In All-But-Tenured Roles, Trustees can Make or Break a College’s Future

In our new book — How to Run a College: A Practical Guide for Trustees, Faculty, Staff and Policymakers— Dr. Joey King and I argue that governance is the worst problem affecting American higher education.

Most Trustees Are Unschooled About Institutional Issues

Most trustees are notoriously unschooled about the issues that affect their institutions. They are drawn disproportionately from the college classes of sitting trustees with whom they have long-standing friendships from their campus days. Further, their perspective is at least initially more like those who serve on an alumni board rather than as overseers whose role is to lead the institution forward.

Further, board selection often balances across several perceived needs, including higher education experience, wealth, gender, diversity, and financial acumen. Often the board can focus too heavily on wealth, setting in motion complex relationships drawing in well-intentioned philanthropists as well as those who see giving as a transactional business arrangement.

In the worst circumstances, presidents can become de facto “handlers” of demanding, wealthy trustees.

Board composition, often through the best of intentions, becomes a hodgepodge that attempts to accommodate board priorities but instead produces a weak and ineffective board that is unable to govern efficiently or effectively.

Presidents have a special responsibility to work with the board’s chair to educate and inform the board. In these increasingly difficult times, where the board spends its time profoundly impacts the ability of an institution to be sufficiently receptive to fresh ideas and perspectives.

Boards that run unimaginatively themselves cannot provide the insight or agility necessary for a college or university to succeed over the long term.

Stakeholder Imbalance Often Leads to Weak Board of Trustees

One of the reasons for weak boards is that they are controlled disproportionately by one group of stakeholders. The first indication is often the specificity in the conditions that govern board membership. When the board is run by trustees who see board service as a sinecure, board terms are often unclear, the standards for membership uncertain, and the role of emeriti trustees unspecified.

There is usually little or no formal review of the board’s effectiveness, either at the level of individual trustees or by the board itself. The result is an ineffective board run by a few as a kind of “family and friends” foundation.

Another circumstance that leads to a weak board is when the president and senior staff dominate the work of the Board. The key indicators are a short tenure for the board chair and elected officers and a report structure that is process-driven and procedural. In this case, board work can become a deadening experience, driven by endless committee reports and an absurd number of committees.

Alternatively, board members can be overwhelmed by too much information. The problem is, of course, that much of the information that board members obtain is unnecessary, time-consuming, and can be conveyed through better use of technology.

Board-Management Friendships Can Be Debilitating

The worst case scenario is when board and staff friendships overlap. This is a debilitating situation that can be almost impossible to manage. In this case, the staff can become “masters of their domain,” ruling over bureaucratic fiefdoms protected by key trustees with whom they have formed long-standing friendships or with whom they went to college.

Such relationships constrain the ability of a president to form a team in which loyalty, while it must be earned, should otherwise be expected. Presidents hold the job for a limited term. With enough protection in place or promised, the staff can ignore, outlast, or circumvent almost any directive.

The effect of a weak trustee board can be a reinforcement of campus cultural inertia. It is wrong to blame the faculty for a single-minded focus on process by which management decisions are made as is often the case in higher education. In fact, of the three stakeholder classes — trustees, faculty, and administrators — the faculty are by far the most creative. While the faculty oversee the academic enterprise, however, they do not usually manage the business of the college. And it is here that the most damage can occur.

In the most unoriginal environments, mid- and senior-level college administrators are fiercely protective of their fiefdoms. The mantra is “but we’ve never done it this way before.”

Trustees, Faculty, and Staff Must All Understand Roles in Shared Governance

That’s why it is so important for each of the stakeholder governing classes to understand their roles in shared college governance. It begins by expecting that the president will have the authority and responsibility to manage the college.

The role of the board chair is critical. How the chair manages the board and the terms of engagement with the president must be clearly understood from the outset. For political, economic, social and cultural reasons, boards may seek candidates for president who fit an idealized view of what is needed. But if the wrong conditions persist, the board effectively fails in its responsibility to craft a climate for the president’s success.

Dr. King and I are convinced that most institutions, whether public or private, are agile and nimble enough to find a way to adapt to the rapidly changing circumstances that higher education now faces. It starts with good governance. And it prospers when each stakeholder understands how to play the game as a member of the team.

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