An Essential Partner in Our Diversity Work: Trustees

Last year’s The Head’s Letter was peppered with some inspiring and meaningful thoughts about diversity that capture well the feelings of many readers. Dennis Bisgaard, Kim Roberts, and others called our attention not only to the importance of difference in our field, but particularly the enduring racial and gender disparity in the ranks of headship. The prevalence and power of their messages underscore the urgency of this matter within our schools—not only for women and people of color, but for everyone. The call to develop diverse talent to enlarge the pipeline toward headship is a just and righteous one that must be heard.

Yet it is only the beginning of the work. Another important factor is our trustee interactions. How can we, from our head’s role, encourage our boards to think and act about diversity? It will make a difference if we do.

We want a profession that demonstrates that we’ve considered the entire talent pool in building future leaders. We want to take part in conversations that include every perspective and that challenge us to think and see things differently—to own our own histories while respecting and growing from the differing backgrounds of others. To that end, we can recruit and train and prepare a diverse population to be school senior administrators—yet we all know that until the search committees who actually hire the heads are of a similar mind, our well-intended work could well be in vain.

In our executive capacity, we have no appropriate role in selecting our successor. Yet the moral imperative for all heads that stems from the call of Bisgaard (THL, March 2015) and Roberts (THL, April 2015) is that our responsibility includes doing all we can to change the landscape our hopeful peers encounter. We must find ways to transform the ‘glass obstacle course’ into the mere sprint that we ‘traditional leaders’ (read: ‘white men’) have enjoyed for so long.

Some of us have boards that are progressive and enlightened in thinking about difference in leaderly ways. Some boards are obstinately traditional, bound to the structures and social institutions that reinforce traditional social norms. In the middle are boards comprised of well-intentioned trustees without egregious prejudices who may not have taken the opportunity to examine their own intrinsic biases or recognize their subconscious participation in cultural myths and stereotypes. None can bring anything but their own perspective to bear for the betterment of the institution (a diversity in itself that must be appreciated). All are expected to participate in conversations about school climate.

The thought context will vary depending on where a school lies on the spectrum, but in almost every case, opportunities for conversation can be found. We can:

  • educate our boards on the current discourse about diversity, equity, and justice occurring in the independent school profession—and its strategic importance in building 21st century schools
  • encourage our trustees to understand the importance of taking a sincere and broad perspective
  • work with our trustee governance committees to develop a sense of the ‘value of human difference’ over ‘tokenism’ and to consider the improvement of board diversity as a desired recruitment criterion
  • promote policies that help broaden the school’s viewpoint
  • engage them in developing an institutional diversity statement and regularly articulate how it is enacted and lived through the mission and in school culture and life.

In these ways, we develop and strengthen our own partnership by talking about inclusivity as a means toward a climate of real inclusion, not just philosophical inclusion. In so doing, we will make the schools we lead better, safer places for our students— and simultaneously help practice board members in hearing and thinking about equity in an independent school context. Although their choice of our successor is none of our business, such cognitive preparation may be a future service to our oft marginalized colleagues.

The privilege from which ‘traditional leaders’ have benefited our whole lives should force us to see the inequity our hopeful peers face as our problem, as a profession, not the special interest of marginalized groups among us. Until there is equity in hiring practices, we are all part of the problem—so we should likewise be part of the solution.

It feels sometimes like there is precious little we can do against the tide of historical mores to shape the atmosphere in which future heads will hunt for leadership positions. Our greatest impact could be in subtly ‘managing up’ by making diversity a conversation within the school’s governance structure.

Providence Country Day School, Coed, Day, enrolls 215 students in grades 6-12. Mr. Watchorn was appointed in 2011.

Originally published October 2015 in The Head’s Letter. Published by Educational Directions Incorporated

%d bloggers like this: