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Trusteeship Magazine

Four Key Lessons about Governance

By James Otieno
July/August
2015

While I have learned many lessons over my five years as board chair at Palo Alto University (PAU), I find four key areas are of special importance: the creation of mission and purpose, shared governance, the student experience, and the board chair-president relationship.

Mission and Purpose

Our role and responsibility as board members is to ensure that we have the appropriate policies and oversight processes in place that will enable management to operate effectively and efficiently. As such, determining the mission and purpose is no different. While board members may not necessarily be the main drivers, they are, nonetheless, co-conspirators in ensuring that the institution has an identity and common purpose that provide meaning and focus to deliberations and help seemingly disparate groups make sense of—and give meaning to—the direction taken. Simply put, our mission at PAU is to engage minds and improve lives, locally and globally, through innovative education. Our purpose is embedded in mission.

Shared Governance

Shared governance is a common catchphrase in higher education that means different things to different people. At PAU, we credit our success to operating under a shared governance model in its simplest form: It is a partnership among faculty members, administrators, board members, and students with the goal of coming to a common view. Our belief and practice is that if all constituents work together in good faith, we stand a greater chance of arriving at the best solution because we are all vested in the outcome. Shared governance has been effective for us in developing our mission and purpose statement and strategic plans; implementing an enterprise management system; and tackling space and facilities issues, among other challenges.

Of course, shared governance does not imply that board members give up their decision-making role with respect to policies, nor does it mean that faculty give up their authority over academic programs and course offerings, or that the president gives up his or her operating-decision rights. It does, however, enhance the quality of the solution in most situations and create inclusion. The key tenet is respectful discourse and gathering input through which each constituency’s voice is heard, even if the end result does not necessarily reflect the desires of all constituencies. That is an acceptable outcome of our form of shared governance. It certainly has helped build community at PAU.

The Student Experience

Institutions like PAU exist to serve students. It is vital that we not lose sight of that and that we create an environment that fosters positive professional growth experiences. To that end, we have instituted a number of initiatives to ensure our continued “student-centric” focus, including:

  • A tuition stabilization program that holds tuition steady for a student’s entire tenure at PAU;
  • A student portal and enterprise management system to ease access to administrative, financial, and academic processes; and
  • An annual student council reception hosted by the board chair.

Our aspiration is that all students leave PAU having had a positive experience.

The Relationship between the Board Chair and President

Allen Calvin, our outgoing president, and I operate on the sound practice of “no surprises.” He and I understand our roles and have formed a complementary partnership. His success hinges on the support of all of the board, especially the chair.

To ensure that we carry out our roles in an atmosphere of trust and respect, we established a practice of weekly lunch meetings that serve several purposes. They allow him to update me on important issues at the university and permit me to discuss governance issues or topics in a timely manner. They provide both of us an opportunity to suggest and explore alternative approaches to an issue and allow for clarification as well as a channel for venting.

The practice has created a stronger bond between us. We know each other better because of these weekly luncheons. It is a practice that I recommend highly to all presidents and board chairs as they seek to serve their institutions better.

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