AGB Board of Directors Statement: A Conversation with the EVP:

Changing Higher Ed Podcast 188 with host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and guest Dr. Mary Papazian

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Changing Higher Ed Podcast 188 - AGB Board of Directors Statement- A Conversation with the EVP Mary Papazian
Changing Higher Ed Podcast | Drumm McNaughton | The Change Leader

2 January · Episode 188

AGB Board of Directors Statement: A Conversation with the EVP

38 Min · By Dr. Drumm McNaughton

A conversation with Mary Papazian about the recent AGB Board of Directors Statement and the pivotal state of higher education board governance.

The landscape of higher education governance is at a pivotal juncture. The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB) has recently issued a statement on board independence and leadership, marking a critical moment for academic institutions.

In this episode of Changing Higher Ed®, host Dr. Drumm McNaughton speaks with Dr. Mary Papazian, Executive Vice President of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

They focus on the role of higher education board governance and discuss the “AGB Board of Directors’ Statement on Influences Impacting Governing Board Independence and Leadership.” This document, a noteworthy publication in AGB’s 110-year history and only the 13th such statement, addresses crucial issues in contemporary educational governance.


AGB Board of Directors Statement: Insights into Higher Education Board Governance

The recent statement focusing on board governance in higher education emphasizes its pivotal role in ensuring the effective operation and strategic direction of institutions. It delivers Insights into the responsibilities and challenges faced by governing boards and underscores key principles and practices necessary for effective governance in the context of contemporary challenges.

Good board governance is essential for the success of educational institutions. Key responsibilities include strategic leadership, commitment to the institution’s mission, and support for the CEO or president. This governance role is foundational to a balance between the operational leadership provided by institutional heads, including presidents or chancellors, and the broader management responsibilities.


Contextualizing Current Governance Challenges

Reflecting on historical challenges, it’s clear that divisive times in higher education governance are not new, citing historical examples such as the McCarthy years and the Vietnam era. Today’s challenges, including the pandemic and social unrest, similarly test governance structures; however, higher education governance is facing a new kind of pressure from political interference, becoming a pawn for political and media gain.  

These historical and contemporary challenges in higher education underscore the need for robust and adaptable governance practices. Such practices, embodying the evergreen nature of good governance, are vital for effectively navigating these varied pressures and maintaining the high standing of American institutions.

The recent statement from AGB and the AAUP Report emphasizes the importance of maintaining board autonomy and trustees’ fiduciary responsibilities. It identifies specific duties such as care, loyalty, and obedience as foundational, ensuring trustees act in the best interest of their institutions.


The Four Principles of Board Governance

The four principles outlined by AGB are:

  1. Institutional Independence: Ensuring autonomy and self-governance is crucial for effective operation.

  2. Board Independence: Boards should govern independently according to their foundational documents and legal frameworks.

  3. Academic Freedom: Central to the institution’s role in society and economy, academic freedom must be protected.

  4. Public Accountability: Institutions must remain accountable to the public interest, ensuring transparency and responsibility.

These principles, particularly the emphasis on academic freedom, underline the global esteem of U.S. higher education. A powerful quote from the statement highlights this significance:

Without academic freedom and autonomy, higher education institutions cannot fulfill the vital role they play in our democracy and economy. The global competitive positions of our nature and society are in jeopardy if board oversight of academic freedom is diluted.


The Role of Trustees: Guardians of Academic Freedom and Institutional Autonomy

In the face of increasing political influences, trustees must focus on their fiduciary duties to the institution, prioritizing the institution’s interests over political or personal agendas.

In the landscape of U.S. higher education, the global respect it commands is attributed significantly to a deep-rooted commitment to academic freedom. This principle allows faculty to conduct research and reach conclusions independently, free from external influences, fostering a rich environment for teaching, learning, and inquiry.

The role of trustees in upholding this autonomy is paramount, especially in public institutions where appointments are often politically influenced. Despite the nature of their appointment, trustees must focus primarily on their fiduciary responsibilities to their institutions. This duty involves prioritizing the institution’s needs and independence, a principle fundamental to effective governance.

