On Becoming a Trustee: The Socialization of Student Trustees of Public Boards of Higher Education in the United States

International Journal of Student Voice

A peer-reviewed, independent, open-access journal

Pennsylvania State University

Volume 6, Issue 2                         IJSV                           November 2021

On Becoming a Trustee:
The Socialization of Student Trustees of Public Boards of Higher Education in the United States

Raquel M. Rall – University of California, Riverside
Sarah Toutant – University of Southern California


Citation: Rall, R. M., & Toutant, S. (2021). On becoming a trustee: The socialization of student trustees of public boards of higher education in the United States. International Journal of Student Voice, 6(2). 

Abstract: Coupling the sparse attention paid to the socialization of higher education boards in general and student board members in particular, in this study the authors explore how student trustees undergo leadership development. The purpose of this study is to highlight how student board members learn of, access, and use pertinent knowledge and developmental tasks related to their role as board members. The authors qualitatively analyze interviews with student trustees from 21 states to describe the components of student board member socialization. Using interviews with immediate past trustees from across the nation, the authors illustrate important components of the onboarding of student trustees onto boards of higher education. The authors use organizational socialization theory and student development theory to offer novel insight into a topic we know too little about in higher education in the United States. Findings center four central types of socialization central to the preparation of student trustees as pivotal leaders and decision makers in higher education: organizational socialization, personal socialization, professional socialization, and political socialization. Implications for policy and research are provided.

Keywords: Governance, leadership, higher education, decision making


It is erroneous to assume that simply because a trustee sits on a … board of directors, or is a brilliant professional man, or is a staff member of another university, he is (upon election) automatically and immediately prepared to serve as an enlightened trustee. Even if he has served as a trustee in another institution, he may not know enough about his new institution to operate at optimum effectiveness. In virtually every instance, it is incumbent upon the trustee to welcome orientation, education, and training. (Burns, 1966, p. 68)

Trustees have played an ever-increasing role in the governance of higher education in America since the inception of governing boards (Burns, 1966). Despite being entrusted with the ultimate authority to make policy decisions for the nation’s colleges and universities (Association of Governing Boards [AGB], 2010; Birnbaum, 1988, Herron, 1969; Scott, 2018; Tighe, 2003), boards have received minimal focus in studies considering how new board members come into the fold (Ingram & Weary, 2000; McGuinness, 2013). To fulfill their role, board members need to understand the mission, programs, and distinct circumstances of all institutions within their service area (Novak, 2009; Zeig, 2020). It is unclear, however, how trustees come to access, understand, and apply this information because research on the training of public higher education governing boards is limited (Dika & Janosik, 2003). Little is known about how boards are prepared for their ultimate authority to make policy decisions for postsecondary education in the United States (AGB, 2010; Birnbaum, 1988, Herron, 1969).

Creating and sustaining efficacious trustee orientation programs is challenging for most higher education institutions (Ingram, 2003). Despite near-unanimous agreement regarding the import and necessity of board training and orientation (Dika & Janosik, 2003; Houle, 1989), the education of college and university trustees is either nonexistent or inadequate in many cases (Chait et al., 1996; Michael et al., 1997). Further, new trustees face a steep learning curve (Zeig et al., 2017); fewer than 15% of public university board members have professional experience in the education sector (AGB, 2016). Making the governing board a well-informed partner in the academic enterprise has long been a challenge in higher education (Herron, 1969). Boards have been described as an “orchestra of soloists” (Chait, 2006, p. 2), and board members often lack a clear understanding of their purpose, what is expected of them, how to implement their responsibilities, and the time requirements of their service (Nason, 1982). Consequently, trustees need to understand that higher education is unlike other organizations and institutions (Nason, 1982) and “learn about the board’s policies and procedures and about the internal and external factors that influence [the board’s] work” (Houle, 1989, p. 26). How the bulk of this preparation occurs, however, needs to be pursued further.

The training and socialization of one subgroup of trustees are particularly underresearched. Student trustees have received insufficient attention in the literature (H. D. Davis, 2006; Elfreth, 2011; Lozano, 2016; Lozano & Hughes, 2017; Rall & Galan, in press; Rall & Maxey, 2020) and warrant a special focus (Rall & Galan, in press; Rall & Orué, 2020) because “this elite group of students has greater impact on changing the future of their institutions than even the most powerful tenured faculty member” (Kuh & Lund, 1994, p. 14). And while literature discusses student leadership in higher education (e.g., Eich, 2008; Kiersch & Peters, 2017; Skalicky et al., 2020), scholarship on students who serve on the highest decision-making body in higher education is scant. With this article, we intertwine the lack of knowledge on board socialization in general and student trustees in particular. Specifically, we use this study to inform practical knowledge of board socialization—the process of interlacing knowledge and decision making—in two ways. First, we offer an inside look at board preparation as told by trustees themselves. Second, we consider how individual student trustees and board culture interact to inform board socialization of the youngest board members. To elucidate the socialization of student trustees, we first offer an overview of socialization. We then shift to a discussion of the theoretical framework—a fusion of organizational socialization theory and student development theory. Next, we explicate our methodology and lead into the discussion of the findings. We end with implications for research and practice.


