AGB President & CEO Update: A Time for Imagination (System)

By Ellen Chaffee November 8, 2023 Blog Post

You are viewing the System version of this CEO Update. Institutionally Related Foundation and Institution versions are also available.

Today marks the end of my first month as interim president and CEO of AGB, and I can attest to the AGB staff’s dedication to supporting you. As a higher education scholar, AGB consultant, and former university president and board member, I especially appreciate the devoted fiduciary service of volunteer board members and the courageous leadership of chief executive officers in these deeply troubled times.

Troubled times call for imagination. Many of our long-serving processes and expectations are near the end of their serviceable lifetimes. I am excited by capabilities we’ve never had before, frustrated by endless regulations that make change difficult, and hopeful that chief executives, executive teams, and governing boards are joining hands as never before to help their institutions liberate their powerful energies for a better world and a better life.

Higher education systems where the board, president, leadership team, and faculty are aligned around a shared vision can imagine and create such transformational pathways as evidence-based individualized learning, end of student debt, unimaginable progress on the frontiers of knowledge, and academic communities that appreciate diversity. Boards are critical partners in moving their systems toward creative solutions to our most difficult challenges. 

Why it matters: If there is anything broader and faster than change in society, it might be the disruptions that distract and divide us. CEOs and boards need to take time to understand the changing forces that most impact their systems and look into alternative futures. How might leaders confront their assumptions and discard those that no longer apply? How might they create space for truly customized learning without losing invaluable interactions? Do board members have enough information to peer around corners and think ahead, preparing system and institutional stakeholders with tools and diverse perspectives that will help them navigate whatever comes next?

To me, boards need three things to lead in this era:

Boards need the humility to learn. An effective governing board member takes the opportunity to learn about, reflect on, and contribute new ideas in the boardroom—ideas for their system and about its governance practices. They are not afraid to ask questions, even when they may feel foolish for doing so.

  • Board culture can enhance or minimize board member participation. Board leaders, especially the chair, have a significant role to play in creating the right culture for imagination and innovation.

Boards need the courage to act. When fundamental principles that we take for granted—the value of a degree, the need for physical learning spaces, the role of higher education—are disrupted, colleges and universities must seek more effective and efficient ways to accomplish their missions and continue to improve their offerings.

  • Many see higher education as quite risk-averse—which can be a positive characteristic. After all, some of our institutions are older than the founding of the United States. But rapid fundamental disruptions call for calculated risk-taking and commensurate transformative change.

Boards need the conviction to uphold their fiduciary responsibilities. System boards have many constituencies that vie for their attention, often requesting (or demanding) significant changes. Effective governing boards keep their fiduciary responsibilities as the central tenet of every decision. The best interests of the institution must always be the “prime directive” (to borrow an idea from Star Trek), even when it’s difficult. Especially when it’s difficult.

Go deeper:

 Questions for Board and Committee Chairs 

  • How do you create a culture of honesty and courage in the boardroom?
  • How should imagination be utilized in the boardroom? How can you decide which topics need time for brainstorming at the board level?

Questions for Board Members

  • What questions have been on your mind, but you haven’t asked? Should you ask?
  • How should the board pursue innovation and imagination at the strategic level without wading into the weeds of management?
  • How can system leaders harness system-wide thinking when it comes to imagination and innovation across every campus?

Questions for Chief Executives and Leadership Teams 

What creative strategies can you employ to harness the board’s expertise and experience and help you navigate the future?

As a senior fellow and consultant, I have had the opportunity to work with over a hundred college and university boards. For those of you I look forward to meeting, here is a little about me:

  • I’ve served as president at two institutions: Valley City State University and Mayville State University, both in North Dakota, and as academic vice-chancellor for the North Dakota University System.
  • I’ve also served as president of the Association for Institutional Research and the Association for the Study of Higher Education.
  • I was an AGB senior consultant and senior fellow beginning in 2008, and I look forward to returning to that work after my tenure as interim president and CEO concludes. As a senior fellow, I directed AGB projects on strategic finance and academic quality. As a senior consultant, I supported institutions through board governance workshops, board and presidential evaluations, strategy development, and more.
  • I’ve served on higher education, nonprofit, and for-profit governing boards, and I served as a public member of the American Council on Pharmaceutical Education, an accrediting body.

My first month as interim president was invigorating. I have heard scores of great ideas that give me hope for our students, our colleges and universities, and our future.

Until next time.

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