The New Rules of Engagement: It’s time for boards of trustees to look at the way they govern themselves

May 1, 2013

Brian C. Mitchell

The many levels of hierarchy in higher education are a kaleidoscope of power struggles and egos. The responsibilities of each level can be unclear, leading to administrative chaos. Above all, trustees who overstep their authority and neglect to direct policy can weaken an institution’s mission and diminish its educational product.

In 2008, as the recession began to deepen, many American colleges and universities went into crisis mode. Those with large endowments faced tough choices; smaller and less well-situated institutions focused on the potential impact of the recession on incoming classes. Higher education leaders delayed capital projects, pegged average tuition increases to about two percentage points above inflation, postponed hiring, and renegotiated terms on institutional debt. Each institution is unique, of course, and responses reflected this.

What is perhaps most surprising is that so few institutions used the serious economic downturn to innovate. Many employed a “duck and cover” strategy, wasting an opportunity to bring their institutions more in line with the needs of American higher education in the twenty-first century. At most colleges and universities, the incrementalists won the day.

During a recession, the institutional engines power down to a whisper. Older projects may go forward, accreditation reviews proceed, and institutional milestones continue to be met. But at the same time, the recent retrenchment has resulted in fewer faculty appointments, depressed salary increases, and “efficiency” measures that sometimes seem like death by a thousand cuts.

A Quiet Crisis

Predictably, the recession uncovered fundamental operational and structural weaknesses in American higher education. Few institutions managed to be as nimble as they should have been in responding to the depressed economy. Even fewer presidents had the courage to call on their boards of trustees to think strategically, make bold plans, innovate, and invest. The harsh truth is that the culture into which “change” presidents are placed commonly accepts limited programmatic innovation, except when it emerges from the faculty, and is intolerant of structural innovation. The culprits are not usually the faculty. Trustees who fail to comprehend or who are unreceptive to cultural change on campus are more likely to be worthy of blame.

College and university governance is always presented as a three-legged stool: boards of trustees, administration, and faculty. In fact, in the best governance situations, parents, alumni, students, donors, and the broader community are also widely consulted, and all parties understand the rules of engagement. Under this arrangement, the administration manages the institution; the faculty shapes, defines, nurtures, and protects the quality of the academic program; and the trustees take on the critical responsibilities of serving as stewards of the college’s finances, setting policy, and creating a climate that enables the president to succeed. The institutional buck stops with the trustees. And therein lies the problem.

A new set of circumstances developed during the recession. Although college and university presidents had accounted for issues like changing demographics, increased technological costs, and an end to tuitionfueled operational fixes, most did not anticipate the impact of changes in how students learned. The explosion of online education, the expansion of university brands to create a more global presence, the integration of technology into the classroom, and pressure from state and federal officials and accreditors to improve outcomes contributed to the new educational climate. But, ultimately, families voted with their feet as the recession continued. More than 40 percent of the college-going population now begins postsecondary education in community colleges. The for-profit sector, despite being plagued by loan default and other scandals, branded itself effectively and captured significant market share. The cost-benefit analysis has set in. Arguments about the value of the residential liberal arts experience make little difference, it seems, in an era when the race to the top is all about workforce preparation.

For these four-year colleges and universities—representing the tradition and heart of the American collegiate experience—the question has become how to communicate worth. What happens when you manage the institutional “brand” in ways that have become profoundly disconnected from how today’s students think, learn, and work beyond the collegiate gates? Why do most boards fail to have the discussion, helpful to the faculty, about not what but how a student can be taught most effectively?

How students learn is now the single most important policy question before governing boards. How these boards respond—and the vision that they provide—will determine their continued relevancy as partners in shaping educational policy in the twenty-first century.

Board Structures

If college and university governing boards are to face the future confidently and provide proper oversight, then trustees must begin by looking at the way they govern themselves. In doing so, a number of considerations should not be forgotten: mission, structure, relations within governance with the president and senior staff and faculty, outreach to broader constituencies, and outcomes.

The membership of boards depends on the type of institution. Private institutions usually have about thirty board members, who are elected to meet a particular set of needs and aspirations. Alumni trustees constitute the overwhelming majority on these boards. Other trustees may be chosen for expertise, diversity and gender balance, political acumen, financial savvy, and donor capacity. Occasionally, boards maintain some level of faculty and student representation, at least on some of their standing committees. Attached to “voting” trustees are the emeriti, a group of often distinguished and wealthy individuals who collectively play a role as the wise old sages of the board. The governance committees of these boards spend countless hours deciding how to put these pieces together to match available talent to the institution’s strategic needs.