Not much is known about the socialization of higher education board members, yet the literature indicates the value of socialization. Socialization is of central importance to the most pressing issues in higher education (Tierney, 1997) and deserves attention in higher education research (Trowler & Knight, 1999). Socialization is the term used in this text to encompass the learning, orientation, training, and preparation of members of the governing board. The socialization process involves learning about the culture, attitudes, and expectations that individuals are expected to know when entering the board (Van Maanen, 1976). Socialization describes the ways in which individuals acquire the knowledge, skills, behaviors, and dispositions to fulfill new roles (Bragg, 1976; Brim, 1966; Van Maanen, 1984; Van Maanen & Schein, 1979). In this case, board socialization is the process through which board members learn the requisites of trusteeship; it is the method by which trustees learn to apply their preparation for their terms on the board to become more or less effective members of the governing board (Rall, 2014; Weidman, 1989). In other words, socialization is the means through which newcomers become insiders (Van Maanen & Schein, 1979). But socialization is not just about what new members learn, but also how they learn the new information (Ashforth et al., 2007). It describes how new members adjust to their roles (Ashforth et al., 2007; Van Maanen & Schein, 1979) and the informal ways group members transmit the social knowledge and tasks members require to maximize group participation (Levine & Moreland, 1994). Through interaction with other individuals, trustees learn about board expectations (Van Maanen, 1976; Van Maanen & Schein, 1979).

The literature highlights at least four types of socialization: organizational socialization, personal socialization, professional socialization, and political socialization. As Tierney (1988) discussed, organizational socialization describes how individuals learn and process the values and goals of their organization. Personal socialization characterizes the joint socialization impacts of students’ identities, backgrounds, and academic and social structure in college (Weidman, 1989). Professional socialization is concerned with how individuals understand and uncover the culture of their profession—in this case—their specific leadership role (Tierney, 1988). Lastly, political socialization defines the process in which individuals conceptualize and possibly internalize how power is distributed and structured within their organization (Glasberg & Shannon, 2010).

Socialization is ongoing; has both informal and formal components (Tierney & Bensimon, 1999); and though has it some anticipatory pieces (Van Maanen, 1976), mainly occurs after the individual joins the group or organization (Vesilind, 2000). Socialization is necessary to address “the disjuncture between new recruits to the academy and the work expected of them” (Trowler & Knight, 1999, p. 179). Within higher education, socialization has been explored in the contexts of faculty (e.g., Tierney & Bensimon, 1996; Vesilind, 2000), staff (e.g., Hornak et al., 2016; Trowler & Knight, 1999), students (e.g., Austin & McDaniels, 2006; Weidman, 2006), and presidents (e.g., Smerek, 2011). At present, it is unclear though, how socialization happens on boards in general and for student members of the board in particular. Therefore, we ask the question: How do student board members learn of, access, and use pertinent knowledge and developmental tasks related to their role as board members?

Board Member Socialization

Despite the theoretical and practical significance of board member socialization, limited research exists in this pivotal area (Cistone, 1977). A few studies explore this phenomenon within K–12 boards (e.g., Cistone, 1977, 1978; Kask, 1990; Kerr, 1964) and higher education (e.g., Birnbaum, 1988; Herron, 1969; Ingram & Weary, 2000; McGuinness, 1999; Tighe, 2003). Virtually no empirical studies exist on the socialization of student members of college and university boards, although the socialization of higher education board members has consequences for both the individual trustee and the board. Negligible attention has been given to the development of the board, and there is marginal evidence of any structured effort to provide “in-service training” or indoctrination of board members to their new posts (Chait et al., 1996; Rauh, 1969). Few boards provide adequate training for members, and even fewer prioritize the development of the collective board and individual board members (Tropman & Harvey, 2009).[1] For instance, in their study of improving board performance, Chait et al. (1996) found that the education of trustees is either nonexistent or inadequate and most board members confessed not knowing what they were doing well into their terms of office. In his study of community college boards of trustees, G. Davis (1997) noted that member orientation was mandatory at only 14% of colleges studied.

Despite the gaps in research on the role of boards in higher education, scholarship demonstrates that trustees need orientation, guidance, and ongoing professional development (Scott, 2018). Proper preparation of new board members for strategic leadership can help trustees become familiar with the governance process and get them ready for immediate participation (Carver, 1997). It may be particularly advantageous for student leaders to be provided with experience and training in higher education governance (Cuyjet & Terrell, 1994) in order to maximize the students’ contributions (Alvarez-Breckenridge, 2010). This acclimation process is complicated because trustees often enter their terms with nominal knowledge of specific institutions or higher education in general and require a great deal of careful educating (Ruml & Morrison, 1959). Regardless of experience, it takes board members anywhere from one to three years to learn the intricacies of trusteeship to be effective in their service (Chait et al., 1991). Yet still, acculturation of board members to the culture and responsibilities of the board is a vital process undertaken by few higher education institutions (Freedman, 2005). This research takes a step to contribute to the general understanding of how board members learn and assume their roles on the board.