In practice, however, the reality often presents a challenge to this ideal. Trustees may find themselves navigating a complex landscape where political pressures and the ideal of independent governance intersect. Despite these challenges, the strength and integrity of an educational institution hinge on the ability of its trustees to maintain their commitment to the institution’s best interests. 

Trustees must act as guardians of academic freedom and institutional autonomy, even in the face of external influences.


Emphasizing Diverse Perspectives, Ideals, and Realities of Board Governance

Acknowledging the gap between ideal governance and practical application, there’s an emphasis on striving for strong governance principles. This approach helps institutions navigate challenges effectively.

Recognizing the dynamic nature of higher education governance, leaders often find themselves in positions where they might test the limits, which is a natural aspect of human behavior. However, by actively engaging with trustees and embracing the inevitable turnover (approximately every two years), institutions can build a robust foundation in governance practices. This approach is requisite for effectively responding to various challenges, emphasizing the need for an ideal governance model or a ‘North Star’ to guide institutions.

In this context, the board’s role extends beyond mere oversight; it’s about actively establishing and reaffirming the institution’s mission. This critical task isn’t carried out in isolation but involves effective shared governance, engaging with all stakeholders, encompassing students, faculty, alumni, community leaders, industry, and more. Such engagement is particularly pertinent as institutions navigate the shift from traditional models to a knowledge-based, digital approach, presenting a spectrum of new pressures and demands.

Recognizing the value of diverse viewpoints within the boardroom prevents groupthink and ensures comprehensive governance strategies, addressing potential blind spots. It’s consequential for each board member to bring their unique perspective and experience to the table, enriching the decision-making process.

After thorough and robust discussions, the board must act cohesively, ensuring that decisions align with the institution’s mission and values. This unified approach underscores the importance of a collective vision in guiding the strategic direction of higher education institutions.


Three Key Takeaways for Higher Ed Presidents and Boards

  1. Uphold Fiduciary Responsibilities: Emphasizing trustees’ loyalty, care, and obedience is critical for effective board governance and sound decision-making.

  2. Preserve Institutional Autonomy and Academic Freedom: These aspects are for maintaining the quality, success, and global reputation of American higher education institutions.

  3. Support and Guidance for College Presidents: Given the challenges faced, boards need to support their presidents, providing counsel and support to navigate through difficulties.


Final Thoughts

The dialogue between Dr. Mary Papazian and Dr. Drumm McNaughton provides nuanced perspectives on the AGB’s statement on board governance. Their discussion sheds light on the importance of academic freedom, the realities of implementing governance practices, and the value of diversity in decision-making. These insights are indispensable for higher education leaders striving to navigate the complexities of governance in today’s educational landscape.


Download the AGB Board of Directors’ Statement on Influences Impacting Governing Board Independence and Leadership on the AGB website →


About Our Podcast Guest

Mary Papazian, PhD, is the executive vice president of AGB. She has served as president at San Jose State University, Southern Connecticut State University, and as interim president of the Business-Higher Education Forum. She has served as board chair of the Business-Higher Education Forum, the Coalition of Urban Serving Universities, and the Mountain West Athletic Conferences. She has been a board member of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, the NCAA, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, and Haigazian University.


About the Host 

Dr. Drumm McNaughton, host of Changing Higher Ed® podcast is a consultant to higher education institutions in governance, accreditation, strategy and change, and mergers.


See more of The Change Leader’s Articles about Embracing New Models of Board Governance →


Transcript: Changing Higher Ed Podcast 

with host Drumm McNaughton and guest Mary Papazian


Drumm: Our guest today is Dr. Mary Papazian, Executive Vice President of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. Mary’s had a long and distinguished career in higher ed on both sides of the governance fence, having served as President at San Jose State University and Southern Connecticut State University, as well as Board Chair at the Business Higher Ed Education Forum, Coalition for Urban Serving Universities, and the Mountain West Athletic Conferences.

[00:31:32] Drumm: Mary joins us today to talk about higher education governance and AGB’s recent statement on influences impacting governing board independence and leadership, which is only the 13th such statement they’ve issued in their 110th-year history.

[00:31:48] Drumm: Mary, welcome to the show.

[00:31:49] Mary: It’s great to be here, Drumm. Good to see you.

