The Old Work of the New Board

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

October 03, 2011

Trustees are wise to wonder if their boards have the right organization and processes to handle the challenges confronting higher education in a difficult economy. Meeting agendas suggest how complex a board's work has become: mission and values, strategic priorities, state and private fiscal trends, investment management, student demographics and expectations, accreditation, and much more. Some observers have urged boards to become strategic and focus less on operations or even on philanthropy.

Faced with so many competing demands, what is a board to do?

My experience with trustees comes from service as president and chief financial officer at two private colleges for two decades. I have taught the Association of Governing Boards' seminar for new trustees for almost that long. On the administrative side, besides holding senior posts, I have been teaching finance at the Harvard Institutes for Higher Education since 1983, including its seminar for new presidents. Here is what I've learned.

The strategic role of the board can be oversold. Strategic planning—and strategic thinking about the economy and other external factors affecting higher education—is a role that trustees can play effectively.

Where some boards get into trouble is when they try to brainstorm how exactly the colleges and universities should respond. Many trustees, even the most industrious, are too unfamiliar with the content and context of higher education to make strategic choices around degrees, majors, programs, sites, enrollment, finances, and student life. Trustees are better served by reacting to proposals from the administration and faculty rather than acting as if they know enough to strategize on their own.

Do not use a strategic plan to drive board organization. Another difficulty arises when boards attempt to reorganize everything they do around a strategic plan or institutional priorities. Committees can become too large and unfocused, and lose track of their operational and fiduciary responsibilities.

Ad hoc working groups, created around specific issues and with defined life spans, are far preferable to wholesale restructuring. Spend part of every meeting of the full board on a strategic priority, such as liberal arts and the world of work or global education. That is better than open-endedly asking trustees what topics should be on the next meeting agenda, which often results in a lack of strategic focus. How many times can boards rehash drug and alcohol abuse, athletics, co-educational housing, and fraternities?

What has been dismissed as operational trivia is more important than ever. Boards have fundamental fiduciary responsibilities that they cannot neglect. The annual or biennial budget process is one venue where those issues are debated and any institutional response decided. After all, the budget is a plan with dollar signs and is frequently better than a strategic plan as a guidepost to what is considered truly important.

Decisions on new trustees, bond issues, faculty tenure, investment policies, and building projects can help or hinder an institution for years. Trustees should pay attention to those decisions, and not think they are being irresponsible by taking care of business. If the fear is that standing committees will serve their own interests in governance silos, have more joint committee meetings and assign trustees multiple committee assignments with the understanding that they will serve as linking pins.

Hiring the president or chancellor is still the board's main job. Choosing, evaluating, and firing the chief executive is crucial, as is the board's commitment to support a strong presidency in good times and bad. The most strategic decision a board makes is appointing a president who has the perspective and discipline to plan and carry out his or her vision. However, boards and search committees err when they expect new presidents to arrive with prepackaged visions. That only emerges in time, in concert with the board and the campus community.

Fund raising should be another board priority. Becoming strategic is no excuse for boards to overlook the need to raise money. Expecting trustees to make annual and capital gifts, or to find others who can, is not confusing a board with an ATM. Their ability to lobby legislators and foundations should never be underestimated.

Avoid populating a board largely with social activists, religious leaders, and educators without significant philanthropic capacity. Keep in mind the two mantras about what trustees do: "Give, get, or get off" and "Wealth, wisdom, and work."

Clarify the governance roles of the board, faculty, and administration. This gap partly explains why trustees tend to stray from their policy-making role to engage in micromanagement. Discussions about core values concerning environmental sustainability drift to comments about where flowers are planted and the amount of trash in the woods. Administrators become defensive.

Trustees can also underestimate how complex and time-consuming it can be to carry out board mandates. Boards need more knowledge about those costs, but they also need to have greater trust that administrators and faculty members generally know what we are doing. To that end, clarify which decisions may be made by the faculty and administration acting singly or jointly, and which decisions are really recommendations to the board. At Guilford College, we created an online publication entitled "Who Decides?" to answer that question.

Educating the board is a key to success. Regardless of whether trustees engage in strategic thinking or have more traditional roles, educating the board is essential. That should occur on a trustee micro Web site, in orientations, at periodic retreats and workshops, at national conferences, and via the use of a board manual of facts and best practices. The education must be repeated because board turnover means a loss of institutional memory.

From an administrative perspective, the danger with some board education is that the information will be presented as a laundry list of ideas that trustees may think are all equally good and worthy of doing. Journals and handbooks with sections that suggest next steps or questions for trustees can lead to scores of new issues of uncertain value that divert governing boards from their core business and create unnecessary workload for staff members already expending enormous time on board business. There needs to be a reality check now and then.

Half in jest, I have often complimented trustees on taking on huge responsibilities with the expectation that they will spend many uncompensated days working for the institution—and then be asked to donate money, too. Presidents need a board's best thinking and oversight while not expecting trustees to do the work for which administrators and faculty members are appointed and paid.

Kent John Chabotar is president of Guilford College and a professor of political science.