Trustees Can Improve Diversity Stewardship in Higher Education

By Marc A. Nivet and Anne C. Berlin

Originally posted June 5, 2014

Often the discourse on the role of boards in diversity leadership begins and ends with board composition. This is still an important cause, as it brings broad perspective and signals inclusiveness from the top down, among other net positives. But, a board’s diversity charge should go beyond composition.

Diversity is increasingly embraced as a strategic imperative and driver of institutional excellence, and as a means for competitive differentiation in a crowded market, especially when it comes to attracting top students, faculty and staff.

Forward-thinking institutions are applying the principles of effectiveness and continuous improvement to diversity investments, setting goals, tracking outcomes and measuring success in much broader terms than compositional diversity alone. To help institutions attain these lofty ideals, boards need to apply the same critical eye to diversity as to other issues of strategic importance.

At present, board level engagement is too often limited to oversight on the handling of a major legal or reputational dispute, or outside of times of crisis, to rubber stamping staff updates related to ongoing initiatives. Diversity stewardship recasts the role of board members and trustees as more intentional and participatory.

Trustees may not feel properly equipped to navigate issues of diversity, but individuals within the governance structure can hold institutions accountable and stimulate constructive discussion by asking just a few key questions. This list is not comprehensive but should begin to illustrate how to put diversity stewardship in action.

Are our diversity initiatives and investments tethered to clearly articulated institutional goals?

Whether the goal is to increase campus diversity, raise high school graduation rates in the surrounding community, gin up interest in science and medicine among underrepresented minority undergraduate students, or cultivate a pipeline of women and minority faculty leaders, board members should be empowered to inquire into the overarching strategy of diversity interventions.

What resources have been applied and what has been the return on investment?

Another key line of questioning relates to the commitment of financial and human resources to diversity efforts in relation to their returns. Are diversity goals supported with adequate staffing and other resources? Are the funding streams for essential programs sustainable? Returns need not be financial in nature but also can be dividends of social and community benefit, or institutional trust and reputation.

Are we applying metrics for success beyond compositional diversity?

A focus on campus composition can perpetuate the notion that campus diversity is the institution’s end goal. More salient questions for evaluating the success of diversity initiatives include:

  • How many employees across different subpopulations and identity groups rate their managers as treating them fairly and inclusively?
  • Is faculty engagement, satisfaction, and productivity consistent across all subpopulations and identity groups?
  • Does the institution have mechanisms for cultivating a climate of fairness that combats favoritism and tokenism?
  • Is the institution’s educational approach working equally for students across all subpopulations and identity groups?
  • Is the institution graduating students with the skill sets needed to succeed in a pluralistic society?
  • Do potential new senior-executive hires demonstrate a capacity and aptitude for diversity and inclusion? In addition to questions about prior experience, qualifications, and vision, boards can make it a priority to identify senior leaders with training on unconscious bias and diversity.

anne_berlinMaMarcNivetColorrc Nivet is chief diversity officer at the Association of American Medical Colleges. He can be reached at Anne C. Berlin is a senior outreach specialist at the AAMC; she can be reached at