Alison Griffin didn’t know she would be part of a team making Colorado history, and national waves, when she agreed to serve on the board of trustees at Colorado Mesa University.
The Lafayette mother and education advocate has been on numerous of boards in her two decades dedicated to reforming challenges in the field of learning. She came to her latest board appointment in 2019 with a resume that includes stints as a policy advisor to the Chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce. She also worked as an advisor to the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
As one of hundreds of volunteer overseers of institutions of higher learning across Colorado, Griffin was expecting to use her knowledge on the CMU board to help guide the Grand Junction-based university through the trying times of a pandemic and the transition to a new university president.
A gender milestone wasn’t part of the deal.
“I didn’t even realize that was happening until after the leaders of the executive committee were selected,” Griffin said.
Her cohorts on the 13-person board (nine of them men) chose her to chair the board’s executive committee. The 11 members with voting privileges chose the three other females on the trustee board to fill the other executive committee seats. Amy Lentz, a design consulting firm owner from Grand Junction became the vice-chair. Former Fruita Mayor and current Fruita town council member Lori Buck was chosen as the treasurer. And Polish-born community and business leader in Denver, Kasia Iwaniczko MacLeod became the secretary.
That meant for the first time in CMU’s 97-year history, women were running the trustee show. It became Colorado’s first institution-of-higher-learning executive board to be all female. The all-female executive committee of the board of trustees is also a rarity in the nation.
“It is highly unusual. I can’t think of any other except maybe at women’s colleges,” said Vicki Kramer with the Women’s Nonprofit Leadership Initiative, an organization that has been working nationally to promote more women on institutional boards.
“A prime example of where women are leading is Colorado Mesa University – for the first time in history has an all-women executive committee on the governor-appointed board,” wrote Kate Siegel Shimko, the director of boards and commissions for Gov. Jared Polis.
Polis can take some of the credit for moving CMU out in front of a national higher-education effort to create more boards that are majority minority, be it gender, race, sexual identity, or rural vs. urban roots.
He chose the four women board members in 2019 and 2020 from a slate of candidates submitted by the university.
Having women rise to the top on that kind of board may be a first, but Colorado is a state where women have nearly achieved equality on state boards. Women make up 49.7% of state boards compared to 23% in Colorado’s corporate board rooms. Polis has filled 87% of his senior staff positions with women, Siegel Shimko confirmed.
Universities don’t have shareholders demanding diversity in leadership
There haven’t been many recent looks at women on boards of colleges and universities. A study conducted by Cornell University’s Higher Education Research Institute tracked women on university-level boards from the early 1980s to 2007 and found that females on trustee boards steadily increased in that time.
Females were still enough of a rarity as chairs of boards of higher-education institutions that their first-time inclusion on some boards merited press releases. Johns Hopkins was one university that touted a female board chair in 2007.
“Women face substantial barriers to gaining board seats and to succeeding once elected,” the study found.
The study noted that corporate boards have been under pressure from shareholders to diversify, but nonprofit universities don’t have shareholders to push for that kind of change.
Daniel Ramos, one of the men, who sits on the CMU board of trustees, said when it came time to select the executive committee this year there was no concerted effort to pick all women. The women, he said, “just naturally floated to the top” on a board that is diverse in many ways.
“Truly, the culture at CMU is a culture of firsts,” Ramos said.
Ramos, an adjunct professor at the University of Denver and an LGBTQ activist, is the first openly gay Latino to serve on the board. Iwaniczko MacLeod is a graduate of CMU and was the first female student body president.
New CMU president John Marshall is the first CMU president to have graduated from the university.
Last year, 47% of the students at CMU were the first in their families to attend college. Trustee Ron Davis is one of those first-generation college students.
Diverse backgrounds on the board of trustees includes Alex Sanchez, the son of Mexican immigrants and an immigration activist; attorney David Foster, who is active in the Denver Jewish community; Charles Dukes, an African American who graduated from CMU; and Aaron Reed, a CMU student of color who is the student trustee on the board.
Marshall said he views CMU’s all-female leadership of that board as “a remarkable and fortuitous alignment,” that is already making a difference in the campus culture.
“The women on the board are asking wide-ranging questions and are asking us to think about things differently,” Marshall said. “They are going to push you and make you think about things you didn’t think about before.”
The Cornell study found that female trustees tend to pay more attention to campus-life issues, including health and safety. Griffin said she is not sure that is true on the CMU board.
She said one of the most important jobs she and the other newer board members have faced came last spring when former president Tim Foster announced his retirement after 17 years leading CMU. When a committee from the board was tasked with finding a replacement, three women on the board were chosen to be part of a search committee that also included faculty, students, staff and community leaders.
At the same time, the board had to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. CMU took a decidedly different approach than many institutions of higher learning around the state by not requiring masks or vaccinations. Instead, classes were conducted in-person while the university took extra measures such as sewage testing and creating pods of students to lessen contacts on the campus of around 11,000 students. That was recently changed with a mask requirement on campus for the first-two weeks of the semester given the high rates of coronavirus in Mesa County and the fact that students are returning from across the country.
“I do think all the trustees are equally concerned about health and well-being,” Griffin said. “We know that college is not just about what you learn in the classroom. It is also about what goes on on the campus. We are putting things like mental health and food insecurity at the top of the list.”
Griffin said in 20 years of working in higher education she has seen a shift in student-development theories that go along with having more women in positions of power.
“Increasing care and compassion for individuals didn’t exist a decade or so ago,” she said.
She also said she would describe the working style of the CMU executive committee as business-like “nose in, hands out” as they tackle issues related to academic programs, budget, real estate and development, and student and faculty retention.
But can change at the top resolve cultural challenges?
Professor Sarah Swedburg said she is glad to see a landmark all-female executive committee, but she is not optimistic it is going to make a difference. Swedburg has been teaching history at CMU for 22 years, but plans to resign in the spring. She has been an outspoken critic of the way CMU has chosen to deal with the pandemic.
Swedburg said that in the 1970s there was a belief that getting more women into positions of power would change things. “But they just became people in power.”
“I wish I had more faith that women would have experiences that would lead them to take the role of the others,” she said, “but once people get into an institutional role, they seem really uninterested in addressing institutional racism, sexism and homophobia.”
Marshall doesn’t see it that way. He said he and other administrators are just now working to figure out how to fully leverage the talent of the groundbreaking board.
He said so far the female-led board is forcing him to look “at areas where we are not hitting the mark.”
Marshall said he believes the board will be able to help with recruitment and retention. Ironically, one of the recruitment missions is to attract more male students. Currently, 46% of the student body is male. Marshall said he would like to have a 50-50 ratio. He would also like to stop the drain of the 10% of male students who don’t finish college due to outside pressures. About two-thirds of the student body comes from rural and low-income backgrounds, which can be a factor in that dropout rate.
Marshall said he is confident the new and unique problem-solving skills and different perspectives of the four female trustees and the nine other board members can take on those challenges.
Griffin said she believes the diversity of the entire board makes her optimistic about tackling the problems in a way that could make waves beyond the Grand Junction campus, even if that attention comes via the unusual coalescing of women at the top.
“All-female committees could become the norm,” she said.