Theoretical Framework

We used organizational socialization theory and student development theory to better understand the socialization of student trustees who serve on higher education governing boards. Given these theories’ individual limitations, we believe an amalgamated framework—which combines concepts from organizational socialization theory and student development theory—provides a more comprehensive assessment. A composited framework that uses both theories helped us to thoroughly analyze the socialization that student trustees experienced. While organizational socialization theory was used for its underlying theoretical principles, the vectors of student development theory were used as tools to analyze our findings.

Organizational socialization theory is a concept that illustrates how individuals achieve social knowledge and competencies to be successful in their appointed or elected roles (Van Maanen & Schein, 1979). Van Maanen and Schein (1979) stated that organizational socialization is the “process by which one is taught and learns ‘the ropes’ of a particular organizational role” (p. 211). Further, all organizations maintain their own culture, accompanied by a shared set of norms, behaviors, and processes that sustain the culture (Van Maanen & Schein, 1979). Socialization is a highly contextual process through which individuals learn and uphold an organization’s values and norms whether they move upward, laterally, or downward in their organization’s hierarchy (Bengtson et al., 2013).

In higher education institutions, organizational socialization concerns how individuals become socialized to organizations through more ordinary daily occurrences (Weidman, 1989). Such circumstances take place through the regular day-to-day happenings of normal business (Tierney, 1997). Earlier conceptualizations regarding organizational socialization of students in education discuss dramatic celebratory rituals such as graduations, pledging fraternities, and sororities, and other processes (Tierney, 1997). Such highly visible examples illuminate how individuals evolve between social statuses and how they become integrated or established in their given discipline or institution. Although these examples have assisted researchers’ understanding of socialization, they caused the omission of the “more implicit and processual activities that circumscribe how individuals become socialized to an organization” (Tierney, 1997, p. 3) over time through both formal and informal frequent interactions (de Toni & Nonino, 2010). Thus, organizational socialization allowed us to pay attention to how student trustees learned both formal and informal norms to navigate the various circumstances they faced.

In addition to organizational socialization theory, we also employed student development theory to account for the nuanced experience that student trustees have on boards that their layperson counterparts do not. Student development theories help us better understand how students discover emotions, find independence, feel, and develop their identities (Rodgers, 1990). Student development theories also indicate that students learn both within and outside the classroom setting, are influenced by their social environment, and have unique needs (Chickering & Reisser, 1993). There are two types of student developmental theories—cognitive and psychosocial. Cognitive approaches are more concerned with particular characteristics that students display at given stages of development, while psychosocial theories involve a sequence of development, such as how students think, feel, behave, and relate to themselves and others (Chickering & Reisser, 1993). The psychosocial theories were apropos for the study of the socialization of student trustees.

We used Chickering’s (1969) seven vectors of student development to help make sense of student trustees’ experiences. In Chickering’s model, the seven core vectors or challenges that college students endure are: developing competency, managing emotions, moving through autonomy toward interdependence, developing mature interpersonal relationships, developing identity, developing purpose, and developing integrity. In this sequence, the first four vectors provide a foundation for the fifth vector, leading to the last two vectors (Maekawa Kodama et al., 2002). Student development theory allowed us to contemplate how students navigate the many complexities of being a student and being a student leader surrounded by influential members of the administration. This theory made space for us to conceptualize how student trustees developed as individuals through their interpersonal relationships with board members and established the maturity and confidence to pave the way for their and other student voices. Coupling organizational socialization theory and student development theory, we were able to reconsider how each trustee uniquely developed as a leader through the board’s socialization process.


This study is part of a larger study on students’ overall experience on boards of trustees. Board of trustees is used throughout this text even though in some states boards are referred to as “board of regents,” “board of visitors,” “board of directors,” or “board of governors,” etc. because this is the most popular term used in governance scholarship (Herron, 1969; Martorana, 1963). We used purposive sampling (Creswell, 2007; Merriam, 1998) to determine which individuals to invite to participate in this study. Our intentional and nonrandom selection (Etikan et al., 2016) of participants was based on three primary criteria. First, participants had to be students who served on boards that were part of public institutions of higher education (governance research indicates that student service on private boards of trustees is less common; AGB, 2016). Second, the students’ contact information (email addresses) had to be publicly accessible. Third, the participants had to be either current or immediate past student trustees. This third criterion helped ensure that participants’ reflections on their service were fresh in their minds when the interviews were conducted and, for those trustees who had completed their term, facilitated a level of candor not feasible while they were still serving on the board.

