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Highlights from the 2014 National Conference on Trusteeship

At the beginning of April, the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities (AGB) welcomed more than 1,000 attendees to its 2014 National Conference on Trusteeship, held in Orlando, Florida. Presidents, board professionals, and other board leaders attended dozens of sessions covering topics of interest, import, and timeliness to those in higher education, including educational quality, shared governance, technology, and the changing business model. The conference was preceded by the annual Workshop for Board Professionals and 17 preconference workshops, including ones specifically for new trustees, board chairs, presidents, and international participants.

New Approaches to 21st Century Governance

The National Conference on Trusteeship provided unique opportunities for participants to expand their understanding of governance issues through presentations and conversations with some of the nation’s foremost thought leaders in higher education. This year’s conference featured five plenary sessions, each focused on developing new skills for governing in the 21st century.

Former chair of the Council of Economic Advisers and then-youngest member of President Obama’s cabinet, Austan Goolsbee, discussed the U.S. economic recovery and what is means for our boards and institutions. Dr. Goolsbee remarked that while the long-term outlook is positive, there will be continued economic strain in the short-term. Add a dysfunctional Washington to the equation and it’s easy to understand why the outlook is overly pessimistic. However, as Dr. Goolsbee highlighted, the economy has the right elements for a strong recovery, including a robust higher education sector that continues to serve as a strength of the U.S. economy by developing productive workers, promoting an entrepreneurial spirit in its graduates, and being a magnet for international students.

The following day was kicked off by best-selling author, Daniel Pink, who discussed the art and science of influence and motivating others. High performance is driven, not by carrots and sticks, but by the need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better in the world for ourselves and for others. These elements have often been touted as key characteristics of the millennial generation – representative of the majority of students we educate. These ideas will have important ramifications for our boards and how we lead our institutions. Mr. Pink’s presentation slides can be viewed on the conference webpage.

Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, engaged participants as a luncheon keynote speaker. He enthralled participants with a 50-year perspective on American higher education through the lens of racial equality and service. He emphasized that board members should have a substantive understanding of social issues and what the institution can and should accomplish. Specifically, he called board members and institutional leaders to support science education, but more importantly, critically thinking graduates.

AGB was honored to welcome the Department of Education’s Acting Undersecretary, Jamienne Studley, to the national conference. She shared her thoughts on President Obama’s ambitious plan for higher education and the national ranking system. She stressed that the principles of access, results, simplification, and transparency will drive the administration’s approach to these issues. With the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act looming, there is additional concern about what the changes will mean for our board members and institutions. This is especially true for our minority serving institutions and small colleges whose missions may not be reflected in an under-nuanced ranking system.

The final plenary session was a panel discussion of innovative presidents moderated by AGB Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, Susan Whealler Johnston. The panel featured Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland at Baltimore County; Renu Khator, chancellor of the University of Houston System and president of the University of Houston; Leo Lambert, president of Elon University; Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University; and Mary Evans Sias, president of Kentucky State University. Innovative institutions have, by definition, innovative leaders at the top and dynamic, engaged boards. The distinguished panelists concluded that it takes great ambition and passion for trustees to serve institutions. When combined, these ideals will assist board members in being good story tellers and advocates for their institutions.

Emerging Issues in Higher Education Governance

The concurrent sessions of the National Conference shone light on higher education’s essential issues, including technology, the board’s role in radical change, student safety and sexual misconduct, and health care in higher education. Just prior to the national conference, the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that football players at Northwestern University qualify as employees and thus have the right to unionize. This decision prompted the addition of a special concurrent session, moderated by Carol Cartwright, president emerita of Kent State University and a member of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. Dr. Cartwright walked attendees through the wide-ranging implications for Division I college athletics as well as the larger review and questioning of the NCAA governance structures.

AGB’s National Commission of College and University Board Governance held an open forum for NCT attendees to hear about the issues the commission is addressing and the progress it has made to date. Specifically, the commissioners highlighted the ways in which college and university boards can meet expectations for increased oversight and accountability without crossing the line into institutional administration and day-to-day operations. Participants inquired about the future of shared governance (among boards, faculty, and presidents) and how it might be reformed to better address the challenges facing institutions. For more information on the commission, please visit here. The findings will be released in a report later this year.

President Obama’s plan for a national ranking system was a hot topic at our breakout institutional peer session on HBCUs. AGB consultants, Terence Murchison and Alvin Schexnider, facilitated a multidimensional discussion on the future of HBCUs, including AGB’s National Initiative. Building on the knowledge and experience of the HBCU leaders who gathered, the facilitators discussed improving the governance of these important institutions and setting a course for future engagement on the issues.

Continue the Conversation

While the 2014 National Conference on Trusteeship may be over, we invite all attendees—and those AGB members who were unable to attend—to continue the conversations started in Orlando. Select presentations and handouts from the National Conference on Trusteeship and the Workshop for Board Professionals are available online. Simply select a session for more information and to download the session materials.

Videos from this year’s conference, as well as plenary highlights from previous years, are available through AGBU, the Knowledge Center, and on AGB’s YouTube page. We invite you to share your own pictures, as well, and to continue to connect with us and your colleagues.

If you are looking to more deeply explore a specific topic from the conference, we also invite you to visit AGB’s bookstore or review upcoming events for this summer and fall. And finally, don’t forget to save the date for next year’s National Conference on Trusteeship—April 19-21 in Phoenix, Arizona.

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