Excellence, sustainability, agility. Business- world terms like these are used increasingly often in higher ed circles, including the boardroom, as—in areas from curriculum to technology to finance— we in higher ed governance are working toward multiple goals simultaneously, goals that are often in tension.
This balancing act is familiar to many people in the private sector, and our adoption of their vocabulary reflects our emerging awareness of this evolution. But naming a challenge is not the same as solving it. Those of us who govern colleges and universities must not just pay lip service to these competing aims, but embrace them and incorporate them into our governance culture.
To make the task even more challenging, we have to do all of this without compromising on our fiduciary responsibilities, which include an expectation of deliberation and respect for varied points of view, or on our appreciation for shared governance.
Across the country, many boards are facing the same dilemma. We want to see excellence and improvement on campus, but we have a harder time embracing it in our own practices. Boards can easily fall into a mode of “we’ve always done things that way.” There may be valid reasons for continuing traditional practices, but such assumptions should be tested and evidence assessed.
Our experience shows that it is possible to successfully engage in a process of board selfevaluationand improvement while reaffirming some long-standing practices. Several steps are essential for successfully navigating this process.
First, set aside the time, effort, and resources to engage in a disciplined process of self-reflection and self-evaluation. As a board, you expect superlative performance on the part of your institution and its leaders; you should expect the same from yourselves. At Grinnell, we asked these questions: How can our governance work be of the highest value to the college? How can we preserve our duty to exercise independent judgment while also serving as supportive and effective thought partners to our president and the leadership team?
We examined board effectiveness, determining that we were addressing the most important issues to ensure the institution’s future viability and sustainability. We also looked at re-engineering trustee expectations and accountability, leadership development, committee structure, and meeting frequency and format.
Second, develop a program of continuing board education. At Grinnell, our president and leadership team present an ongoing series of in-depth board webinars on topics from higher ed finance to Title IX. Whether you borrow our model or come up with your own, the key is to foster a board culture that values learning and fluency in the issues. If managed well, such a program facilitates nimble decision making and a more open attitude toward innovation and change. And the learning experience itself encourages healthier working relationships and trust between campus leaders and board members.
As a third and final step, use what you learn from your self-assessment and continuing education program to guide development of a set of board and committee metrics. The work you will have done to educate members about the state of higher education, anticipate new trends and risks, and improve governance have all prepared you to be more agile. But agile toward what end? In order to foster innovation in service of your mission, you need to develop and validate a set of shared objectives and then measure your progress toward them.
None of this is easy, or quick. We are talking about shifting away from a long-standing culture that values lengthy deliberation toward one that privileges the ability to swiftly anticipate trends, identifies opportunities and risks, and promotes innovation, without sacrificing your duty of care. And that spirit of innovation must serve your mission and values—a challenge that distinguishes us from much of the commercial sector.
It takes effort, but if we truly believe in our mission, we must become every bit as innovative as the institutions we govern.