We created a list of student trustees at public universities and colleges across the United States. We first identified those governing boards that include student members or representatives by searching the Public Higher Education Boards Database, a resource formerly maintained by AGB. Once we identified the boards with student members, we manually compiled current student trustees’ names and email addresses by accessing and searching governing board websites, university student directories, and student government resources. Then we contacted the student trustees to determine their willingness to participate. In some instances, the board member recommended we speak with their predecessor and provided either an email introduction or the relevant contact information.

The data reported in the findings section were drawn from one-on-one interviews with 30 student trustees from 21 states. The sample included 16 women and 14 men. There were a total of 25 White participants and five non-White participants. Terms for the student trustees ranged from one year to three years. We used a qualitative data analysis computer program, NVivo, to organize and analyze the data by themes. Further, we intentionally omitted any reference to the names of individuals, institutions, and states to protect the identities of our participants. We went the extra step to not ascribe pseudonyms so that even gender might not be assumed. Such precautions were taken due to the minoritized position of these students on their boards and our commitment to protecting their identities so that they might be more candid and not fear retaliation or differential treatment after sharing their experiences. We subjected the data from the aforementioned larger study to a secondary analysis using organizational socialization theory and student development theory. We evidence the utility of these frames in the findings section.

Data Collection and Analysis

The use of interviews centered on the experiences and stories of individuals is one approach used to examine the socialization process of individuals (Seidman, 2006). Data were collected over four months. Interviews were semi-structured and lasted between 30 and 60 minutes. They were conducted via phone due to the geographic distance between the researchers and the participants (Dimond et al., 2012; Lechuga, 2012). Telephone interviews increase participant candor and disclosure (Lechuga, 2012; Pridemore et al., 2005; Trier-Bieniek, 2012) and are useful (Sturges & Hanrahan, 2004; Sweet, 2002), convenient alternatives to in-person interviews, enhancing access to participants, data, and findings (Johnson, 2013). Codes (Creswell, 2007), then categories (Yin, 2009), were created based on the theoretical framework presented. Accordingly, we focused on the words of the student trustees that centered on developing competency, moving through autonomy toward interdependence, developing interpersonal relationships, developing identity, developing purpose, and developing confidence.

Our study does not include a student trustee from every state, so it is possible that other ideas would emerge if other trustees were interviewed. Further, we spoke to students at the end of their terms on the board, which means that their socialization might not have been as easy to recall as if we interviewed them at the start of their terms. However, our detailed notes, audio recordings, and interview transcriptions (Creswell, 2007) facilitated the reliability of this study.


One of the authors is a governance scholar and has conducted interviews with student trustees across the nation. She entered this space with that lens. Recognizing that “No single individual can comprehend all facets of an assignment as vast and variable as the trusteeship” (Burns, 1966, p. xv), to strengthen our vantage point, we combine both a researcher who has never been a student trustee and a researcher who has been in a similar role as a student trustee. The second author, who served in a similar student trustee position, attended a private university. Although the infrastructure differed from a public institution, her job was essentially the same as a student trustee at a public university. Having first-hand experience cultivating relationships with board members and speaking on behalf of students, she brought a particular apperception to the work.


Study participants described their socialization experiences in myriad ways. For this reason, the authors divided socialization into the following four themes: organizational socialization, personal socialization, professional socialization, and political socialization. The findings emerged as a way to demonstrate how student trustees were socialized into their positions through interactions with established board members and their overall experience navigating this particular organizational structure.

We used Chickering’s (1969) seven vectors of student development model to help make sense of student trustees’ experiences. Further, we used this model as an analytical tool to illustrate the different vectors student trustees faced. Underneath each theme in the findings, we note when students navigated a particular vector such as: Developing Competence, Developing Purpose, Developing Autonomy, Managing Emotions, Establishing Identity, Freeing Interpersonal Relationships, and Establishing Integrity. By applying these vectors, we explicate the developmental environments and tasks through which student trustees often maneuver.

Organizational Socialization

The theme of organizational socialization illustrates how student trustees learned and processed what the board as an organization valued and individual approaches to assuring such values and goals were obtained. Organizational socialization specifically highlights board members’ feelings of preparedness, their experiences with actively participating in board meetings, how they perceived themselves in influencing conversations, and the role of mentorship. For example, participants learned quickly about the board’s operations, and a shared feeling of unsureness was present among them. This insecurity was because they felt illprepared to fulfill their roles. To be clear, students believed they could perform the required tasks of the trusteeship; they just never received the onboarding to go along with the confidence. One participant described entering the student trustee role as “very much a crash course.” Similarly, another participant shared the following.

[The challenge] is kind of trying to figure out what you did and [how to] show [it] … The manual that [we] were given at the beginning of the year … didn’t really have a ton of information in it. It was still a big binder, but there is still a lot to learn. So, kind of figuring, okay, what do I know? What don’t I know? How do I figure out what I don’t know and how do I work [on] that stuff? It is difficult.

