The following essay was co-authored with PRG senior associate Laurie Fenlason, who is also the founder and principal of L. Fenlason Consulting. It is the companion to an essay that appeared in Inside Higher Ed on “Getting the President-Board Relationship Right.”
College and university governing boards have rarely faced the public spotlight as frequently and glaringly as they do today. The headwinds facing higher ed — enrollment pressures, challenges to the financial model, accelerated leadership turnover and political incursions on institutional mission, to name just a few — lie at the heart of a board’s duty of care for an institution.
Campus discourse about these matters is increasingly fractious, resulting in governance disputes playing out in social media and the public square. Campuses also face enormous pressure to respond to pressing societal needs, many of which lie beyond their institutional mission, of which trustees are the ultimate stewards. As we have seen on multiple campuses over the last several years, boards that are not sufficiently connected to the university’s history, mission and culture can work at odds with institutional leadership and, in extreme cases, tip challenges into full-blown crises.
While the board may be an essential partner during times of crisis, at its core the board ideally should be a forward-looking strategic asset for the institution. A board that keeps its eye on the long ball — focusing on the future, preserving the mission, protecting against threats and seeking strategic opportunities — is fulfilling its most important duty to steward the institution for future generations.
In our work with a range of college and university boards, we have seen a number of boards that are effectively engaged, bring their valuable perspectives to bear on important strategic questions and help institutional leaders keep their eyes on the far horizon. Unfortunately, we have also seen too many examples of boards where the discussion is not strategic, agendas are planned at the last minute and trustees are mostly passive receptacles for leadership and committee reports. For University presidents and experienced administrators who lead the institution on a day-to-day basis, it might be tempting to believe that a figurehead board, with trustees who largely rubber-stamp administrative proposals, show up for ceremonial events and make periodic gifts would be a satisfactory arrangement. If that were ever true in the past, it surely is not today.
An engaged trustee is one who meets the institutional moment with clarity and good will. An engaged trustee is knowledgeable of the institution of today, not merely the one defined by their generation or alumni experience. They ask sharp and insightful questions and offer counsel relevant to the current landscape and priorities. Drawing on their insider/outsider status, they can be persuasive ambassadors and trusted bridges between the campus and external constituencies. Engaged trustees are more effective at recruiting new members to the board, and they are more likely to take on board leadership roles. On boards with a philanthropic mission, engaged trustees are more likely to make gifts in support of institutional priorities and persuade others to be generous as well.
Disengaged trustees, by contrast, represent a missed opportunity, a source of distraction and a potential risk. Whereas engagement channels a board member’s energy in a positive direction, disengagement has the opposite effect. A trustee whose wisdom and talent are not being tapped is more likely to try to advance a pet project or focus on a personal crusade, diverting attention and focus from the pressing business at hand.
While every governing body is distinctive in its culture, high-performing, highly engaged boards share a number of hallmarks, some of which are evident in their meetings. Board and committee agendas are strategic and have a long planning arc, with trustees preparing in advance to be able to contribute to the topic at hand. Board deliberations involve multiple voices and perspectives. Constructive disagreement is sought and welcomed. Once a decision has been reached, no matter how hard-fought, the group is unified around the outcome. Conversations are focused on the future versus litigating the past.
The work to reap the benefits of an engaged board — and mitigate the risks of disengagement — becomes even more important when the board is relatively large. Large boards can inadvertently create an “insider-outsider” culture when those who serve in leadership roles meet more regularly, have more consistent access to institutional leaders and are privy to more complete information. Extra care must be taken to keep information flowing transparently to the entire board and to ensure that board members feel informed and consulted when important decisions are being made.
Board engagement doesn’t happen by accident, and boards that recognize the strategic value of engagement never take it for granted. They steward a positive, engaged culture as assiduously as they examine a balance sheet or strategic plan. They conduct frequent surveys, interviews and retreats focused on their own process and interactions, asking direct questions and inviting frank answers. They take seriously the advice of governance expert Richard P. Chait, who has said that, after every board meeting, a trustee should be able to answer the question, “Why did my participation in this meeting matter?”
Attending to board engagement is critically important work — and failing to do so will cede ground to competitors. An engaged board is invested in a future it helped to co-create, ensuring that the distinctive value and contributions of the institution will be preserved, reimagined and enhanced for generations to come.