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Board Orientation

An orientation program is only as good as the amount of time invested in its design and conduct, but it is important enough to be worth the time and effort, even for only one or two new board members. 

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.

Spread the orientation across multiple days to enhance the reflection and deepen the understanding for new board members.

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

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.

Prior to Orientation

Prior to orientation several steps can help ensure an effective experience.

First, each new board member should receive a briefing package containing critical governance information: 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. 

Second, 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

A 2008 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

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.
  • 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 such as percent with terminal degrees and percent tenured, and other pertinent information that can help during the orientation and beyond.
  • 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.
  • Include the mentors. They provide a board perspective on the topics, and they can become familiar faces for the new board members. Also, open the orientation program to all board members.
  • Provide an opportunity for new board members to offer feedback on the effectiveness of the orientation so it can be improved for the next time.

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.

One way to address these challenges, in addition to providing the points outlined for institutional boards, is to ensure that the following topics are addressed during system board orientations:

  • Review the laws and regulations that define the board’s authority so new board members understand the balance of power with constituent campuses on the one hand and the governor, the legislature, and government agencies on the other.
  • Discuss the political context in which the board operates to familiarize the new board members with the state political landscape and pressures.
  • Introduce the public agenda that the board pursues in serving the state to provide a rationale for the system and its mission. Also outline the fundamental principles under which it operates and offer a vision for the future.

What value do we want the orientation program to add to new members’ experience?

How can the orientation make the board’s work and culture clear for the new trustees?

How can the orientation efficiently and effectively convey basic institutional characteristics and achievements to new trustees, without overwhelming them?

Does the orientation help new trustees understand the institution’s major strengths and needs – its priorities, opportunities, key competitors, and its strategic challenges in the marketplace?

New board members should also be prepared to ask questions.  For a list of questions for new trustees, please see New Trustee Orientation in AGB’s Board Basics series.

Learn More

AGB has a number of resources available for member institutions to learn more about board orientation programs.

Contact AGB Consulting to talk to a consultant on call (free for members) or to schedule a workshop.  

Attend a workshop for new trustees at AGB’s National Conference on Trusteeship.

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.