In my previous post I talked about the challenges that universities face in striving to be truly inclusive for LBGTQ+ staff and students. In this article, I discuss ways in which governing bodies can support their university’s LGBTQ+ community.
In most cases, student representation within governing bodies is reduced to the President of the Students’ Union. Occasionally other student representatives are invited to board meetings to present on specific issues or initiatives, but diversity and inclusion specifically does not tend to be a standing item on the agenda.
However, this seems to be changing, with an increasing number of universities implementing a variation of an equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) committee – either at governing board level and/or at exec level feeding into the governing board.
What should your board EDI committee’s aim be?
The aim of a board EDI committee is usually to support and develop the long-term governance of the university’s EDI strategy and to hold the VC and the rest of the exec team to account in regards to the strategy. Exec EDI committees tend to have ownership over the drive and implementation of the EDI strategy, including inclusive policies, processes and activities that drive diversity and inclusion at the whole university forward.
Not every university has an EDI committee at both, board and exec level and not every university has a senior leader who is responsible for equality, diversity and inclusion, but there is a growing trend of more and more HE institutions appointing a senior leader at Dean, Chief, or Pro Vice-Chancellor level to lead on the development and delivery of a holistic strategy. Implementing a senior leader and committee at either board or exec level which is responsible for EDI at the whole university is an important first step for governing bodies.
Where to start?
There are often pockets of great activities and initiatives, as every university will have staff members and students who are the ‘keen beans’ that proactively drive diversity and inclusion. This may be because of a specific aspect of their identity such as LGBT students/staff starting a network to improve the provisions for the LGBT community. This could also be allies, supporters for another community, who recognise the need for more inclusive processes or policies.
Governing bodies need to start by supporting the exec team to conduct a full review of everything that is already in place, provisions which are missing and establish a vision of where the university should be in a few years. Otherwise, small but impactful changes fall through the cracks, students and staff may end up being disappointed or even worse – they could leave or experience harassment and discrimination.
Tighten up policies and processes, and zoom out to the whole EDI spectrum
Time and time again we hear about incidents of discrimination or harassment and after some investigation into policies and processes, it turns out the institution’s policies and processes were not yet as watertight as they should be in regard to protecting LGBT students and staff. And if this is linked with little to no general education of LGBT inclusion and issues across the institution, the impact of these incidents can be far worse for individuals or groups.
This challenge touches on another issue when it comes to implementing authentic and impactful EDI strategies and initiatives at universities as there are many other facets of diversity and inclusion which need to be taken into account such as race, belief, disability/ability, socioeconomic status, and more. While EDI in the HE sector has a long journey ahead, there are positive changes to structures, strategies, policies, and activities happening all across the country.
Governing bodies should not shy away from approaching EDI at their institutions boldly, proactively, getting external support, and ask themselves the right questions to start with or to check in once in a while to ensure they are on the right track: Does the governing body know what activities are happening on their campuses? Do they actively seek to engage with the staff and student body to hear about their lived experiences within their institutions? Do the individual governors strive to continue their own education when it comes to diversity and inclusion?
Involve the Students’ Union
As a former Students’ Union President who was respected and whose insights and opinions were valued by the governing body, I advocate for governing bodies to work closely with the exec team and the Students’ Union to ensure EDI is being driven collectively. More and more Students’ Unions have a version of an EDI full-time officer so there are a lot of opportunities to expand the engagement between governing body, staff, and student representatives by ensuring these officers represent the student body and needs on any EDI committees while the President can continue to hold the governor position on the overall board.
Attending welcome fairs, important key events across the year, and asking the Students’ Union to share any newsletters, etc. is a great way for governors to directly engage with the student body – and the university staff. In addition, governing bodies could more actively reach out to other governing bodies of universities which may be similar in some respects. They may already be a bit further on their journey of diversity and inclusion and sharing best practice is always a fantastic way of learning about new ideas and ways to engage the whole institution in EDI.
Hopefully we will see dedicated EDI positions for governors in the future, more overall board diversity (also in age) and a real interest from governing bodies to actively connect with the students and staff of their institution.
Meike Imberg is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin, the home of experts in higher education