[00:31:52] Drumm: You too, as well. And we’ve got the opportunity to talk a lot today, and actually, this is going to be a really good precursor for the new year. As well as I will probably get a chance to see you back in Boston at the AGB Global Leadership Conference.

[00:32:13] Mary: Yeah, our National Conference on Trusteeship, which will be taking place in Boston, as well as our Conference for Board Professionals, a very important role, will happen in Boston at the end of March, and I couldn’t be more excited, and I look forward to seeing you in person.

[00:32:28] Drumm: Absolutely. So, let’s kick this thing off because you and I are both passionate about governance, and especially board governance, in higher ed. But before we jump into it and this report that AGB just released, tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you get to this position, and why are you passionate about governance?

[00:32:51] Mary: Well, it’s, it’s a great question. I’ve only been in this role at AGB as the Executive Vice President since the end of August, so really the latter half of this year, but I’ve come to believe over the course of a 35-plus-year career in higher education that governance at the board level is critical for ensuring that institutions run well, that they are addressing the current institutions needs, that they’re supportive of the president. And I served my career in higher education, I’m an old English professor, Drumm. I’ll just start with that. And so, so I come at it from the faculty side, from the researching side, writing articles and books on my field of renaissance literature, but then I moved into the academic administrative side and I served as a associate dean, as a dean, as a provost, and then president at Southern Connecticut State University and at San Jose State University more recently. And in these latter roles especially, I really came to see the relationship between the board and the president and senior leadership as critical to the health and well-being of an institution.

[00:34:02] Mary: And so as I thought about what I might do next, the opportunity to work at AGB, really the gold standard on governance in higher education, is a real honor and privilege. And I hope I can make a small contribution to the work that we’re doing today.

[00:34:16] Drumm: Well, I’m, I’m sure you will, especially with your background. I mean, when I think of AGB, of course, full disclosure, I’m a senior consultant for AGB, as well as having my own business. And in some areas, we’re very complimentary, and in others, we compete a little bit, and that’s perfectly fine. But having said that, aGB does incredible work for universities and colleges, especially around governance, foundations, recruiting of, you know, the, the, what is it it’s recruiting, but it’s, you know, the presidential search. There we go. You know, having one of those senior moments as I’m getting a little older here, I probably shouldn’t say that, but oh, well,

[00:35:02] Mary: Not at all. Not at all.

[00:35:04] Drumm: So, but the board’s responsibilities nowadays have gotten to be so broad, and I was talking with one person the other day, you’re trying to fit a camel through the eye of a needle with some of the challenges that boards are facing right now because of the divided times we live in. I mean, put this in perspective for us because it’s not easy times and the role of the board is far more challenging than it’s ever been.

[00:35:39] Mary: Yeah, it certainly is. And I should add that, particularly in the latter part of my career, while I served as president, I also became very active in volunteer boards, in the higher education space, but also in that intersection between business and higher education. So things like Urban Serving Universities, or the Business Higher Ed Forum, or the NCAA, which has its share of, It seems every day, doesn’t it?

[00:36:03] Drumm: Really? I really, I just hadn’t heard. I must be living under a rock.

[00:36:08] Mary: Yeah, how about that? And I sit actually as a trustee on a small, liberal arts college halfway around the world called High Gaussian College. So, seeing it really from both sides of the fence, and I would say this, that boards are the essential element, I think, for the success of institutions, and they’re not the only ones. They’re necessary but not sufficient. But their key responsibility. is to provide that leadership, that strategic leadership, and that commitment to mission, and then also to hire and support the institutional CEO, the president or chancellor. In the case of higher ed institutions, in the case of institutionally related foundations, it might be the executive director.

[00:36:51] Mary: And we work with both as members at AGB, and so, it’s a really critical role. The key here, though, is that boards,

[00:37:03] Mary: So one of the key elements that we at AGB really work with our trustees, our board representatives, and members is to understand the role that boards should play in governance and the role that presidents should play in management and leadership for the institution. That’s, I think that’s the key differential. And when boards and presidents get that balance right, they’re usually well-positioned to address challenges. And as you said, we have many challenges today of a variety of kinds that seem to put boards in the news on a regular basis. I have never seen the question of board governance more popular with our mainstream media than we’re seeing it today.