Participants explained and even found humor regarding the lack of instruction they received, thus affecting their preparedness when entering their essential roles. When asked how they were prepared for their roles, many participants described how they “learned as they went.” They expressed their desire for formal training and how that might have improved their performance. There was also a shared consensus that they had the power to be transformative and create change, but their lack of preparedness hindered their confidence as new student trustees. Participants also shared that being prepared was expected of them, and the application process served as a precursor to such expectations. For example, one participant shared:

[Y]ou know, it is a pretty rigorous process to run for the position. So, you have to petition and get many signatures and then … write a candidate statement and so on and so forth… I think that they kind of assume that if you’re going to go through the process and they vet you for fulfilling the requirements that they expect that you’re going to be able to have a good idea of what it is that you need to do to become prepared.

Being new to any organization often comes with its own set of challenges. As students, however, they were tasked with balancing the responsibilities of both academic and leadership roles. Additionally, this inadequate preparation was coupled with student board members’ not feeling confident enough to participate in board conversations. They learned quickly that participation was pertinent and encouraged, but they found participating challenging to navigate. One participant stated:

So [in] the July meeting, I was terrified. The September meeting, I still didn’t quite know what was going on, so that November meeting was the first time that I settled into my routine of going through my agenda and asking questions and made sure that I was speaking at the board meetings because that’s where everyone listens.

This participant’s statement illuminates the kinds of experiences managing emotions and developing autonomy many student board members had when attempting to participate.

Students consistently stated that they were intimidated when they realized the importance of speaking on behalf of all students and found it challenging to take their first steps of being vocal in meetings. Nonetheless, students recognized the importance of representing the students’ voice and influencing conversations. Another participant shared:

So, I think I was surprised by how active I had to be part of the conversation and making sure that the student perspective was being presented, and making sure I was doing my duties. You know you can’t influence policy or be in this part of the discussion if you aren’t willing to actually physically use your voice. You can still be effective, but you know, you could never introduce something to the board if you’re not willing to talk. And I think that is something that is also really important because it is terrifying the first like ten times that you talk. You like double and triple check before you say anything… You get more comfortable only when you practice. And so that’s why number one, I keep telling students, you really have to be willing to talk. Be part of the discussion because even though it doesn’t often feel like it, you really do have a piece of that conversation.

Students consistently shared how they might have been scared or intimidated to speak in board meetings. However, they also knew how critical it was for them to represent the student perspective, which helped them develop purpose. Given this task, they made sure to challenge their nervousness or hesitations not only to speak for current students but also to encourage future student trustees to continue the conversation. To further equip themselves with the knowledge to successfully navigate their roles, their mentors were often their predecessors. Another participant conveyed:

In one system, in particular, they have a good mentorship, not formalized or anything, but when the current student [trustee] knows who is in the running, they take them under their wing to make sure they know who is who, etc…They also talk about having the confidence to speak up early, thinking about how short their term is in comparison to other [trustees]. They say they didn’t get comfortable speaking up until almost the end of their term, and they encouraged their successor to speak up early so that their voice is heard.

Most participants felt mentored and encouraged by their predecessors, who provided them with insider information. Although each student trustee was often supplied with a layperson board member to serve as their mentor, they frequently only sought this mentor’s guidance for logistical questions. Student trustees made it clear that board members often vocalized how they were “there for [them],” and students believed this offer to be true—for the most part. That is, some students thought this statement was performative as opposed to coming from a place of genuine concern to assist and mentor incoming student trustees. Overall, participants went through similar difficulties, but they all developed competence, which helped them learn how to be active student trustees.

Personal Socialization

An additional prominent theme was how students’ identities, backgrounds, and academic and social lives affected their socialization processes. Personal socialization is characterized by the joint socialization influences of a student’s identity, background, and educational and social structure in college. Participants often discussed their personal relationships with other board members and student trustees, their age, and their academic studies. For example, many participants discussed how they observed the importance of creating personal relationships with board members. One participant stated, “I knew that to have the place on the board like the first year, I was going to have to really create those relationships and be part of those conversations… I sought out to learn everybody’s face and kind of you know, learn everything about them.” This specific example illustrates how students are motivated to develop mature interpersonal relationships and establish their identities.

Student trustees even learned that the process by which they sought to create such relationships required insider knowledge on how to approach board members. They pursued these relationships by asking board members to have lunch or coffee to get to know them better, but some students hoped that board members would make more effort to create relationships with student trustees. A participant shared, “You have to have time to develop relationships and trust to be comfortable no matter who you are and where you are. You can’t just jump in and go.” Participants understood this idea, and it was evident that they came to learn that some board members would be more inclined to create relationships than others. When asked what an ideal term would look like for student trustees, a student explained:

The ideal situation would be where leaving, the student knows everybody on the board and is able to call upon them, and you know, have a good relationship after being with them on the board. That would be the ideal.

Some participants wanted board members to take more responsibility to ensure student trustees had the space and resources to create meaningful and lasting relationships with board members. Overall, student trustees understood the benefits, importance, and difficulties of creating and sustaining relationships with other board members.

