Embracing a New Model for Higher Education Governance Part 3:

How New Board Roles Facilitate Institutional Transformation

Table of Contents

EMBRACING A NEW MODEL FOR HIGHER EDUCATION GOVERNANCE PART 3: How New Board Roles Facilitate Institutional Transformation

In our series Embracing a New Model for Higher Education Governance, part 1 discussed raising the bar for college and university leaders. In part 2 we covered the updated board duties. Now we continue the series and discuss how new board roles can facilitate institutional transformation. 

Higher education continues to face continual transformational change, and to successfully navigate this change requires a new model of work. While much of this focus is rightfully placed on the operations and academic sides of the equation, the governance process also must change to give colleges and universities the ballast comprised of insights, flexibility, and foresight to move forward confidently in the changing global environment.

This new model for higher education governance extends to the board of trustees. No longer can board members see their role as rubber-stamping administrative recommendations and enjoying the perks, such as box seats in the football stadium. Instead, trustees need to shift their role to one of oversight for the university and a consultant who brings a high level of expertise to the table.

What does the shift to a new model look like? The National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD) Blue Ribbon Commission has offered guidance in “Fit for the Future: An Urgent Imperative for Board Leadership.” While this report covers boards from all industries, its points are very salient for higher education.

Rethinking Board Membership

Boards of trustees need to thoughtfully define the characteristics, behaviors, and skills required in both board and administrative leaders. This is especially important for the board chair, who serves as the figurehead and main spokesperson for the board and – along with the president – for the college and university.

One study that found, while many board members have experience in leadership, finance, and strategic planning, other key experience areas – technology, investments, and global perspective – are lacking. Therefore, it’s important to gauge your own board’s skill set to determine what areas need to be added and to balance the board’s portfolio of experiences.

Boards also need to consider the character of each trustee. Individual attributes should include:

  • Fortitude
  • Vigilance
  • Adaptability
  • Superb communication skills
  • Relationship building
  • Inclusiveness
  • Humility

These descriptions will vary based on the challenges and opportunities that higher education is facing. Additionally, these requirements, which should be periodically refined, should emphasize fortitude and adaptability.

An onboarding process for new trustees is also an important element. This process should set expectations for the board member while also reiterating the fiduciary duties. This induction process should help the new board members see how the committee structure works as well as the difference in roles and responsibilities between the board and campus leadership.

With that said, boards of trustees should begin considering a pipeline of future leaders who could be prepared for future service. Ideally, these individuals would have some involvement in the institution’s advisory boards at the department, college, or campus level – and ideally, at all three levels–so they begin to have a better understanding of how the college or institution operates. These individuals also could serve on board task forces and ad hoc committees as outside stakeholders, which again would give them a feel for trustees’ responsibilities.

Board Engagement

Boards need to become more engaged with the institution without stepping into micromanagement or losing its objectivity. To accomplish this, we suggest an open and candid dialogue between the board and the institution’s senior leadership about their respective roles and responsibilities. This could include hearing trustees’ feedback on areas where they want deeper involvement and brainstorming how this could support institutional governance. The engagement also should be around the shared vision for the institution as well as the different analyses that were done in the strategic planning process.

The board also needs to take a more proactive role in engaging in innovation, change, and embracing a new model for higher education governance. This is especially important in today’s climate where higher education is facing the most significant rate of change in its history.

Assessing management’s ability to maintain alignment of key areas such as strategy, risk management, culture, and talent to help the institution move forward on the institution’s strategic plan is also important. This also includes the ability to shift as needed based on the changing environment.

Finally, by creating a framework that encourages more frequent and focused communication between the board and campus leadership, the day-to-day issues can be quickly resolved. This opens up time in meetings for more strategic discussions about the long-term vision for the institution.

Inclusive Governance

In today’s ever-fractured world, it’s increasingly important for boards to create an inclusive governance environment where all voices can be heard. This includes mindfully bringing in new board members who may not come from the traditional circles of the past.

Additionally, boards need to create a culture that values constructive and candid conversations that include every voice. Additionally, it is imperative for boards to continue to be able to work congenially even if the conversation includes controversial concepts. Instead, boards need to reframe their viewpoints to identify opportunities and encourage innovation.

One way to do this is through better use of board committees. We believe that, at a minimum, higher ed boards should have the following standing committees:

  • Executive
  • Strategy and risk (including marketing)
  • Finance
  • Audit
  • Academic affairs
  • University life (which includes employee, athletics, and culture).

We also believe that these committees should be comprised of both board members and institution members who are ex officio members of the committees. It is through the committees that board members can stay in better touch with what is going on in the institution.

With the external environment changing as rapidly as it is, the full board does not have the bandwidth to fulfill its fiduciary duties and oversee the institution as it should. Thus, delegating some of this oversight to committees makes good sense.

