A recent trend among college and university governing boards has been their continued evolvement toward being more engaged, interactive, issue driven. This evolution is a welcome departure from the historic mode of operation that tended to be more passive and disengaged, when meetings seemed to consist of a long litany of reports. One college president lamented that his board meetings had amounted to “press conferences by vice presidents,” as board members were inundated through information dissemination, much of which could be found in the board meeting book.
However, with this new modus operandi come new challenges for effective board governance. Presidents and their colleagues are aware that an engaged board can become an intrusive board, crossing the line between policy and operations, and, in the vernacular of an old Appalachian mountain saying, “have gone to meddling.” Consequently some presidents approach greater board engagement with trepidation.
To achieve the delicate balance between engagement and meddling, begin at the top with the board chair and the president. It really becomes a matter of promoting a healthy board culture characterized by a climate of trust, inclusiveness, transparency, clear communication protocols, and a welcome invitation for disparate views whereby members can “disagree agreeably.” A desirable board culture also discourages cliques, rogue trustees, polite dysfunctionality in meetings, and the periodic tendency of board members to interject themselves into administrative operations, however well intentioned they might be.
Many of us would contend that the most important single ingredient for an effective governing board is its culture.
Underscoring board culture is the social fabric that winds its way through board activities. Amidst the heavy lifting of board governing, there should be an element of fun and socialization. Consequently a basic part of building and shaping boards is the time spent together in receptions, dinners, board retreats, and campus events. It is an enduring facet of human nature that individuals will offer their honest opinions without fear of judgment when they get to know each other better on a personal level. It is the age old truism about team chemistry.
These desired board features of culture and social fabric do not occur by chance.
There must be intentionality in setting these values beginning with new trustee recruitment, board member orientation, mentorship, and ongoing board and member self-assessment. A healthy board culture thereby fosters a governance operation that draws upon the participation of all its distinctive members, with varying backgrounds and skill sets, to facilitate the best decision making possible. We must have no less in this most demanding and volatile of environments facing our institutions of higher education.