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AGB Statement on Board Responsibility for the Oversight of Educational Quality

March 17, 2011

The below is excerpted from the introduction; download the full statement.

A governing board is the steward of the institution it serves. As a fundamental part of its stewardship, the board is responsible for assuring the larger community and stakeholders to whom it is accountable that the education offered by the institution is of the highest possible quality. Yet AGB’s 2010 survey on the engagement of boards in educational quality revealed that board members often are not sure how to provide stewardship in this area, and some even doubt that they should.

In Making the Grade: How Boards Can Ensure Academic Quality (AGB, 2006), Peter T. Ewell affirms that the oversight of educational quality “is as much a part of our role as board members as ensuring that the institution has sufficient resources and is spending them wisely.” The educational mission of colleges, universities, and systems makes this a primary obligation for their boards, and the significant fiscal investments made by these institutions, by their students and donors, and by state and federal governments underscore its importance. Governing boards should recognize that assuring educational quality is at the heart of demonstrating institutional success and that they are accountable for that assurance.

The current environment makes this responsibility more pressing. Today’s technological, pedagogical, and economic forces, along with increasing public skepticism about the value and cost of education, make board accountability for quality crucial. And with only 38 percent of America’s adult population now holding a degree from a college or university, it is clear that much more needs to be done if we are to ensure the country’s economic and civic future.

Our efforts to confront that contemporary reality for higher education are complicated by a number of formidable challenges, including:

  • A significantly older and more ethnically and racially diverse student body;
  • Increasing numbers of contingent faculty members;
  • Revenues that have not kept pace with institutional need;
  • Dramatic escalation in demand for admission while certain fixed costs are skyrocketing, straining institutional capacity;
  • Competition for students, faculty members, and resources that diverts available funding away from educational quality and toward less critical functions;
  • Tension between issues of workforce preparation and intellectual development;
  • Large numbers of students needing remedial courses; and
  • Declining confidence that higher education is capable of meeting its commitment to students and its obligation to serve the public good.

Some of these challenges directly affect educational quality; others intensify the need for institutions to demonstrate quality. If we are to effectively broaden opportunity and increase success among our students, then we will need to address these challenges head-on and with some urgency.

Board Accountability

AGB’s “Statement on Board Accountability” asserts, “[A governing] board broadly defines the educational mission of the institution, determines generally the types of academic programs the institution shall offer to students, and is ultimately accountable for the quality of the learning experience.” While academic administrators and faculty members are responsible for setting learning goals, developing and offering academic courses and programs, and assessing the quality of those courses and programs, boards cannot delegate away their governance responsibilities for educational quality. The board’s responsibility in this area is to recognize and support faculty’s leadership in continuously improving academic programs and outcomes, while also holding them—through institutional administrators—accountable for educational quality.

In fulfilling this responsibility, the board should work within the governance structure of the institution. For some boards, significant change may be required in how they interact with academic administrators and faculty members on matters of educational quality. AGB’s “Statement on Institutional Governance” stresses that “Governance documents should state who has the authority for specific decisions—that is, to which persons or bodies authority has been delegated and whether that which has been delegated is subject to board review.” Governing boards should make a conscious effort to minimize ambiguous or overlapping areas in which more than one governance participant has authority, particularly in the area of educational quality, where faculty members, administrators, and the board all have important responsibilities.

This “Statement on Board Responsibility for the Oversight of Educational Quality,” approved by the Board of Directors of the Association of Governing Boards (AGB) in March 2011, urges institutional administrators and governing boards to engage fully in this area of board responsibility. The seven principles in this statement offer suggestions to promote and guide that engagement.

Download the full statement.

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