current members and future needs of an institution present countless challenges. Today, although more than half of college students are women and the U.S population includes ever-increasing numbers of racial and ethnic minorities, the majority of board members are white men. Many people wonder how diverse the boards of American colleges and universities should be and how to bring about change, where needed.

Current members of governing boards of independent colleges and universities typically choose new members, and these are commonly referred to as “self-perpetuating” boards. Exceptions might include positions reserved for representatives who are appointed or elected—typically students, faculty, and members of sponsoring religious organizations. Members of public governing boards generally have limited influence on the selection of new members. The governor commonly chooses new members, sometimes with assistance from an advisory committee and often with confirmation by the state senate. Community-college boards might be appointed by local governments, and still other board members at two- and four-year institutions are popularly elected. Other exceptions to gubernatorial appointments include positions reserved for those who serve ex-officio, like the secretary of agriculture.

Female Board Members and Chairs

According to the 2010 Study of Board Composition, Policies, and Practices conducted by AGB, with the generous support of the TIAACREF Institute, women constitute less than one-third of governing board members—and the gender balance hasn’t changed much in the last decade. The percentage of women serving on public governing boards declined slightly in the last two surveys, and is currently 28.4 percent. Women make up 30.2 percent of the members of independent governing boards, up from 28.4 percent in 2004. The survey also found that more than four-fifths of board chairs are men; only 19 percent of independent board chairs and 17.4 percent of public board chairs are women.

Racial and Ethnic Diversity

When it comes to race and ethnicity, members of public governing boards are more diverse than those who serve on independent boards, with nearly twice as many minority members and chairs. Members of ethnic and racial minority groups account for 23.1 percent of members and 17.1 percent of chairs of public governing boards and 12.5 percent of members and 7 percent of chairs of independent college and university boards. Racial and ethnic diversity has continued to increase among board members in both sectors for the last four decades, although the rate of change has slowed in recent years, as it has for women.

Do the Gender, Race, and Ethnicity of Board Members Matter?

Research has found that the contributions of members of underrepresented groups change when there is a critical mass—a number sufficient to get beyond tokenism. A study by researchers at Wellesley Center for Women suggested that the magic number was three for a board of 10 members, or about 30 percent.

Boards may benefit from diversity in a variety of ways: the breadth of perspectives included in deliberations, enhanced credibility with interest groups, and greater success attracting minorities and women for top administrative positions. Studies have found a positive correlation between the number of female board members and women in top administrative positions in corporations, and between female board members and women who serve as presidents, provosts, and faculty members at colleges and universities.

The board is the public face of an institution. Certainly, what matters most is whether the board understands and fulfills the institution’s mission and the needs of the students, faculty members, administrators, and communities it serves. In making this assessment, boards and appointing authorities might consider the value of diversity and how much the board reflects those whose future it holds in trust.

The results of AGB’s studies of the policies, practices, and composition of governing boards are available by calling 202.776.0848 or online at In addition to information about board composition, the reports cover terms, term limits, frequency and length of meetings, attendance, board committees, and a variety of other practices.

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