[00:37:49] Drumm: Oh, no kidding. I mean, just in the last three weeks, we’ve seen, you know, Florida always comes to mind. Texas is coming to mind, but now we’ve got Ohio at Youngstown State and other institutions as well. It’s really challenging. But, you know, this isn’t the first time we’ve faced these divided times.

[00:38:13] Drumm: I mean, you and I both lived through the 60s and Vietnam, George Floyd, the pandemic, it’s a lot of, you know, we see this, I’m still amazed, but it’s not the first time.

[00:38:27] Mary: It’s not the first time that there’s been divisions in our country. I mean, we did fight a civil war back in the 19th century, so we have seen things reach very, very divisive levels. We went through the Red Scare, the McCarthy years, which certainly put many faculty in the crosshairs of McCarthy’s Inquisition, if you will. And we’ve seen more recently, as you said, in our own lifetimes, the challenges around Vietnam, the various divisions between faculty and administrators, and then most recently, really approaches to addressing the pandemic, something that we didn’t entirely understand, and so we were learning as we were experiencing it and making policies, and I happen to be a president during the pandemic, and I can tell you, and my colleagues as well, spending every day trying to understand what we should be doing next. And making sure that we’re keeping board members in the loop, particularly board chairs, so they understand why we’re taking the approach that we’re taking. And then, of course, the social unrest during the summer, when George Floyd was murdered, and what that brought to the surface. And again today, we’re facing it with issues that are divisive. There have been certainly surveys that show that our country is probably more divided today than it’s been for a long time. But the key is this: good governance is what I like to call evergreen. If a board has developed the muscles of good governance, the board will be able to address in a way that supports that institution, and navigate those choppy waters, because it’s not If a crisis is going to come or if unrest is going to come, or if challenge is going to come, it’s what will it look like? How will it affect your institution? How will it affect your institution in ways that might differ from how it affects another institution? What might be the implications? And so at AGB, we’re really committed to helping our members, and we’ve got over 2, 000 member institutions, which represents about 40, 000 member trustees.

[00:40:35] Mary: So we work to really help build those good governance muscles before there’s a crisis. But then we also, through our consulting arm and other areas, provide in time support to institutions when they’re going through a crisis. So it’s a combination of building the knowledge and building the muscles, but also being there in real time to support institutions as they navigate difficult circumstances.

[00:41:00] Drumm: just released this report, it’s actually a statement on the entitled influences impacting governing board independence and leadership. doesn’t. Issue all these many, I mean you, you just referred back to the academic freedom, a previous guest I had on a few weeks back, we talked about AAUP’s special report.

[00:41:27] Drumm: This isn’t quite at the same level as that, but AGB doesn’t issue these all that often, it’s an evergreen statement.

[00:41:37] Mary: Yeah, and that was the intention of it. The AAUP report was a specific report looking at a specific analysis through the lens and the principles that AAUP has. What we’ve done as, AGB, I would say since 2010, our board, and these are statements issued by the AGB board of, directors and they have, issued, I want to say 13 statements. So it’s on average about one a year, one a year and a half. And it really is to provide best practices and strategies for our institutional members, so that as they face issues that have risen in, perhaps consciousness at that particular time, it’s a way for our board to provide that kind of guidance to members.

[00:42:26] Mary: And so this statement is actually a update of a statement, a similar statement that we issued in 2012, because again, the principles of board autonomy, of the citizen trustee honoring their fiduciary responsibilities and, that’s the duties of care, which is where as a trustee you focus on the best interest of the enterprise. Right? that’s your, touchstone,

[00:42:51] Drumm: One would, one would hope.

[00:42:54] Mary: Well, that’s what we’re, that’s what good governance represents, right? And loyalty, where you place the interest of the enterprise ahead of the interest of yourself or any other individual person, and obedience,the duty of obedience, which is where you ensure that the enterprise is operating according to its stated purpose, to its mission, and to its governing documents.

[00:43:15] Mary: So, these are core responsibilities of boards, and they really, I think, provide the foundation for ensuring that boards have autonomy to make decisions in the best interest of the institution. And so that’s really what this statement, defines, provides some guidance for and recognizes that sometimes the trustees might be, or boards might be challenged In a variety of ways to actually uphold those duties of care, loyalty, and obedience. And we want to give tools to these boards,to be able to do that.

