BU’s New Trustee Committee Accelerates Work to Eliminate Systemic Racism
Goals of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee include holding the University accountable, improving environment for students, faculty, staff
The new Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee formed last fall by Boston University’s Board of Trustees—charged with overseeing BU’s efforts to identify and eliminate systemic racism on campus—has begun meeting, with a pair of veteran trustees, and School of Law alums, spearheading the group’s efforts to improve the University’s culture in diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Two driving forces behind BU’s decision to launch the committee are the painfully disproportionate impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on people of color, and last year’s racial protests that erupted in reaction to the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and others. Diversity was already a core priority in the University’s 2030 Strategic Plan, but the events of 2020 escalated the desire among BU leaders to acknowledge the University’s own role in identifying and eliminating institutional racism and to move swiftly and decisively to enact change.
“We will seek to take a hard look at who we are as an institution and make an attempt to remedy and address these issues that have emerged from this experience,” says former University trustee Andrea Taylor (COM’68), who was named BU’s first senior diversity officer in 2020. “This is a unique moment in the history of our country, based on what we have experienced collectively around the pandemic and the parallel pandemic of racial and social injustice.”
Stephen Zide (LAW’86) and Richard Godfrey (LAW’79) are serving as chair and vice chair, respectively, of the new committee.
“They stepped up and are willing to engage,” Taylor says. “I am confident they will do everything they can to be inclusive and respectful and drive the agenda of the committee in the interest of providing greater opportunities for those who may have been excluded. And making BU a true example of excellence in diversity and inclusion.” (Read a Q&A with Taylor and Zide and Godfrey here.)
The nine-member committee, which meets monthly and reports to the Board of Trustees, is closely aligned with another new initiative, the Antiracism Working Group. The trustee committee will also focus on planning and measuring tangible outcomes that create a BU where all members of the community, including underrepresented groups like LGBTQ+ and persons with disabilities, have a strong sense of belonging—and a supportive environment to study, teach, conduct research, manage, and work. Taylor says she hopes that by this spring the committee will outline and share its specific goals and objectives. “We want to hold the institution accountable,” she says, “and improve the quality of life for students, faculty, and staff.”
Zide, a former managing director and senior executive at Bain Capital, says he sees two “fundamental aspects” to the committee’s creation: an ethical and moral mandate that change needs to happen, and the strategic importance of diversity and inclusion to the institution of BU. “Where we want to be a decade from now, we want to be leading on diversity and inclusion issues,” he says.
Asked what it will look like for BU to be such a leader: “Everyone feels like they belong,” Zide says. “They see folks like them at all levels of the institution. Doesn’t matter if you are part of the staff, administration, faculty, or an undergraduate or graduate student. You feel like you belong. That’s the inclusion. That sense of belonging. Everyone is welcome and feels welcome.”
That kind of change won’t happen with a few months of committee meetings, he notes.
“The ultimate success of this will not be apparent for years, making meaningful systemic change. This is not ‘fix it and go away.’ This is an ongoing effort, but we hope to see important change this year. This committee will be active and engaged long after I am off the Board of Trustees.”
The committee’s work, Zide says, will be about much more than simply improving BU’s diversity numbers to put into reports. “Of course, the numbers do matter,” he says. “But in my view, it isn’t just numbers, such as the percentage of folks in this department.”
Godfrey, a litigation partner in the Chicago office of Kirkland & Ellis LLP, says it is important to him that people who hold positions of leadership are not merely participants in efforts to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion at institutions. They must be at the forefront.
“If people in our position don’t address, identify, and help resolve this problem,” Godfrey says, “it becomes very difficult for those victimized or marginalized to have any opportunity to address it. This is something that is long overdue. It’s not acceptable from where I sit to simply be a follower. If you wait for others to lead, many times they don’t.”
Both men say they did not hesitate when asked to help lead the University’s charge toward becoming a more welcoming, inclusive place. “To expect the people who have been marginalized or victimized to alone be able to address and solve the unfairness is never going to succeed,” Godfrey says. “They didn’t cause the problem. You have to get to the root of the cause.”
The ultimate success of this will not be apparent for years, making meaningful systemic change. This is not ‘fix it and go away.’ This is an ongoing effort.
The decision to ask Zide and Godfrey, who are both white men, to lead the committee, which also has four Black members, was not made lightly, Taylor says: “I understand that people might ask the question, why do we have two white men leading the committee? Part of the issue of diversity, or lack thereof, and inclusion in society in general is that the burden for creating change has most often been placed on the people who have been the victims of discrimination, lack of inclusion, lack of opportunity.”
But in Zide and Godfrey, Taylor says, the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee has two allies, people who are deeply committed to improving BU’s culture.
“These are two men who throughout their careers have shown interest and belief and commitment to this work,” she says. “And we think they are the right leaders at this time.” And there are seven other committee members who represent the diversity of the BU community, she notes.
Zide says that when BU President Robert A. Brown called him about leading the committee, he did wonder how it would be perceived—but he wanted to help. “This burden should not fall on those who have been excluded, mistreated, or oppressed,” he says. “Allyship is important. But in the end, the proof will be in the pudding as to what we accomplish.”
With Zide and Godfrey heading the committee, BU reflects a shift happening in the business world, where recruiting allies from all backgrounds is seen as crucial to making an organization more welcoming. A study last year from the Center for Talent Innovation (now Coqual), titled What Majority Men Really Think About Diversity and Inclusion (And How to Engage Them In It), found that getting white men involved is key for organizations. “White cis straight men hold the majority of power in corporate America and in our society,” Lanaya Irvin, president of Coqual, said in announcing the study, which was based on a survey of nearly 4,000 college-educated professionals. “If we want equitable workplaces, we need them to be involved and engaged in action.”
Brown says the University now has the structure in place to do the hard work ahead, with the leadership of Andrea Taylor and Crystal Williams, BU vice president and associate provost for community and inclusion, with the formation of the Antiracist Working Group, and the new trustee committee.
“Led by Steve Zide and Rick Godfrey, BU has the proper focus on these important objectives and the leadership and oversight necessary to make sustainable change,” Brown says. “We are prepared for the long road we will travel to create a Boston University that belongs to everyone in our community.”
Zide, for his part, is eager to get going.
“There’s tons of energy around these issues,” he says. “That’s not to say there’s unanimity in society or around the country. But if issues like this don’t get you excited about giving back to the University, then you probably shouldn’t be there at all.”
Taylor says that in some ways she views it as a breakthrough that two white males in professional positions of leadership want to lead a committee on diversity and inclusion because they understand the significance not only for their own personal growth, but also for the University’s.
To improve diversity and inclusion, she says, it’s no longer fair to put the responsibility for those issues on the very people who have been excluded over time because of their race.
“It can’t be done by those who are marginalized,” Taylor says. “To make progress going forward, we have to diversify the tent. African Americans have been working on this for 400 years. Since we first got here as a people. Now there is a recognition that what affects any of us in the community affects all of us in the community.”