In addition to navigating how to create relationships with board members, participants universally discussed how their age influenced how they engaged in the board space. All participants were keenly aware that the board was made up of adults with decades of life experience, whereas the student trustees were significantly younger. For both undergraduate and graduate students alike, age mattered. For example, students also expressed how they were constantly unsure how to address board members—by their first names or last names. Participants often grappled with discovering what norms they should subscribe to in wanting to reconcile the desire to be deferential based on their age but also casual based on their status as peers. The age dynamic illuminated the inherent imbalance within the power structure on the board. Student board members communicated feeling the pressure that the age gap added to their role; there was an underlying sense of inadequacy based on their age, experience, and accomplishments as compared to their older layperson counterparts. One student trustee shared:

Because I think that when you look at students on these boards … most of them are in their early 20s, and we might have been a big deal and big fishes kind of on our own campuses, when you get to the board level, it can be very pressing because you kind of sit there and go into this big board… It’s very difficult at times because, you know, I’m 20 years old. I’m still in college, and I’m sitting next to people who are in their 50s and 60s who have accomplished a lot. And they are very, very important.

The age of student trustees played a role in how they viewed themselves in comparison to board members.

Some participants shared how they felt the age gap intimidated them or made them feel that their contributions would be taken as rudimentary inputs. The uncertainty regarding how they would be received also affected their desire to participate in board discussions. Some students felt that their suggestions would not be taken seriously because of their age. However, in the end, students did not allow the age gap to deter them from making their voices heard, thus establishing integrity. Instead, they were more aware that age (and limited time) played a role in their organization’s culture by way of how their board functioned. Take for example this student trustee who shared:

What you need to do is make sure that you speak up for students when you need to and have your voice be heard. If that means starting a new thing in the process, then that’s  great. But don’t let that be … don’t let your ambition to start something hinder your ability to be able serve. And that’s what I’ve tried to do.

This student trustee was adamant about preserving the focus on the students and having a voice on the board. The trusteeship was not about advancing individual goals or having one’s name attached to new initiatives, but getting the work done and representing those who were not in the room. Those are the integrity-centered values that prompted the trustee to serve on the board and those are the values that helped the trustee enact that role on the board. It was important to uphold these values.

Becoming a student trustee is a time-consuming, rigorous process given the prestigious nature of the position. The responsibilities include attending monthly board meetings, reading new policies and briefs, preparing suggestions, keeping the student body aware of what is occurring, and more. Student trustees manage the position in conjunction with their academic studies, which proved challenging for the participants in this study. Nonetheless, their experiences aided in establishing identities of integrity and making freeing interpersonal relationships that supported their professional development. Developing integrity means that the student trustees were able to personalize humanizing values and personalize them for their service on the board. Regardless of the challenges that the students faced on the board, establishing integrity meant that they maintained their values and beliefs (Chickering, 1969).

Professional Socialization

The theme of professional socialization concerns how individuals understand and uncover their profession’s culture—in this case, their specific leadership role (Tierney, 1988). In this way, participants often shared that they had to take the time to gain insider knowledge on the ins and outs of being a student trustee. They were consistently aware of how they were perceived if they did not quickly learn how to operate within their new leadership roles. Through conversations, observations, and experiences, student trustees were socialized to adopt the space’s habits and insider knowledge. For example, many participants discussed how they had to find key players on the board to assist them. One participant stated:

I think, depending on the individual, that may be one of the hardest things to do because there is nobody who writes down who the actual players at the table are. At least the ones that actually control decisions and the ones who don’t, whether informally or formally.

This specific example illustrates how students were socialized into initiating professional relationships with board members to get the assistance they needed, which led to developing autonomy and competence. Another participant explained:

Yeah, so my first point of contact is always the trustee secretary because she kind of can point you in the right direction. But, as I become more familiar and people have gotten to know me a little more on the board, I know which vice chancellor to go to with my question.

Many participants echoed this sentiment as they also learned to identify which stakeholders would help them throughout their student trustee journey.

In addition to student trustees identifying board members, another piece of insider knowledge was learning how to bring their ideas to the table. Frequently, participants explained that they had to “really go through the process,” to get an item on the agenda. They learned how to conceptualize an idea, garner support for said idea, and work to get the idea on the agenda. Students embodied the professional socialization they experienced to advocate for students across various universities. They also came to understand how to have their opinions and voices heard. One participant explained intentional collaboration with the other student trustee on the board:

So, we try very hard to make sure that we know what we think before we even go to the board meeting so that we can, you know, have the influence that we are trying to have on the board because if we are split up, then they don’t hear the student voice because we cancel each other out.

All participants were highly aware that they needed to be strategic about how they presented items or ideas to experienced board members. They often explained how they had to use such communicative strategies because many board members had been on the board for an extended period, and “it can be difficult for them to take a pause and actually listen to what the students are saying.” This experience was shared among participants as there was an evident pattern of students’ voices remaining unheard. However, student trustees managed their emotions and developed integrity by making sure they amplified the issues they were passionate about by continuously challenging themselves to speak up, despite being nervous or scared.