[00:43:58] Drumm: Well, let’s unpack those four principles just a little bit. The first, you know, I’ll just kind of read through them.

[00:44:06] Drumm: Preserve institutional independence and autonomy. Demonstrate board independence to govern as established in charter state law constitution. Keep academic freedom central and be the standard bearer for the due process protection of faculty, staff, and students. And assure institutional accountability to the public interest.

[00:44:28] Drumm: In your new statement, I thought it was really interesting because you’re basing a lot of stuff on the foundation of academic freedom and you, I’ll quote, “Without academic freedom and autonomy, higher education institutions cannot fulfill the vital role they play in our democracy and economy. The global competitive positions of our nature and society are in jeopardy if board oversight of academic freedom is diluted”. That’s pretty powerful.

[00:45:00] Mary: Well, we strongly believe at AGB that, higher education here in the United States is the envy of the world for a reason. And really, at its core, is this commitment to academic freedom, which means that, that faculty, are able to pursue answers to questions without influence, by outside voices. They could study a topic, for example, and reach a conclusion that might not meet the approval of somebody or another, because they’re, they put the principles of good research, of really addressing a question at the fore. And so it’s important to have those spaces where this kind of, work, teaching, learning, research, service, the kinds of projects can happen. And higher education in the United States is the envy of the world in part because of this autonomy and because of this commitment to academic freedom as central to its nature. We are also a democracy that cares deeply about you know the citizen voice. These are actually citizen trustees. They may be appointed if they’re public board members through a political process. If they’re private board members, they are probably appointed by other members of the board. They could be alumni, friends, and the like. But ultimately, when they come together as board members, their focus now is on addressing the needs of the institution itself, and protecting its independence, so that can develop and meet its mission in the way it deems best.

[00:46:45] Drumm: I would challenge you just a little bit on that, citizen trustees, because we’re seeing so much more politicalization of higher ed and trustees, especially public institutions, being appointed by governors, by legislatures, and there is a mixed perception of what their duty is. In fact, Governor DeSantis had his attorney general file a lawsuit about accreditation. And the lawsuit says that state governments are the owner of state institutions and that as creatures of the state, the schools responsible to the state legislature, the state government, so if the legislature or state government directs that these schools should act in a particular way, they should not be prohibited from doing so. That puts your trustees more as agents of the state than it does citizen trustees.

[00:47:49] Mary: That is what, the governor of Florida has said. I would, venture here that, and I served, by the way, I should add that I, I spent my entire career in public institutions in five states. So, so I’m very familiar with the public process and it’s true, in the public institutions as opposed to the private institutions, the appointing process is generally, for most trustees, through a political representation. So, where I, most recently was in California, the appointing, recommendor is the governor who sends the names then to the legislature where they actually have confirmation hearings and then they’re appointed.

[00:48:33] Mary: So there is absolutely a public accountability piece for public boards. There’s no question about it. But we still believe strongly in the fiduciary, duties of that board member. So, however they are then appointed, right, and the public side, unless you’re an alumni member or a,a student member, perhaps there might be a slightly different process. Most of them do come through an appointing process that comes out of the political realm, and that’s because it is a public trust. It is a public entity. And so these trustees, then, they aren’t there to do the work of the legislature or the governor. They’re there to serve their fiduciary responsibility to the institution.

[00:49:21] Mary: So they may be informed by that public context, but their responsibility is to the institution itself. And that’s a core principle for us at AGB, as part of what good governance looks like. And there have always, there’s not unusual for there to be push me, pull me, you know, efforts. Most politicians do like to have more control. And it’s really the responsibility, ultimately, of the trustees. So, that’s what good governance looks like. Not all governance is perhaps, modeling good governance, but we believe that ultimately the institution is stronger when the board members, fiduciary responsibilities, and that is really what a citizen trustee looks like.

[00:50:05] Drumm: Well, I would agree with you 100 percent and then I would also say, well there’s the truth and the reality of the situation, and unfortunately we’re seeing way more reality than we are seeing the idealistic truth.

