Educational Governing Boards and Structural Racism

by Dr. Marci Rockey / Jun 4, 2020

Whenever I am preparing to work with a community college, I look at its board of trustees. As a former student life professional in community colleges, I advised student government and worked closely with student trustees. While I wasn’t required to regularly attend board meetings or travel with board members, I became very familiar with the experiences of the students who did. Working with community college student leaders is where I learned the most about power, white privilege, and the problems associated with “not seeing color.” As a result, my understanding of microaggressions experienced by racially minoritized students evolved.

Discrepancies between educational governing boards and their students illustrate systems rooted in white supremacy being protested today. Outside of Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs), the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges & Gallup (2020) found that only 17% of board members are people of color at public institutions. At private institutions, the number is even lower at 11% (Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges & Gallup, 2020).

Furthermore, only 39% of trustee respondents from public institutions identified increasing racial diversity at the board level as very important (Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges & Gallup, 2020). One case in point is the state of South Carolina’s public university system that came under scrutiny for having board members that were 84.5% white (Street, 2019). At the University of South Carolina, the state’s flagship institution, the board was 94% white (Street, 2019).

We might expect something different in community colleges that serve far more racially diverse populations representing 57% of Native American students, 52% of Hispanic students, 42% of Black students, and 39% of Asian/Pacific Islander students in undergraduate education (American Association of Community Colleges, 2020). However, from my experience, what I have observed far too often is the only racially diverse person on boards of trustees is the student member. Consistent with the context of their four-year counterparts, the composition of a community college board of trustees alongside its district demographic data reveals a lot about power and privilege. Let’s compare the demographics of the largest three racial groups among trustees and community college students enrolled in credit programs.



Trustees (Association of Community College Trustees, 2018)

Students in Credit Programs (American Association of Community Colleges, 2020)







Black or African American



And what about America’s public school districts? A study of four states including California, Illinois, Ohio, and Oklahoma finds that despite increased racial diversity in schools, school board election decisions are made by white voters (Barnum, 2020). The research also identified that districts facing the most inequitable outcomes tended to be in places where those participating in the elections least represented the students in the schools (Barnum, 2020). Across the educational pipeline, this points to the embedded systemic and structural racism that guarantees educational, financial, social, and political capital remain rooted in whiteness.

It’s time for true talk

So how can members of governing boards and institutional leaders disrupt a racially imbalanced system? By examining whiteness and talking about race. There is a discrepancy between who decision makers are and who students are; why K-12 teachers and postsecondary instructors don’t look like the students—representation matters.

  • Let’s talk about trustees that show up to meetings in MAGA (Make American Great Again) attire.
  • Let’s talk about the over scrutinization of Black female student trustees.
  • Let’s talk about the resistance to compensating community college student leaders to provide equitable access to leadership opportunities.
  • Let’s talk about students having advisory votes only.
  • Let’s talk about the role of higher education in addressing racial income inequality instead of perpetuating it.
  • Let’s talk about the white savior complex inherent in too many stories that credit institutions for a student of color’s success when the broader data show racial inequities abound.
  • Let’s talk about why I get accolades from majority white audiences on their campuses for talking about race when my Black colleagues get a “how dare they suggest we have issues with race.”
  • Let’s talk about “multicultural” and “diversity” committees that can be overwhelmingly comprised of white women and often further marginalize people of color.
  • Let’s talk about courses that center the experiences and histories of racially minoritized populations being kept on the books but never actually taught; or if offered, are elective and not required.
  • Let’s talk about Native American mascots and imagery at institutions that do little to nothing to understand the histories of indigenous populations in the physical spaces they now occupy.
  • Let’s talk about statements following the death of George Floyd and too many others before him that assure values of diversity, equity, and inclusion but lack any commitment to change.
  • Let’s talk about how institutions are patting themselves on the back for graduating students of color but not examining the fact that they do so primarily in low-wage occupations.
  • Let’s talk about how diversity and equity initiatives don’t just belong in student services but are absolutely relevant to every academic program and campus department.
  • Let’s talk about the coded language that we use in education.
  • Let’s talk about why we don’t talk about these things … true talk.


American Association of Community Colleges (2020). Fast facts.

Association of Community College Trustees (2018, October). Citizen trustee survey: Selected results and analysis. Washington, DC.

Association of Governing Boards of Universities & Colleges and Gallup, Inc. (2020). The AGB 2020 trustee index: Concern deepens for the future of higher education.

Barnum, M. (2020, January 29). As public schools grow more diverse, school board elections are largely determined by white voters. Chalkbeat.

Street, L. (2019, July 19). Whites, males comprise big majority of state university governing boards. Statehouse Report.