Some participants described how they encountered some board members who were very welcoming and wanted to hear their opinions. In comparison, other board members did not do the same. Some student trustees were even embarrassed or berated. For example, a participant shared:

Yes, you’re going to feel like crap at that board meeting when you get chastised or yelled at in front of everybody or made fun of… What I plan to do for the next trustee who comes in is to make the experience a little easier so that they don’t have to go through the things I went through.

Similar accounts were shared by other participants. This type of professional socialization was not something of which student trustees approved, nor did they want to accept it. However, all participants consistently spoke about how they tried to shift the culture and change how board members interact, support, and engage with future student trustees. Their motives were rooted in creating a better environment for future student leaders so that they did not have to experience the same type of socialization they did.

Political Socialization

The theme of political socialization is defined as how individuals conceptualize and possibly internalize how power is distributed and structured within their organization (Glasberg & Shannon, 2010). This theme builds off of our earlier conversation about the age disparity students experienced on boards. Adultism, which “is communicated through actions and words and ensconced in social structures and practices” (Conner et al., 2016, p. 5) can be internalized by student trustees who then feel the weight of subordination throughout their terms. Once adultism is internalized, student trustees may struggle to make or trust their independent decisions, which can initiate a cycle of powerlessness (Adams et al., 1997). Be it based on age or other factors, many of the conceptualization practices in which students participated led them to create relationships with their predecessors. These relationships were critical to understanding the political nature of the board, buttressing any perceived or actual inadequacies, and helping the students establish the foundation on which they would build their trusteeship. For example, since past trustees knew how to navigate the board’s distinctive political structure, they were vital in participants’ learning. One participant shared:

I knew the previous student trustee… And he was able to tell me a little about the procedure of the board and the makeup of the board… So what I heard from the previous trustees … was kind of accurate but also different because they were looking at different issues than they were in previous years.

As this example shows, student trustees found their predecessors’ experiences helpful. They also realized that their experiences would differ based on the nuanced issues the board addressed in a given year. However, some participants did not have “the privilege of meeting [their] predecessor, which is a little bit interesting and challenging.” Nonetheless, this level of critical thinking regarding the board’s political nature helped student trustees develop competency and move through autonomy toward interdependence.

In addition to navigating relationships with predecessors, student trustees also changed their perspectives once they realized the type of political system the board personified. Part of political socialization involves individuals’ internalization of how power is distributed and structured within the board itself. For example, one participant put forth:

And I would say that right around November was the first time that I kind of got the hang of the system and getting information so that I could make decisions without working on it from my own campus bias and just really kind of being, for people in my position where interactions with students outside of the board of trustees meeting is really you disseminat[ing] the information the best way you can. And learning how to do that in a non-biased way was difficult at first. But eventually, I started to get the hang of it.

This example illustrates how many participants “had to change [their] mindset.” Participants explained that they came to understand they were not individual students anymore but rather represented thousands of students throughout their college system or institution.

At times, political socialization was not what students expected. Many learned the political ropes along the way. One participant shared:

You know, a woman from my campus is a student affairs professional, and she, let’s just say that she kept me in a little happy bubble where they care about what students think and share ideas with students… I kind of just thought that everybody thought that. But when I got to the board, I realized that I was not in my happy little student affairs bubble anymore. I was on a board that was very political and had different agendas.

This board member clarifies how student trustees learned on the job, a theme that was prominent throughout the analysis. In political socialization, students managed their emotions and continued to develop integrity. Overall, student trustees experienced political socialization in similar ways and were challenged to think as a part of a system instead of only thinking about their individual interests and motivations.

Discussion and Implications

Because socialization is not sufficiently covered for boards in general and higher education boards in particular, we relied on literature from the nonprofit and K–12 sectors. This literature tended to be limited and antiquated. The literature constraints further highlight the need for research on the socialization of board members of higher education. Like the socialization of K–12 school board members, higher education board socialization is random, informal, and underemphasized (Cistone, 1977). To accentuate the complexity and breadth of board socialization practices, the accounts of different student trustees were featured. Student trustees described the components of their socialization in almost identical manners. Socialization of these novice board members was predicated on access to information, relationships, and engaged time on task. Though the methods of socialization were virtually indistinguishable at the level of the board, what differentiated board members most was how trustees individually employed these preparatory components.

The words of the student trustees were used to convey not only the socialization practices in place on the boards but also, and more importantly, the purposes of these practices—namely, how informal and formal methods of board learning and training influenced decision making. Board socialization influences what the trustees learn and how they come to apply that information through resource-rich relationships. If the board “is to function as a cohesive and purposive social system, the novice members who join it must be absorbed and integrated so as to minimize disruption of established operating practices and to maximize the core values, expectations, incentives, and sanctions” (Cistone, 1977, p. 19). Using organizational and student development theories, our work carries at least four implications for stakeholders interested in maximizing student trustees’ experience, role, and development on higher education boards.

