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Trusteeship Magazine

The Board's Role in Institutional Transformation

By Elizabeth D. Holder
March/April
2017

For more than 125 years, Agnes Scott College has been a highly regarded liberal-arts college for women. But in a time of increased public skepticism about the value of a liberal-arts education and intense competition for students from public, private, and for-profit institutions, we were facing formidable headwinds. Only a small percentage of high school girls will even consider attending a women’s college, and Agnes Scott lacked a strong national brand or distinctive market niche.

Confronted with an unsustainable business model, the board adopted a strategic financial plan in 2011 that identified six steps to financial strength, beginning with a $3 million, 7 percent reduction in annual operating expenses. But we knew that cost-cutting by itself was not a workable strategy. Agnes Scott needed to achieve significant enrollment and revenue growth to sustain its mission and come up with a more compelling answer to the question, “Why Agnes Scott?”

Over the next three years, the trustees, in partnership with the president, faculty, and staff, developed, market-tested, and launched a bold signature initiative, SUMMIT. It reinvents a liberal-arts education for the 21st century by providing every student, regardless of her major, with a robust focus on global learning and leadership development supported by a personal board of advisors.

SUMMIT launched in 2015. While we still have a long way to go, it has already had a transformative impact. Agnes Scott enrolled its largest first-year class two years in a row, a 21 percent increase over pre- SUMMIT enrollment, and saw a remarkable 25 percent increase in yield. Last fall, three-quarters of incoming students reported that SUMMIT was “very important” or “important” to their decision to enroll. Retention also hit an all-time high of 87 percent, with dramatic increases in student satisfaction with advising. Annual revenue from students is up by $3.4 million over pre- SUMMIT levels.

Launching SUMMIT required our board to embrace transformational change and then to lead. Trustees contemplating significant institutional change should consider these components, which were key to our success:

Empower the president to innovate. The board empowered the president to spearhead the initiative and supported her throughout the ups and downs of the process. Her smart approach, positive attitude, and powers of persuasion ultimately converted the skeptics.

Promote a collaborative spirit. Early on, the board invited key faculty and staff to off-campus, overnight retreats. Spirited, frank conversations built trust and mutual respect while breaking down perceived silos. Together, we grasped the gravity of our shared challenges and embraced new opportunities for the college’s future. These joint conversations have become regular aspects of our governance.

Insist on research-driven change. Our new direction needed to be based on data and rigorous market research, so the board hired a consultant to complete a strategic positioning study, testing our ideas in the marketplace.

Be risk savvy. The board boldly committed substantial startup investments from the college’s endowment to launch SUMMIT. We knew the stakes were high and were willing to bet on the college’s future.

Respect faculty ownership. While the board created a framework for this new vision, we respected shared governance and the role of the faculty. The faculty, through its existing committee structure, designed and implemented the SUMMIT curriculum.

Ensure accountability. Once SUMMIT was launched, the board needed to exercise oversight. We established a task force to measure quantitative and qualitative outcomes and evaluate the return on our startup investment.

Our journey to institutional transformation required a robust creative partnership among trustees, president, faculty, and staff. Each respected shared governance and, at different times, took significant “leaps of faith” to move the process forward. By recognizing and embracing the need for change and working together, we accomplished our goal. We created a more distinctive and compelling answer to the question, “Why Agnes Scott?”

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