Early in the tenure of these trustees, we found a group eager to utilize their time, talent, and expertise to the benefit of the institutions they serve. However, we also found them facing the simultaneous challenges of being unfamiliar with many of the intricacies of academia and being underutilized as strategic partners by their institution’s senior leadership team. Presidents, current board members, and new board members play a role in addressing these issues. These stakeholders must work together to enhance board effectiveness, which is why we have woven our recommendations across these groups.
To engage on strategic matters, boards need to be well informed about the challenges facing their institutions. This can occur by providing comprehensive and robust trustee orientation followed by continuing education opportunities at each board meeting. Regular reviews of key university topics can help ensure boards and the institutions they serve remain on the same page on key policy matters, which can help limit the potential for misunderstanding and conflict. For example, one board meeting may be spent on an in-depth review of the university’s financial health and sustainability; another may examine campus infrastructure issues. These reviews should not simply become a “data dump” of information from the administration. Instead, they should involve careful preparation, an agenda focused on strategic issues, and a meaningful conversation among the board, president, and other pertinent stakeholders.
At the same time, an in-depth review of an important university issue should not become a platform for trustees to take over the day-to-day operations of the institution. Instead, it should serve as an opportunity to learn more about a particular area of the institution, ask better questions in an oversight capacity, and ultimately enhance the board’s ability to make more informed decisions.
To aid in producing effective strategic action at the board level, presidents and trustees should work together to establish a framework and expectations for regular and deep strategic discussions to help ensure a mutual understanding of trustees’ roles in institutional governance. It is best for each party to view such dialogue not as a chance to dictate to the other what its role should be, but to determine how the two parties can work together and fulfill their responsibilities most effectively.