Assessment and Evaluation

The effectiveness of the individual new board member and the board itself is closely tied to board socialization (W. A. Brown, 2007; Gill et al., 2005; Hackman & Walton, 1986; Holland, 2003; Michael et al., 1997); how both the new member and the established board deal with socialization affects every aspect of board decision making (Cistone, 1977). Yet there are no established means by which to monitor and assess this effectiveness. What we learned from these student trustees is valuable and simultaneously supports and contradicts common board knowledge. Trustees often face challenges developing their competency on the board because there are usually no checkpoints to evaluate their roles. Many students do not have a sense of whether they were doing a good job other than their own sense of accomplishment or through support from a trustee or two. Intentional steps should be taken to evaluate and offer feedback to student trustees early and often. While trustee evaluation at both the individual and board levels would also benefit layperson trustees, constructive feedback for student trustees is particularly essential as these students are developing their competency not only on the board but also in life. This feedback can come in numerous forms—a conversation with key individuals affiliated with the board, such as someone from the board professional staff, the board chair, or another trustee who serves as a mentor; a written evaluation from a board stakeholder; or a check-in with a prior student trustee. Though their terms are brief, student trustees want to do well in the role, and feedback will augment their efficacy in this position.

Relationships Matter

The student trustees with the highest levels of efficacy were those who maximized the socialization process through high-quality and quantity resource relationships. Students who were able to leverage the knowledge, support, and opportunities created by the interpersonal relationships they had acquired had more favorable opinions of their time on the board. In this way, it was imperative that they felt supported when entering the board, where much is expected of them. They forged relationships with key decision makers not because it was mandated but because they recognized early on the utility of such relationships for their time on the board. To maximize the influence of student trustees, more intentional efforts should be made to maintain multiple streams of communication with the students on the board. This way, even those students who are still in the first stages of establishing interpersonal relationships will have an opportunity to benefit from these connections. Boards need to formalize mentorship within the board and carve out special time for the students to engage with the board chair, board professionals, committee chairs, and the campus CEO. Boards, too, should do a better job of connecting current student board members with their predecessors and successors to maintain communication and benefit from lessons learned.

Once Is Not Enough

Student trustees undergird the notion that a one-time orientation is insufficient (A. L. W. Brown & Hayford, 2019; Scott, 2018). Layperson and student trustees alike require more than one orientation. Additionally, new and continuing trustees cannot passively engage with orientation (Scott, 2018). Active engagement before, during, and after board membership describes the requisites for the student trustees. These individuals must go above and beyond the call for their laypersonn counterparts and do not have the luxury of merely being a ceremonial board member. The voice of student trustees further supports the idea that training encompasses much more than just board materials or meetings. Novice student trustees are highly involved in their own socialization. What is more, these students often play an integral role in the next student trustee’s socialization. Unlike their layperson counterparts who may or may not inform the next wave of trustees, student trustees were integral and primary in preparing their predecessors. By intentionally playing a role in the socialization process, student trustees demonstrated that student voice can be leveraged to influence educational policy (Conner et al., 2016).

Board Lessons and Life Lessons

The role of the student trustee cannot and should not be divorced from the fact that these board members are developing not only as trustees but also as individuals. Their time on the board provided an opportunity for them to hone their leadership skills and their ability to assert themselves—what they want to represent, for whom they want to speak, how they want to be viewed by others, and what they want to advocate. They were entrenched in a role where they consistently developed their autonomy, asserted their identity, and established their purpose via direct and indirect means. The student trustee role places these students in a unique position where they are forced to quickly learn how to simultaneously establish themselves as students, individuals, leaders, and trustees. As their knowledge of the interworkings of the institution is sharpened, so too is their insight of themselves.


If the most important priority for boards and presidents is student success (Scott, 2018), should not this success also extend to the success of students on boards of institutions of higher education? We give specific attention to student trustees because their time on the board and access to direct predecessors is so limited. Also, we believe students warrant special attention in board socialization because this representative on the board is often tasked with representing the student voice. The time on the board for these individuals also, directly and indirectly, influences their time on campus and beyond. The discussion of board socialization offered in this article provides an enhanced understanding of the need for preparation of board members. It may prove helpful to board staff and board members themselves who are interested in equipping new members with the knowledge and resources required for productivity on the board. This study, though, is only an initial peek into an essential part of student trusteeship. Much more research is needed to better understand and ultimately support students as they concurrently navigate the complexities of becoming themselves and becoming a trustee.

[1] Available literature indicates that no one really takes ownership of socializing new board members. While there are roles for the board, board staff, the president, and other campus leaders to play in board member socialization, our study demonstrates that board members rely heavily on other board members to help them learn their roles.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are the challenges and opportunities students face on governing boards of higher education?
  2. How might students leverage their role on boards of higher education to advocate for issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion?
  3. How might the student trustee role serve as a learning opportunity for and application of civic and community engagement?
  4. What are some ways that the student experience on boards of higher education can be improved to maximize students’ terms on the board?


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