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Getting Down to Why

Getting Down to Why

Ellen Chaffee is an AGB senior fellow and consultant. The below post is a companion piece to her article in Trusteeship, "Getting Down to Why: How Boards Can Make a Difference."

Questions can produce the most profound moments in governance. Questions are valuable currency in challenging discussions, and simply asking Why? is especially apt in these volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous times.

Many board discussions address how to strengthen the institution, for example through the revenue model, enrollment development, and branding. Such discussions and strategic plans focus on the institution’s well being more than on its reason for being—why it exists.

As the saying goes, when you’re up to your neck in alligators, it’s hard to remember your goal is to drain the swamp. But survival is a means, not an end.

Research on turnaround management confirms that the most effective strategies are based on the institution’s most fundamental commitment to make a difference in the world—even when those strategies are counter-intuitive. For example, lowering admission standards fails to increase enrollment long term unless paired with ramped-up support for student success. Why? Because we’re in the learning business, not the enrollment business. Condensing degree programs and appropriately using tests or competency to replace tuition-bearing course work can benefit the balance sheets of both students and the institution. Why? Because we’re a service enterprise, not a credit vendor.

Do your institution’s strategies drive from a shared understanding of its core purpose? Try asking Why this action, Why this message, Why that policy? Listen for answers that relate more to students and society than institutional survival.

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