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Board Orientation

A well-organized board orientation program can ensure effective board and individual performance, smooth the transition of new members onto the board, and introduce new board members to their fiduciary responsibilities and to the culture and business of higher education.

New board members are particularly willing to engage enthusiastically in the orientation process – especially if the program is intellectually stimulating and provides them with a clear sense of their importance to the institution.

A mentoring program for new board members pays off.  A veteran board member who serves as a mentor for a year and who attends the orientation can help jumpstart the new board member’s introduction and acclimation to board service.

Prior to Orientation

Each new board member should receive a briefing package containing critical governance information, such as: bylaws, board meeting agendas and minutes from the past year, financial statements, strategic-planning documents, the executive summary from the most recent accreditation report, recent memos and columns by the president focusing on campus life, curriculum, and faculty – anything that helps create an understanding of the institution’s current status and culture.

Each new board member should be assigned a mentor who is a veteran of the board and a current or past leader. The mentor should attend the orientation with the new member and also assist throughout the first year by answering questions and by providing information on the functioning and decision-making of the board.

Third, the orientation needs to be planned formally. In planning the structure and content of the orientation, keep in mind what a new member of the board needs to know to feel comfortable and to become a contributing member as quickly as possible.

Content of Board Orientations

An AGB survey on higher education governance found that most board orientations address these topics:

  • Board responsibilities broadly and governance policies specific to the individual board
  • Institutional history and mission
  • Institutional strategic priorities and challenges
  • An overview of the institution’s finances and budget
  • Review of academic programs and quality

AGB University has dozens of professional, short vidoes on universal topics in governance, such as fiduciary responsiblity, shared governance, and academic freedom

Characteristics of Successful Board Orientations

  • Allow time for an exchange of ideas and questions. This means planning a program that takes place over several days, throughout the new board member’s first year of service.
  • Familiarize the new trustees with the institution’s strengths, challenges, needs, and priorities.  The orientation should cover the typical elements of finances, enrollment management, academics, staffing patterns, key academic and staff leaders, and physical plant needs.
  • Cover board responsibilities, and comment specifically on how and when board members are assessed.
  • Provide a campus tour so new board members, even those who are alumni, will start their service with an understanding of the institution's physical layout, design, and needs. For system board members who oversee multiple campuses, a slide show accompanied by profiles of each campus can help.
  • Help new board members quickly master basic knowledge of the institution’s important features and statistics. Develop a one-page executive summary that includes the mission statement, numbers of students by category, key budget information, graduation rates, names of major academic programs, current tuition and fees, faculty statistics, and other pertinent information that can help during the orientation and beyond.
  • Also, open the orientation program to all board members, and be sure to specifically include those serving as mentors to new board members.

Orientation for System Boards

There may be some differences in the orientation program for a system board. Their work may be complicated by the fact that the board members are at a greater distance from the academic enterprise, they serve simultaneously as fiduciaries for the entire system and for individual institutions, and they are often responsible for resolving conflicts among regions and institutions over missions, program franchises, and resources.

For more about this distinction, see Brit Kirwan discuss the role of a system board.

AGB Reference Librarian

Need more help? AGB’s reference librarian (available to members only) is available to research specific governance questions, provide sample documents, or recommend resources. Contact her here.