The problem with the structure of these boards is obvious to anyone who, like me, has served as a trustee. A “call for nominations” among board members often produces little more than a list of friends. At some institutions, certain classes, Greek chapter houses, and athletic team alumni predominate as the board recycles itself into seeming perpetuity. Emeriti trustees can be vocal, opinionated, and obstinate, remembering the college of their youth as the model for institutional vision and momentum. The worst of them use their giving priorities as a bully pulpit, with threats to withdraw support implied or stated. Trustees selected for their experience in business or finance can be helpful because, like it or not, colleges and universities operating within the global economy must survive and prosper in a competitive business setting. The worst of this group, however, take the business or professional school case study and superimpose it on a system of shared governance. Another group, trustees drawn from the “jockplex” that so many universities created as college sports became a big business, tends to see the academic program as secondary and has been remarkably successful in linking the institutional brand to the performance of athletic teams.

In the public sector, the approach is the same, although the mix of politically appointed members adds an interesting wrinkle. The work of public sector boards is also shaped by open-records and sunshine laws. For some state officials, the ability to determine institutional vision depends directly on their ability to appoint their supporters to the board. Public-sector boards have many distinguished public and private members, but they behave at best as semiautonomous state agencies, despite the precipitous decline in state support. The result can be an uneven or incomplete talent pool from which to recruit new members.

The problem is exacerbated by the increasing need for public-sector boards to behave like the boards of private colleges and universities. Faced by new challenges, especially in policy and fundraising, trustees wrestle with how best to compete while operating under rules shaped by archaic state bureaucracies. This is especially true at research-intensive public universities, whose multibillion-dollar enterprises are global and tied to the nation’s economy and political interests.

Reconfiguring Boards

How, then, can we best deal with inherited and outmoded forms of governance in the twenty-first century? If how students learn is the dominant question, how best can boards be reconstituted to deal with this issue?

It is time for boards of trustees to assert the predominance of academics. Once the mission is restated and reinvigorated, college and university leaders need to examine the composition and structure of boards. Boards of trustees are inefficient, unnecessarily political, and duplicative in form and function. They are too large, unwieldy, and open to personality and intrigue. Alumni often predominate, and the issues of most importance to the loudest members move to the front for consideration. Talented board members who are not alumni and less senior alumni are often excluded or marginalized, despite the fresh contributions that they might make. When the trustees, emeriti, and faculty and staff members are gathered together at a board meeting, the meeting can quickly take on the theatrics of a Broadway show. For presidents, surviving the moment is often the only and best option.

As policy and oversight groups, boards need to be much smaller, focus exclusively on institutional direction, and work with the president to achieve it. A core group of trustees could form such an oversight board. These trustees would bring challenges and opportunities for the institution to their fellow trustees, faculty members, and other interested and committed constituencies. The oversight board would have a special responsibility to review the “dashboard metrics” that objectively measure the institution against its strategic plan and outside forces. And its members would of necessity work closely with the president to support the vision proposed. They would have to meet often enough, whether in person or through other means, to ensure accountability. And finally, they would have to be open and transparent in their actions.

A second, larger group of trustees can play an important role in diminishing the insularity that characterizes most board meetings. This group would provide a place where the faculty and members of the board could come together to look at the competitive world of higher education, the history and traditions of the institution, faculty interests in program design, and the capacity of the institutional vision to support change. The smaller oversight group would be well advised to monitor these discussions carefully, since they are the best predictor of how well the institution is grounded and how best to develop and sustain momentum.

Other groups of trustees might emerge, reporting to the board and using dashboard metrics to measure progress and success in areas where most board members have a dearth of experience, such as development, human resources, facilities, and managing endowments. By drawing from the community of experts who can join trustees and by creating metrics to be reviewed by the oversight board and the larger board, a more representative system of government could be fostered. And in a system of shared governance, the perception of inclusiveness can be almost as important as the reality.

In the larger group of trustees, the central question should always be, “How do our students learn?” If the trustees have established the primacy of the institution as an academic enterprise, then their charge becomes apparent: to bring the world to their institution and showcase the institution, in turn, to the world.

Working with the faculty and staff, board members should serve as facilitators of that one key element that gets lost in the current quarterly deliberations of trustees—ongoing conversations about great, new ideas that determine how the next generation of students will learn. Under this new structure, the board meeting would become the forum at which faculty members, administrators, and trustees meet to breathe life into the college’s strategic plan. In doing so, the board would also review the work of the smaller oversight group, the dashboard metrics from all groups, and the recommendations from advisory groups with special expertise. The effect on transparency, communication, capital expenditures, and morale would be immediate and lasting.

Once the trustees address the issue of mission and structure, the next concern should be building the relationships through which they obtain information. They should start with their relationship with the president.

Lines of Authority

In a system of shared governance, lines of authority must be clear. Trustees—many of whom are alumni, have long-standing personal relationships with staff members, or feel empowered as one-person emissaries to observe the campus climate—can abuse the privilege of their positions. Information can be gathered by the board through its leadership team as part of a presidential or campus-wide evaluation, but this process must be fair. Empowered staff members use board connections, student newspapers, faculty friendships, and staff gossip to undermine a president’s actions more commonly than some might imagine. One key responsibility of a board chair is to impose discipline on the board.