[00:50:19] Mary: Well, I don’t think it’s an idealistic truth, Drumm. I think it’s a good governance truth, which is an idealism and in all circumstances, you don’t expect 100 percent everything to be at the, perfect representation of what best practices are. That’s never true in any situation.

[00:50:37] Mary: And so there, yeah. There will always be,I think it’s not unusual for there to be different leaders in different roles who might want to test the limits of things. That’s human nature, isn’t it? But, ultimately we hope that by, actually, working with trustees, and there’s a lot of turnover on trustees. On average, you know, one to two years, you’ll see turnover. Really to build those muscles of what good governance looks like, so that when those kinds of challenges come, that trustees have a way to, to respond. In some cases, they’ll be able to do it effectively. In other cases, it might be more of a challenge. But ultimately,I think it’s in the long term interest of the institution,to maintain those good governance principles. So we need a little idealism always, we need to have a North Star and sometimes we, weighed off course slightly, but hopefully we, if we don’t have a North Star, we can’t pull ourselves back to the right course.

[00:51:37] Drumm: Mm hmm. And and I agree with that. That North Star to me is good governance, you know, adherence to fiduciary duties and on the mission of the school. If you’re not doing those two things, then something’s wrong,

[00:51:54] Mary: No, absolutely. And that’s why I think again,it’s the role of the board ultimately to establish that mission and to reaffirm that mission. Not in an isolated way, but in conversation with all stakeholders and constituents, both within the institution and outside the institution, right? Mission, and the way we implement mission, or, actually fulfill mission, will evolve and change, because our world is not a static world, the needs are not static needs, and we know that today, we’re not only living in a time of great,divisiveness, but we’re also living in a time of a real paradigm shift. What I like to call that change from the industrial model to the knowledge based digital model.

[00:52:38] Mary: We are all familiar, right, with chat GPT and generative AI and how it’s changing the way we learn, work, the whole thing, and live. And so there are many pressures of various kinds and our boards, the more they are able to really articulate that mission so that it is both evergreen, but also responsive to changing needs. Again, the greater clarity and leadership they’ll be able to give to their institutions.

[00:53:06] Drumm: Spot on, spot on. And we’ve talked about this before, the way that these boards need to behave, listen and hear, applying these diverse views to what’s best for the institution, things along those lines.

[00:53:28] Mary: Yeah, I think it’s really important. And this is true if you’re a public board or a private board of a higher ed institution or an institutionally related foundation. And again, all of those are our member institutions. And, no institution lives, you know, we, there’s that old model, right? The, city on a hill, the ivory tower, the institution completely out somewhere where it’s not connected to its surroundings. That really isn’t the case, and we see institutions are very much a part of their communities. And it’s important, and there are many stakeholders in many different sectors who have an interest in that institution, they could be alumni, they could be donors and friends, they could be you know, elected officials,they could be community leaders, from the non profit sector, from the business community. As well as students and faculty and staff and prospective students and the K through 12 system, right, that is looking to prepare and to educate students who will then, one hopes, you know, move on to one of the higher education institutions. So all of these voices are important. It can sound sometimes like a cacophony of noise, but I think it’s really important for to be able to listen deeply and to discern what is really informing the decisions they might have to make.

[00:54:56] Mary: But ultimately, ultimately, not just listen to the loudest voice out there. And we all know in a time of social media, voices can be amplified, to great levels, right? To very high decibels. That doesn’t necessarily mean that is the best advice for that institution. It could be the quiet voice that one has to listen to.

[00:55:20] Mary: So, it really is, for the board members, coming together as a collective board so each board member brings her, his own perspective, experience and the like to that board room We, We encourage this kind of diversity of viewpoint and experience. It enriches the conversation. It ensures, if you have robust conversations within the boardroom, that the right decisions can be made, but ultimately the board acts as a single entity. So you bring the individual voices, but ultimately you, you talk it through, based on all that input and what you’ve heard and what your own experience tells you. And then the board makes a decision of whatever it might be, and then, they act as one.

