A board’s ability to be explicit about its expectations and performance standards for its members is a sign of healthy governance and a key to substantive trusteeship. To achieve this, a board should develop a statement of trustee responsibility to establish a shared understanding of those expectations and standards.
A statement of trustee responsibility lays out expectations against which a board member’s performance can be assessed and by which a prospective board member can assess his or her willingness to join the board. Statements go a long way toward clarifying the kind of commitment and guiding the behavior that all board members should seek in one another for the good of the institution and the people they serve.
According to AGB’s 2009 Survey on Higher Education Governance, 68 percent of all boards have a statement of trustee responsibility. They are slightly less common among boards of public institutions (63 percent) than among independent institutions (70%). Of those with these statements, 15 percent (of both public and independent boards) require members to sign them, typically when individuals join the board.
Typical Checklist of Trustee Responsibilities
- Sustain and advance the institution’s mission, traditions, values, and reputation
- Demonstrate functional understanding of the difference between oversight and management—that is, between the roles of the board and the administration
- Learn how the institution functions—its uniqueness, strengths, needs, finances, educational programs, and its place in higher education
- Regularly attend meetings of the board, well informed and prepared in advance
- Regularly attend meetings of board committees as assigned, well informed and prepared in advance
- Provide philanthropic support through personal contributions and the identification and solicitation of potential contributors to the institution
- In keeping with the board’s policy on conflict of interest, disclose promptly and fully any potential or actual conflicts of interest, and personally maintain exemplary ethical standards
- Recognize that the president and the administration are responsible to the board as a whole and not to individual trustees
- Be committed to serving the institution as a whole rather than any part of it or any personal or political cause
- Support the consensus of the board after fully exercising the responsibility to debate and disagree
- Maintain confidentiality as required or appropriate
- Serve as a public advocate and ambassador for the institution. Advocate the institution’s interests, but speak for the board or the institution only when authorized to do so by the board or the chair