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Women Are Greatly Outnumbered On The Boards Of All Louisiana's Public University Systems

Phoebe Jones
Louisiana State University campus in Baton Rouge. March 6, 2021.

By JC Canicosa, Louisiana Illuminator

Gov. John Bel Edwards said last week that he wishes he had appointed more women to the LSU Board of Supervisors and that the need for more women had become more apparent in recent weeks as LSU continues to get heat for not taking seriously reports of sexual harassment, sexual assault and domestic violence involving its students and its student-athletes. Only two of the 16 members of LSU’s board are women. However, an executive of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB) said LSU isn’t alone, but that Louisiana’s higher education boards in general — are “lagging in gender diversity.”

Three women serve on the board for the Southern University System, a board that has 16 members total. On the Louisiana Community & Technical College System’s 17-member Board of Supervisors, there are four women. The University of Louisiana System’s 16-member Board of Supervisors has five women. On each of those boards, the representation of women falls short of the national average 32 percent.

Merrill Schwartz, senior vice president of content strategy and development at the AGB, said it’s up for every institution to decide what is an adequate amount of representation, but “two out of 16 sounds like it’s low.”

“Every board has to set its own goals,” Schwartz said in a phone interview with the Illuminator. “More than 50 percent of students currently are women at most public institutions, so you might set a goal of 50 percent.”

Schwartz said the percentage of women on boards across the country has hovered around 30 percent since 1997.

In response to a reporter’s questions, Shauna Sanford, communications director for Gov. John Bel Edwards’ office, said in a statement that “the boards are now more diverse both racially and when it comes to gender than during the prior administration.”

“However, as (the governor) has expressed, there are not enough women currently serving,” she said in the statement. “And he understands the need for more gender diversity in light of recent events and will be aware of that going forward.”

The law firm Husch Blackwell released a 150-page report that concluded that LSU hadn’t made enough of an effort to combat sexual misconduct and violence on its campus in Baton Rouge, hadn’t sufficiently staffed the Title IX office, which handles campus cases of sexual misconduct and violence, and had no clear policies in place about when employees are required to report sexual violence and sexual misconduct. The law firm’s report followed a series of stories by USA Today which focused on several cases involving the athletics department or fraternity brothers in which LSU mishandled sexual misconduct on campus.

State Rep. Mandie Landry, (D-New Orleans) a member of the newly created House Select Committee on Women and Children, said in a phone interview Monday that sexual assault, rape and sexual harrassment “haven’t been given the attention they need for generations.”

“When you have people in charge — who are older white men in particular — who may not be as aware of modern jurisprudence and whatnot related to sexual assault and harassment,” she said, “you’re definitely going to see them not thinking that’s as important.”

Landry said it’s important for higher education boards to have members with a diverse share of lived experiences so they can make sure students are having safer and better experiences on college campuses.

“It’s a very different experience being a woman, especially a smaller woman in terms of physical safety,” Landry said. “It’s just something that they don’t think about as much as the average woman does.”

State Sen. Beth Mizell, (R-Franklinton) a member of the Select Committee on Women and Children, expressed similar sentiments about the need for more women in decision making positions, saying “we’re not representing the whole set of humanity if we don’t have women in a fair way represented.”

“I absolutely believe that when there are more women in the decision-making role in leadership, they’re going to make decisions more sensitive to women’s issues,” she said in a phone interview.

Landry also said a lack of women leadership “is a problem throughout the state.” Landry and Mizell serve in a Louisiana Legislature where women account for only 18 percent of lawmakers. Women and girls make up 51 percent of the state’s population.

“Those of us who want more women on these boards, it’s not just like ‘go pick any women,’ it’s also important to have people with higher education and teaching experience,” Landry said.

Landry said she believes current and future governors will have to do broader searches to construct more diverse higher education boards. The pool of applicants for board positions is usually donors or other people who express interest, she said, but “if you’re going to have a really diverse, experienced board, you might need to go search for people.”

It’s “going to take some time” for board members to be appointed with diversity as a priority, she said, “but it’s definitely possible.”

This story was originally published by the Louisiana Illuminator.