[00:56:09] Drumm: I really liked the recommendations that came out of the study. You know, while these four principles are still bedrock, governing boards need fresh guidance on how to apply them currently. Engage in thoughtful discussion, decision making, and policy making. To build shared understanding of the core concepts and values that underlie exemplary governance and the board’s work while continuing to have meaningful learning experiences together about foundational principles, not just current campus matters.

[00:56:42] Drumm: I like that because it’s a broader statement. It’s saying you’ve got to do your duties, but you also need to listen to other folks outside of the campus and be able to set the direction going forward.

[00:56:57] Mary: Yeah, I think that’s very important. And I would say this isn’t a report so much as it’s a, a statement of good governance. This didn’t look to take any specific incident or example, which you mentioned, early on in the podcast,and analyze it. It really looks atwhat kind of evergreen, good guidance can we give our board members so that they can then take those lessons, if you will, and take those strategies, take those recommendations like the one you just described, thoughtful discussion, decision making, and policy making to build a shared understanding of core concepts.

[00:57:35] Mary: This is really critical, and what we’re hoping to do is provide those tools to board members so that they know how to, and they have a better,if you will, perspective on how they can navigate all of these differing voices and pressures. When they’re in the boardroom, it’s just, they’re in the boardroom and they have that responsibility, and so what we try to do at AGB is really articulate what those best practices are in governance, but then also providetoolkits and strategies, and hands on approaches to applying, if you will, those best practices. How do we apply them to make a difference in the best interest of our institution, in our own context, with our own pressures, our own culture, and the like.

[00:58:22] Drumm: And when we talk about, and I’m going to bring up a slightly divisive term, depending on where you are, diversity. Many folks are going against, you know, DEI initiatives, etc. But from my own perspective, and I think from yours as well, diversity is not about race, it’s not about ethic, it’s about diversity of thought.

[00:58:45] Drumm: And our own thoughts come out of our own life experiences, et cetera. So bringing those different perspectives into the boardroom to me is critical.

[00:58:57] Mary: Well, I think the reality is, and without getting into some of the larger political issues

[00:59:02] Drumm: Oh yeah. let’s not go there.

[00:59:03] Mary: but I think the point is an important one, which is that, we know well that better decisions are made when there is a diversity of viewpoints, around the table.

[00:59:14] Mary: This is true everywhere, and in all circumstances. Otherwise, you get into a kind of groupthink, where everybody, you, you have blind spots. And the way to, address blind spots, or try to anticipate blind spots, or catch blind spots, is when you have diversity of viewpoints, because lived experiences and the like will have people bring and see different things. Again, that isabout bringing those voices and making sure that all those voices can be heard. When we start shutting out voices and not bringing in and really, I think, striving for as diverse a collection of viewpoints as we can, then we are setting ourselves up for missing something important.

[00:59:57] Mary: Nothing’s 100 percent, but it certainly helps us along the way.

[01:00:02] Drumm: We just finished working with a client who had some issues around board governance and shared governance. And when you take a look, it’s been going on, they just, you know, a new president on board, the old president been there for 20 plus years. The board had listened exclusively to the president as he systematically broke down shared governance. And they’re back on the right track at this point, but they got away from listening to the diversity of thought.

[01:00:35] Mary: Yeah, and, and that happens, and, again, these things happen in most organizations at some point, and then what you want, again, if we can provide that, North Star of good guidance. One are the things we encourage our boards to do, for example, is to do a board assessment, a regular kind of self assessment. And it articulates some of these principles and ask the board members to really evaluate how they’re performing in their own eyes against some of these benchmarks. And that can be a really healthy process for boards to do. We encourage boards to do it. Honestly, in times when you’re not facing a crisis. The best time to kind of build good governance muscles is when you’re not in crisis, because then you can actually reflect and you can talk it through and you can reassert the values that, will enable your work to be more effective.

[01:01:27] Drumm: Yeah. Yeah. This is something that, that I’ve done with you at AGB that you have other folks do, but it’s something that my firm does as well, is you go out and you do a board survey, you talk to board members, you talk to stakeholders and get their perspectives of what’s going on. It’s sometimes, and it’s unfortunate, but it’s just human nature, sometimes we have a different perception of how our actions are, versus how they’re affecting other people’s. And so getting that stakeholder input is really critical.

