College boards: Innovation shouldn’t stop at governance

Association releases 7 steps to get college and university boards up to innovation speed

board-governance-innovation College and university boards are hindering institutional progress in innovative practices thanks to an inward-looking mindset from 50 years ago, says a brief released today by the Association of Governing Boards (AGB).

The report from the National Commission on College and University Board Governance says that in the current higher education environment, the structure of governance should not be “an additional risk factor for the sector. Yet, too often it is.”

Signs of pressure on governance can be seen in many instances today, says the report, such as: polarized boards, rapid presidential turnover, faculty votes of non-confidence, and heightened scrutiny from accreditors. This in turn leads to the “erosion of public trust in the ability of institutions to make choices that contribute to the public well-being.”

The board, however, is still greatly needed (and must run efficiently) because their fiduciary role requires them to focus on strategic long-term issues and the intersection of internal and public interests—a job presidents and faculty will not be able to do on their own, says the report.

“Board members have responsibilities they must meet more effectively. Their role must be redefined so that they better ensure their institutions are contributing to society,” said Richard Legon, AGB president, in a statement. “The future of our country depends on the success of higher education. Trustee leadership for improved performance has never been more important, yet too often governance fails to meet expectations.”

To move focus outward and invest in innovative practices, the report details seven recommendations for boards in support of the role only they can play in improving institutional value through more effective governance.

(Next page: 7 recommendations)

“Most college and university governance structures are ill-aligned to deal with current and future challenges facing higher education,” said Phillip Bredesen, former Tennessee governor and Chair of the commission. “At a time when our institutions are facing difficult decisions about admissions, tuition, campus amenities, student misconduct, and graduation rates, we need boards to step up and provide greater leadership and guidance for college and university administrations, communities, and higher education as a whole. This report offers a blueprint for urgent reforms:”

1. Boards must improve value in their institutions and lead a restoration of public trust in higher education itself: Each board and president must have explicit goals for institutional value, supported by measures that are consistent with the institution’s mission and strategic priorities. “These will include measures of cost and outcomes, indicators of the institution’s effectiveness in contributing to public needs for higher education, and measures of fiscal health, including sustainability and asset management,” explains the report. “All institutions must [also] address their role in…increasing degree attainment, getting students into the workforce, creating knowledge, and serving communities.”

2. Boards must add value to institutional leadership and decision-making by focusing on their essential role as institutional fiduciaries: Every board must have a policy describing the board’s role and scope of responsibility. “It should also clarify the responsibilities and limits of individual board members versus the board as a whole,” notes the report.

3. Boards must act to ensure the long-term sustainability of their institutions by addressing changed finances and the imperative to deliver a high-quality education at a lower cost: “Boards must exert leadership to address the changing finances of their institutions, to take pressure off growth in revenues, and to drive down costs without compromising education quality,” emphasizes the report. Boards must also work with institutional leadership to reexamine resource use and academic program costs to make better use of data for benchmarking performance.

4. Boards must improve shared governance within their institutions through attention to board-president relationships and a reinvigoration of faculty shared governance. Boards additionally must attend to leadership development in their institutions, both for presidents and faculty:

  • The board chair and president must have a shared understanding of their relationship expectations, says the report, as well as expectations for consultation and resolving differences between them.
  • Every board must ask for a review of the institution’s policies that are appropriate to the realities of the current workforce, reinforce the delegated authority of faculty for academic policy, and to ensure that processes for consultation are clear and routinely followed.
  • All boards should have committees on institutional leadership development that focus on both faculty development and presidential transition planning.

5. Boards must improve their own capacity and functionality through increased attention to the qualifications and recruitment of members, board orientation, committee composition, and removal of members for cause:

  • Boards must conduct assessments of the skills and attributes needed in new members, to be used in recruitment and/or shared with the relevant appointing authorities.
  • New members must receive orientation.
  • Boards must review their committee structures and eliminate or consolidate committees established primarily for the oversight of functional areas (such as academic affairs, finances, and facilities). “Traditional configurations must give way to committees with a cross-functional and future-oriented focus (such as student access and success, institutional value, financial sustainability, and academic effectiveness,” explains the report.
  • Boards must have policies for addressing underperforming members.

6. Boards must focus their time on issues of greatest consequence to the institution by reducing time spent reviewing routine reports and redirecting attention to cross-cutting and strategic issues not addressed elsewhere: “All boards should work with presidents to reduce nonessential reporting,” the report states. At the same time they should increase focus on affiliated organizations and auxiliaries that use the name of the institution. Also, public system boards need to improve accountability for performance for all of the institutions within their systems.

7. Boards must hold themselves accountable for their own performance by modeling the same behaviors and performance they expect from others in their institutions: Boards must conduct regular self-assessments.

“Higher education in America has a distinguished history, but its business model is broken,” concluded Bredesen. “College and university boards are an accomplished, dedicated group of citizens, and they must drive their institutions’ public purpose. Our hope is this report will help to focus board members on the solutions and provide them tools to work with.”

For much more detail on these seven recommendations, read the full report, “Consequential Boards: Adding value where it matters most,” here.

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