After recently participating in three AGB conferences along with nearly 1,500 members, I am inspired by the passion and commitment of these individuals who collectively support the education of more than 6.5 million students. AGB members focus on the success for all students and the long-term vitality of their institutions—and, in some instances, related foundations. Their commitment to strategic, consequential board leadership is needed now more than ever. Many colleges and universities are being disrupted not only by campus wellness, demographic shifts, technology, and workforce expectations, but also by external influences.
During these convenings, I shared my “three Ss” to guide boards’ priorities: Strategy, Students, and Sustainability. These priorities are related to the following key takeaways I heard during our conferences:
Independence, Accountability, and Student Success
Independence: Independence, highlighted as one of the nine Principles of Trusteeship, is essential not only for individual trustees but also for governing boards as a whole. As you know, all governing board members are expected to embrace their fiduciary duties of care, loyalty, and obedience—independent of external influences.
- While it is essential for governing boards and their members to listen to and understand the perspectives of all constituencies, they must always think independently even as they also must act collectively as a board.
- They must have the courage to resist “undue influence” from alumni, community leaders, donors, faculty, elected officials, and others.
- Governing boards should not let these voices lead them to make decisions they do not think are in the best interest of the system or its institutions.
Go Deeper: Please review the AGB FAQs on independence from external influences.
Accountability: In a 2020 issue of AGB’s Trusteeship magazine, I included accountability as one of the six elements of strategic board leadership. The key priorities for which governing boards are accountable include:
- Upholding the institution’s mission
- Selecting, compensating, evaluating, and guiding the chief executive officer
- Overseeing the fiscal health and integrity of the institution
- Overseeing the quality of programs, services, and other institutional offerings
- Ensuring the governing board’s own performance and conduct
- Strengthening the institution’s reputation and long-term vitality
Go Deeper: Consider reviewing the following AGB resources:
- My 2020 article on the elements of strategic board leadership
- The FAQ document Fiduciary Duties for Institutional Board Members
Student Success: From the beginning of my tenure at AGB, I have argued that success—for all students—must be a priority for the future vitality of higher education around the world and for the well-being of democracy, the global economy, and a civil society. During our recent conferences, I heard speakers and panelists reinforce the importance of student success for their institutions’ future. Many spoke instructively about how their strategic priorities align with the success of their students.
Go Deeper: Consider the following resources related to board oversight of student success:
- Board Responsibility for Equitable Student Success initiative
- The Student Success Knowledge Center hub
- The stories of the 2023 AGB Nason Award recipients, where three institutions were honored for their contributions to students’ success
Many governing board members have asked me how they can best influence strategies that impact the future well-being of their students without succumbing to micromanagement. The short answer is that governing boards need to establish strategic priorities, in collaboration with their chief executive officers, and monitor progress toward desired outcomes. Navigating the important tenets of American higher education also means that governing boards need to understand and appreciate shared governance, academic freedom, tenure, and other unique elements of higher education.
I would also ask governing boards to discuss the “what, why, and how” as they affirm their strategic priorities. Specifically, I encourage all boards to ask the following questions:
- Based on consultation with the chief executive officer and members of the campus community, how do we, the governing board, define student success? And does our definition differ from that of the administration, faculty, staff, and student body?
- Do different institutions inside the system see student success differently? How do differing institutions’ missions matter to student success outcomes of the entire system?
- How will we measure student success?
- Who is responsible for student success outcomes?
- Do sufficient resources exist in our budget to support those who are responsible for delivering student success outcomes so they can meet the system’s goals?
To help governing boards discuss their responses to the above, and within the context of my message today, I also encourage boards to consider these questions:
- As our students matriculate and graduate, how do we (the board) know that they (our students) know what employers and stakeholders expect our students to know?
- Is our institution utilizing high-impact learning practices across all areas of the curriculum? If not, why not, and what is the role of the board in remedying that?
- Does our board understand academic freedom and why it is so important to excellent teaching and important scholarship?
- At the same time, how does the board understand the quality of teaching on campus? Does the board know how faculty are being evaluated and rewarded in terms of student outcomes?
So, as you prepare for your next board meeting, I urge you to think about how your institution will be the disruptor or the disrupted, and how your governing board’s collective actions will shape your future.