Higher Educating Trustees

One of the most glaring weaknesses in American higher education is the strength of its governance group.

There is a celebrated tradition within higher education to portray governance as a kind of three-leg stool. Led by the president as CEO, the administration manages the operation, works with the faculty, and reports to the Board of Trustees. The faculty also plays an important role, working with senior administrative leadership, especially the provost, to manage the direction of the academic program and advise on matters related to it.

The third leg is the Board of Trustees. Trustees have three primary responsibilities: to oversee policy and long-term direction, serve as fiscal stewards, and select, retain and replace the president.

Faculty governance is sometimes weak – especially if provost, dean, and department chairs have or want little regulatory authority. It can make discussions cumbersome and protracted, opening all parties to claims of a failure to be transparent.

What faculty governance does so brilliantly is to keep the flame alive, protecting the core traditions upon which an institution is built and sustained. They are the heart of good governance when the tumblers click.

Senior administrative leadership can also raise concerns. In some cases, their personal and professional relationships within the community, other staff, and trustees can complicate good governance. They can be a management nightmare, especially if the trustees maintain inappropriate relationships with them. If trustees interfere in personnel decisions, it is a sign of a major structural management problem.

One president colleague always advised that every vice president should be asked for a resignation letter on the day that the new president assumes office. If trustees object – as many in a weak governance setting likely will – the storm clouds have already gathered on the horizon.

To protect the integrity of governance at an institution, accrediting agencies should look at how campus communities interact and whether these relationships foster fair, respectful treatment and balanced governance. Occasionally, accreditors weigh in to address the problem but if the issues are cultural and systemic they may take years to fix.

By far, the weakest link in the governance chain is the trustees. Often successful in business, law, medicine and other fields, they take their considerable talent to a non-profit setting. Unfortunately, the issue may require an approach using an entirely different skill set than applied in a for-profit business.

A critical weakness in trustee leadership is that this leadership can be inbred and occasionally incestuous. Certain categories or “classes” of alumni predominate in a system that self-perpetuates its membership. Boards of trustees are often too large and alumni-heavy. They can also fail to manage their emeriti contingent effectively whose members, often long-time wealthy supporters or their backers, sometimes fail to have the grace to know when to step into the background.

The institution can also become too reliant on gifts from this group. Watch how a comprehensive campaign develops. If the campaign is raising about what it always does from the same donors in peak campaign years without major new donor support, it’s likely time to shake up the board and senior administrative management.

As one very effective board chair once said to me, “boards are part-time volunteers who are expected to manage a full-time enterprise.” Subjected to endless administrative and often repetitive committee “reports” at board meetings, there is little time for ongoing trustee education.   And the failure to educate trustees is the biggest shortcoming in college governance.

Trustees have a responsibility – legal and financial – to understand what they run and when to sign off on it. It’s not a question of politics but practicality.

Education takes time.

To find time, senior administrators must work with board chairs to use the committee structure, technology, and telecommunications network to get past the routine business of college governance, usually outside of the full board meeting.

The Enrollment Committee should follow the numbers, for example, and offer up a written report reviewed and accepted by the full board. But, are today’s numbers the only point when setting long-term policy? Is it more about enrollment trends, shifting demographics, and fulfilling commitments on interconnected issues like diversity and financial sustainability? Which questions when understood more fully move the needle more?

Colleges today are complex and operate more like small cities than for-profit businesses. They are in the business of relationship-building.   It is critical that Boards of Trustees understand the policies and protocols that matter differently than those they see in business and professional settings. To do so, trustees must educate themselves on the trends emerging, best practice opportunities, program creativity, and comparative competitive environments.

It’s nice to know the win/loss record of the soccer team. It’s just not necessary to use otherwise educable moments to discuss the record at full board meetings. Those colleges that educate trustees poorly and use their time with them unwisely put themselves at considerable future risk.

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