System chief executives, state elected officials, and governing boards themselves share responsibility for developing the high-performing boards that public higher education systems need. AGB's recent report, Consequential Board Governance in Higher Education Systems, examines how to ensure effective board governance across the nation’s approximately 55 public higher education systems.
Overarching aims for all parties should include improving governing board focus, capacity, and independence.
Focus. The main business of the system board is to uphold the integrity of the enterprise. That is, it must oversee strategies of scope and scale that effectively leverage the entire system to meet the needs of diverse citizens. Some of the board’s most essential work includes balancing educational quality assurance with increased degree-completion rates.
Capacity. In order to perform well, boards require highly cultivated human capital and thoughtful approaches to their work. Board-member appointing authorities must spend time learning and thinking about their boards’ needs. Officials who appoint board members often have extraordinarily large candidate pools to choose from, so there should be every opportunity to appoint the most capable, engaged, and committed members who will approach the task with the appropriate gravity and enthusiasm; there is no excuse for appointing members who are disruptive or will not take their positions seriously. Board education, meeting constructs, and the level of discussion should reflect the system’s highest aspirations. How the board is deployed outside of meetings should demonstrate the board and system head’s collective sense of the board as a highly capable asset.
Independence. In order to operate at a level of excellence, a system board must act as a single, independent body. It must listen attentively but remain free from external influences and political intrusion. It must recognize that its responsibility is to the broad public, not to any one elected official or small group of them. While the board should certainly support its system head, it should also, in private, be her or his most constructive critic, with the abiding goal of helping that person be as successful as possible in the position. Maintaining an independent stance is a continuous challenge for even the most capable and focused boards, and state leaders and system heads must do all they can to support boards’ fundamental independence. Boards must also acknowledge the reality that policymakers are often more willing to extend greater discretion to boards whose systems and institutions show progress in meeting the particular challenges of their state and region.