The relationship with the board chair can determine the success of a president or stop the momentum of an institution. If the chair’s role is to preside, then he or she ultimately has the power to support the president. Just as presidents must have the courage to manage and lead, board chairs must have the skills and courage to preside. Boards must have the confidence to let them do so.

It’s probably best, therefore, to begin a presidency with an understanding between the president and the board of trustees about what the term CEO means to them. Is the title more ceremonial and the role more like that of a chief operating officer because the board is reluctant to share power, influence, and authority? Success begins with all sides understanding the challenges that face them and the terms and conditions that govern their relationships as they meet those challenges.

These relationships extend to the faculty. At the best institutions, trustees must be the leading advocates for the faculty while not abandoning their policy and fiduciary responsibilities.

Presidents often cringe when a trustee, trying to be helpful, suggests a specific program change rather than pitching a general concept, format, or idea. Someone once asked me to define the role of a college president at moments when faculty members and trustees interact. I suggested that presidents hold a corporate title, operating as nineteenth-century urban ward bosses— connecting people, rationing resources, and doing favors—while working with a medieval craft guild. If the faculty is akin to a guild, then the most important first step a trustee can take is to appreciate the artisan, admire the craftsmanship, and support development of the product. With the faculty, process matters.

Both sides must come to terms with those lines that they cannot cross. They must leave the ideological debates and posturing to the social hour. And trustees must understand that clapping loudly when the tenure decisions are celebrated at the annual fete for promoted faculty members can help bridge a chasm that otherwise seems impossible to cross.

Finally, trustees must pay attention to groups like students, alumni, and parents who are not part of the formal governance structure. Student involvement is obviously critical and already well documented. While every institution can point to wonderful programs that benefit enormously from alumni input, most alumni are pigeonholed either as “keepers of the flame,” admission and graduate counselors, or development prospects. Higher education leaders seldom link the work of alumni to a dynamic vision of where the institution is headed. They fear backlash from alumni on hot-button issues involving Greek life, athletics, academic programming, and demographics.

New Roles

There is always one more comprehensive campaign to begin or complete. The board solution is often to coddle alumni. However, among major groups like faculty members, students, and parents, history may suggest that alumni are the least receptive to change precisely when American higher education is at a tipping point. But it is at this moment that alumni can be of most help to their alma mater.

We can remember fondly the not-too-distant past, when sports and alcohol preoccupied collective thinking among many alumni at certain institutions. Yet alumni live in the broader world, have the best interests of the institution at heart, and are connected to the currents that are changing American society.

Boards must rethink the role of alumni. First, alumni need to reclaim their position at the table as real partners and not just donors and boosters. They must also think less about how an institution’s best traditions can be kept sacrosanct. Alumni must apply to the institution that they cherish the same search for excellence that governs their professional lives. They need to worry about how students move “from cradle through career.” Boards should focus alumni efforts on those objective metrics that relate to where alumni can offer the most help today.

As we slowly come to the end of the deep economic recession, now is probably also the right moment for colleges and universities to take stock of the role of parents. Parents are a tremendously underutilized resource. They should not interfere with the duties and responsibilities of trustees, senior administrators, and faculty members—the principal players in shared governance. But, in the end, the role of parents in college life amounts to more than the thickness of their wallets. They can be invaluable and trusted advisers, communicators, and promoters of a college’s institutional vision. They are proud of their daughters and sons and of the institutions that accepted them. Many of them bleed the school’s colors as deeply and readily as their children.

Parents want what is best for their children. Their time frame typically extends through the four years that their children attend the institution. Of all the messages that parents convey to trustees, the most important is urgency. As consumers, they have done the comparative shopping and may see the weaknesses in programs, facilities, and practices. Parents can provide board members with insight into these weaknesses. It’s a tremendous gift—if board members listen. The governance of American colleges and universities has reached an important crossroads in its design and evolution. It is time for boards of trustees to think about how they acquire information, set policy, relate to other players, and assess outcomes. They cannot reasonably expect to find efficiency and agility in campus practices if they remain models of outdated practice. Worse yet, such boards will be unprepared to react to changes forced upon them from the outside, and especially from changes in how students learn.

The quiet crisis in board governance must be addressed soon. For American colleges and universities to thrive in the twenty-first century, leaders must adapt how and what they do. We need trustees who are up to the task.

Brian C. Mitchell is the CEO and director of the Edvance Foundation and president of Brian Mitchell & Associates, LLC. He is the retired president of Bucknell University, former president of Washington and Jefferson College, and immediate past chair of the board of trustees at Merrimack College. Mitchell writes and speaks extensively on higher education and writes weekly posts for the Huffington Post, Today’s Campus, and Academe Blog. His e-mail address is