Board Accountability

Take Aways

Boards should commit themselves to model policies and practices that warrant the public trust.

The board is the ultimate fiduciary of the institution, even though day-to-day operations are properly delegated to the administration.

The board is the prime guarantor of quality, academic freedom, and institutional autonomy in educational matters.

The board must remain sensitive to the perceptions of stakeholders and to the public in selecting, assessing, and setting the compensation for its chief executive. Accountability naturally flows from the board’s basic responsibilities.

Key Questions

How does the board demonstrate awareness of and commitment to the public trust?

How can the board become better informed about matters of educational quality?

How can the board ensure that it retains appropriate distance and avoids the temptation to micromanage?

Does the board have current policies and procedures in place to guide its work?

Regardless of the size, mission, or source of support of the institutions they serve, all higher education boards are accountable to and accountable for the following:

  • The institution’s mission and cultural heritage,
  • The transcendent values and principles that guide and shape higher education,
  • The public interest and public trust, and
  • The legitimate and relevant interests of the institution’s various constituencies.

Dimensions of Board Accountability

Within this framework, four dimensions of board accountability warrant special attention:

  • Fiscal integrity: entails the legal responsibility for approving the institution’s annual budget and monitoring the institution’s fiscal welfare through rigorous compliance with applicable federal, state, and local laws.
  • Board performance: sets the standard that guides the rest of the institution including campus-wide governance and management, and includes the board’s regular assessment its own performance.
  • Educational quality: includes defining the educational mission of the institution and determining generally the types of academic programs the institution offers; in addition, the board is ultimately accountable for the quality of the educational experience.
  • Presidential appointment, assessment, and compensation: entails selecting a new president, assessing his or her performance, and setting the appropriate compensation level for the president; includes establishing and following appropriate processes for all these responsibilities.

Heightened Demand for Board Accountability

There is a growing pressure on many sectors of the nonprofit community for greater accountability:

  • Changes in the legal and regulatory environment (exemplified by Sarbanes-Oxley legislation), though largely designed to address problems in the corporate sector, are not irrelevant to higher education.
  • Lapses and failures in the integrity and governance of certain participants in the nonprofit and higher education communities—particularly in such areas as conflict of interest, executive compensation, and financial oversight—have raised troubling questions.
  • Increased scrutiny from congressional committees and state officials, and a litigious environment that affects all colleges and universities, call for clear articulation of the principles of autonomy and authority of governing boards.

References

AGB Statement on Board Accountability. 2007.

Effective Governing Boards (for boards of public institutions). 2009.

Effective Governing Boards (for boards of independent institutions). 2009.

“The Leadership Imperative,” The Report of the AGB Task Force on the State of the Presidency in American Higher Education. (2006)

“Leadership in Governance: The View from AGB’s Current and Former Board Chairs,” Trusteeship, September/October 2010

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.

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