This is not to say that board committees and their members should begin micromanaging and giving direction to the institution and bypassing the president. The president should be an ex officio member on all committees with the exception of the executive committee. Whereas these committees can have decision-making power as delegated from the full board, they should not be used to bypass the board or administration. The committee charters should clearly specify what duties the board is delegating to the committee and what types of decisions must be referred to the full board.

Board Members Continuous Learning

Boards need to continue to learn as much as administrative leaders. While some of this learning may be individual in nature, other educational areas may involve higher education as a whole or the institution specifically.

Trustees must identify specific topics to monitor as part of their external environment scan, topics that include emerging economic and technology trends, governance issues, regulatory developments, stakeholder issues, and team dynamics and decision-making. Additionally, higher education needs to consider global issues as well since international changes can affect student enrollment, curriculum, research, and finances, among others.

This is one of the reasons why an annual board retreat is so important. Each board should schedule a 2-3 day retreat to assess where it is at, conduct training, and review the institution’s mission and strategic plan.  

Additionally, boards should conduct an annual board evaluation to assess where they are against goals and performance metrics. Many institutions hire an outside consultant to conduct this type of evaluation – the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges and The Change Leader and are two such organizations that are known for their ability to conduct such objective evaluations. This is yet another item that should be done as part of the annual board retreat.

Creating Board Agility

Because the world is changing so rapidly, boards need to be flexible in the way they work. This begins with the agenda-setting process. Key among the recommendations is taking a forward-looking view (as opposed to focusing on the past and on compliance) with an opportunity for open conversation and consideration of important issues. Meeting time needs to be allocated wisely so that agenda items that have the most potential also receive the most time for consideration.

This is one of the reasons why it is so critical for higher ed boards to recruit the right type of directors with the right skills. For example, one board we recently worked with had almost ZERO higher ed experience on its board, and because of this, they were not in touch with the latest trends on education. This caused them to ask the administration to do things that made little or no sense – things that had been done 40 years ago but were no longer valid.

In another case, the 95% of the board members were graduates of the institution, and whereas they had a deep loyalty, they remembered the “good old days” when they were students, and tried to push the university to become more like it was instead of what the external environment was dictating it needed to be.

Fluid interactions among board members and administration, which is possible thanks to today’s technology, can allow cross-fertilization between committees that have overlapping or interlinked mandates, use of special board committees or task forces, and involvement of advisory panels. Additionally, board members can spend time with organizational talent beyond the president or vice president level through the use of committees.

Higher Ed Board Transparency and Accountability

In today’s world where technology can capture anything and social media can share those findings immediately, transparency and accountability are required of a board of trustees. We recommend that the board’s annual objectives are clearly defined and then assessments are done on how the board delivers on these objectives.

One key area that creates a sense of accountability is the evaluation of the board. We recommend that boards agree on measures used to evaluate trustees’ performance. These performance goals should be based on the higher education institution’s strategic plan and its evolving business strategy.

Wrapping Up

The case for your institution embracing a new model for higher education governance is; higher education is rapidly evolving – and that transformation extends to the way that colleges and universities are governed.  This shift requires a different – and more mindful – approach to the selection and preparation of trustees. To be successful moving forward, boards need to have a distribution of skill sets among various trustees.

Additionally, trustees need to become lifelong learners in relation to board governance, higher education issues, and environmental trends that could create challenges as well as opportunities for colleges and universities. This training needs to include an onboarding process to help bring new trustees up to speed.

Boards also need to create processes and structures so their work can be agile, flexible, inclusive, transparent, and accountable. In doing this, the board works in partnership with administrative leaders instead of micromanaging.

Ultimately, these shifts will help boards assume a critical and well-informed role in helping colleges and universities to innovate. Through identifying and adding key skill sets, working together, and collaborating effectively, boards and administrators can help institutions navigate the rapid changes that are emerging.

More to explore in Higher Education Governance:

➡️ Embracing a New Model for Higher Education Governance Part 1: Raising the Bar for College and University Leaders

➡️ Embracing A New Model For Higher Education Governance Part 2: The Updated Board Duties

➡️ Embracing A New Model For Higher Education Governance Part 4: How The Board and President Relationships Have Evolved

➡️  Embracing A New Model For Higher Ed Governance Part 5: Board Improvement – Building A Culture Of Continuous Board Improvement And Accountability

➡️   Board Evolution as a Catalyst for Transformational Change in Higher Ed – Changing Higher Ed Podcast with Guest Gerry Czarnecki

➡️ Strategic Board Leadership Creates New University Governance Paradigm – Changing Higher Ed Podcast with Guest Henry Stoever

➡️ How to Prevent Accreditation Issues Due to Governance Failures



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