[01:02:02] Mary: Yeah. And that’s true in any role. Any leadership role. I think. and certainly boards and board members are playing a very important leadership role. we also encourage, boards to really work closely with their, their president, chancellor, chief executive, because again, that individual is charged with actually implementing the mission. Right? Under the guidance of the strategy developed by the boards. And so it’s important for those conversations as well to happen. So there are a number of things that I think when those muscles are strong, when there is you know, attempts to influence from, from the outside.Again, it can be any kind of constituent, you hear those voices at different times in different places.Then there’s, I think, more clarity around what the mission is and more of an understanding of where, how we implement our fiduciary responsibilities, how we communicate strategy with our institutional leader and provide that support.

[01:03:01] Mary: And, you know, at times like, like today and having been a president, I noticed the article recently, I think it was an inside higher ed a few weeks ago about, why would anybody be a president today? You know, a lot of presidents are asking that, but this is something for boards to think about as well, because boards actually, you know, bring those presidents on board, and have to work with them and support them through these kinds of challenging times. And so the better the board understands its own role and its own, the way it thinks, the perspectives it brings, the strategy it would like to see in terms of implementing the mission. There can be more, I think, level setting of expectations between the board and the senior leadership and particularly the president. That can lead to, I think, some very healthy,and positive outcomes.

[01:03:48] Drumm: Absolutely. I knew this was going to happen. We are at the end of our time. We could go on and in fact, at some point in time, we probably should talk about that board chair, president relationship mean we could dedicate five podcasts to that alone, but to just wrap up our typical questions, three takeaways for board presidents, I’m sorry, university presidents and boards.

[01:04:16] Drumm: I’m getting tongue tied here.

[01:04:19] Mary: Well, I would say, well, it’s a pleasure and I’d love to come back and talk to you about the board chair president relationship. It is critical to the success of any institution.

[01:04:29] Mary: So I would say this, the three takeaways that governing boards really have to fall back onto their fiduciary duties. It’s very clear on one level it seems easy, right?

[01:04:40] Mary: Duties of loyalty, care, and obedience. It’s often harder than it looks, though, because it really does, you know, ensure that board members have to wrestle with some conflicting, perhaps, pressures. And that’s never easy, but we know that that’s critical. And so I’d say that’s takeaway number one.

[01:05:03] Mary: Takeaway number two, board independence is critical to preserving academic freedom. And that that is a key component to what makes the American model of higher education the envy of the world. And then third, I would say that, being a college president right now is really difficult. There are many challenges of all kinds, and so it’s really important for boards to, yes, hold presidents accountable for the expectations, but also provide guidance and provide counsel, and to support the president publicly and privately, so that together they can navigate whatever challenges they’re facing.

[01:05:42] Drumm: Now, those are great takeaways. Thank you, Mary.

[01:05:44] Drumm: What’s next for you? I mean, you’ve been at AGB now just a, just a few months. Lots of changes going on there as well.

[01:05:53] Mary: Yeah, well, I would say this first. I’m really excited to be at AGB. So this has been a wonderful sort of last stop here in my career. I’m thrilled and especially, to be working with our interim president, Ellen Chafee. I’d known Ellen by reputation, but not. And, I learned from her every day. She’s a remarkable leader and, is providing great, great leadership for AGB. So, so that’s really terrific. It’s the new year, so I’m excited to see where we can lead AGB over this next year. We will be attending a variety of meetings, including our foundation leadership forum. This is, uh, conference where we bring our institutionally related foundations together. And so that’ll be in LA. It’s my hometown, so I get to spend a little time with family and friends as well. and, then of course as we mentioned up front, I’ll be in Boston at AGB’s National Conference on Trusteeship. and I just had a phone call with a very old friend and mentor who I haven’t talked to for a long time, who’s based in the Boston area, so while I’m there, I’m gonna sneak out and catch up with, a mentor of mine who really helped set me on the path to higher education leadership.

[01:07:05] Drumm: That sounds like fun. Well, Mary, thank you so much for being on the show. I look forward to being able to see you again in person, in Boston.

[01:07:13] Mary: Looking forward to it, Drumm. Thank you. And you have a wonderful New Year as well.

[01:07:17] Drumm: Thank you very much. You too.


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