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Dr. Brian C. Mitchell Headshot

Educating College Trustees

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It is almost impossible for those who live outside the academy to understand and appreciate how American colleges and universities govern themselves.

Basically, college governance has three partners - the faculty, the administration, and the trustees. It's commonly thought to be a kind of "three-leg" stool with each leg required to be strong enough to support the other. There is a kind of healthy tension that exists among the governing parties. Historically, the trustees are cardinals among the bishops given their duties as fiscal stewards, their legal responsibilities to the institution, and the requirement that they hire, evaluate, and replace the president.

Among the three, many presidents have the greatest respect for faculty leadership, especially if faculty understand their role to govern, nurture, and protect the "core business" - the academic program. Faculty governance is weakest when it tries to do too little or too much.

Complex organizations like colleges and universities require twelve-month commitments from faculty leadership that often runs counter to annual faculty work patterns. How do you bring the faculty into a discussion, for example, when they can't come to the table during summer hiatus when critical planning occurs?

At the other extreme, faculty leadership can bog down an institution through process and procedural motions. It's ironic that the best examples of creativity and innovation emerge from the faculty but so do the procedural roadblocks on transparency, deliberation and communication that sometimes inhibit agile environments.

Of the three leadership groups, the faculty are by far the most conservative, when not described narrowly by politics. That having been said their best moments are typically the defining inflection points of great academic institutions. Further, their love for the institution is genuine and tangible.

Presidents are employees hired by trustees with a tenure now estimated at about six years. They come to the institution increasingly from "the outside," typically with a social and print media record that is increasingly impossible to defend as spin creates negative impact out of even the best professional records. As one president noted to me some months ago, there is no longer any incentive to be courageous or lead change if the assumption exists that the "change agent" president also seeks a secure presidency.

Actions have consequences. Even when change occurs in a campus community that desires it, for example, it can become canon fodder in the wrong environment. Further, if the trustee leadership is weak and unable to impose order or comes into the leadership with a hidden agenda based upon the latest Harvard Business School case study, the result can have long-term incredibly negative implications for the institution that only become apparent years later.

As in business, new presidents are warned by seasoned colleagues never to take the presidency until they are certain that the board chair will have their back in good times and in bad.

The trustees are by far the weakest leg of the governance stool. The problem is that the trustees come with specialized knowledge but usually lack an understanding of how higher education works.

Further, trustees come with different agendas, determined to "correct" faculty, staff and administrative workloads, faculty political perspectives, or campus climate. They support the issues that matter most to them. Boards are full of constituent groups of Greeks, "once were" jocks, and activists who see their service as trustees myopically through a lens shaped by experiences that are more the sum of their parts than an understanding of the common whole.

Additionally, most trustees view board work as an extension of their role as alumni. Rather than represent the administration and support the faculty, the weakest trustees behave as alumni cheerleading captains protecting a misty, distant past where their graduation day - frozen in time - represents the last effective moment that shaped their impression of an institution that evolved after their graduation, often for the better.

What can trustees do then to "play up" to faculty and competent administrations as equal contributors in shared governance?

The most important task is to learn the job. Governance is serious business and prospective trustees must anticipate that their work with an institution will be demanding. Presidents can become too powerful and risk an imbalance in shared governance if the president shapes the board agenda too closely.

To this end, it is a critical responsibility of the board chair to develop an agenda, work with the faculty and administration to train and educate trustees, and insist upon metrics to measure success. This includes the success of individual board members, including the chair. There is precious little time for psychobabble "feel good" board games disguised as team building. Instead, board agendas must be developed carefully as a continuum, set against what's trending, and favor a futurist agenda.

Higher education is robust in part because it maintains a set of traditions and practices that endure. But it is also a service provider under enormous stress. The strength of the board affects the quality of governance. And the quality of governance forecasts and defines the future of an institution.