Anticipating Governance Challenges and Strengthening Relationships

Council Insights: Council of Board Professionals

By Saletta A. Holloway September 9, 2022 Blog Post

Opinions expressed in AGB blogs are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the institutions that employ them or of AGB.

The August 2022 meeting of the AGB Council of Board Professionals took a deep dive into board readiness for the coming challenges as colleges and universities open for the 2022-23 semesters.

During the plenary discussion, board professionals (BPs) explored the question: “What Keeps You and Your Board Up at Night?” Board professionals, like their presidents, often face this difficult question and are tapped to offer solutions to many challenging issues facing our institutions including COVID, monkeypox, other concerns related to campus safety, and more. On the horizon are a myriad of concerns awaiting campus leaders. Some of these include:

  • Responding to campus activism and individuals or groups with divisive political opinions, including board members who share their political philosophies for consideration in institutional decision-making.
  • Addressing new changes to athletics—proposals and enacted policies. These policies impact student decisions, institutional structures, and community interest in athletic programs. Many institutions are spending disproportionate amounts of time navigating the new or anticipated changes.
  • Being financially sound and containing growing expenditures while remaining affordable is a major challenge and priority issue. For most institutions and systems, tuition and fees are a main source of funding.
  • Securing students’ scholarships from institutionally related foundations continues to remain a priority. For some donors, skyrocketing inflation means that they want their gifts used to support students and issues related to affordability.
  • Growing demands for higher faculty, staff, and graduate assistant compensation, struggling with retaining these personnel (especially those in upper-level positions) while controlling costs, and facing unions and bargaining units. These issues are accelerating at a rapid pace.
  • Hiring new presidents and competing for effective leaders. Presidential turnover is at an all-time high. More searches are expected.

What do board chairs and members need to know and hear in this environment?

“Board members need to think of themselves as strategists instead of executives,” one member mentioned. It is important to build and sustain strong relationships with their presidents and other members of the leadership team, noting these leadership positions are stressful and often cause significant “burnout.” In many cases, campuses are like small cities or in other cases, large cities; so, the expectations of leadership in these new environments are changing. High levels of turnover and searches are causing anxiety on campuses with some board professionals facing multiple presidential transitions within a short time frame, three to five years.

Faculty and staff retention, especially at the upper levels should be addressed since some boards aren’t thinking about the second and third layers of leadership. To avoid a mass exodus, one institution made a retention plan for all senior executives to remain in their positions for one year during their presidential search. Other areas of concern are the retention and succession of CFOs, CIOs, and HR leaders who are specialists. The demand for these executives in other fields outside of higher education is strong and creates a competitive market.

The challenge of declining enrollment is not just a population-based phenomenon. Institutions are not just competing against one another for the shrinking pool of students, but also against the perspective of those who simply aren’t choosing to attend college. In many cases, this is a losing battle for higher education. More efforts are needed to strengthen the message about the value of higher education.

The pandemic encouraged or expanded new opportunities for educational delivery. It is likely that online learning will remain an ever-present part of campus environments. As such, campuses are struggling with ways to continue offering traditional learning experiences while addressing the associated rising costs of physical plant/building maintenance. The consolidation of campus buildings and programs presents a structural and fiscal challenge for some institutions. As an example, one system currently oversees 16 colleges with 70 campus locations; and the struggle of supporting this infrastructure is in question.

How can BPs educate and advise their boards on these and other pressing issues in higher education?

BPs realize the importance of educating and advising their boards yet are unsure how to help them understand how the higher education environment is different from that of the business environment. There are important ways BPs can infuse this learning through ongoing development and education to aid them in serving as ambassadors for their institutions.

What can BPs do for their boards on an ongoing basis?

Some of the tangible solutions to this question include:

  • As allies to the board, BPs can be strategic partners and encourage board members to govern at the strategic, not administrative level. Often boards think with a mind-set of “operations” because they are accustomed to this way of thinking in their own work. It is not unusual for boards to discuss issues related to oversight vs. management. Many BPs work with presidents and board chairs to help their board members focus on oversight as well as strategies for future success. BPs can help board members think about the implications of the strategic decisions they make, and how these decisions fulfill their oversight and fiduciary responsibilities.
  • BPs know when governance issues start to percolate. They are often in positions to offer strategies to address these issues before they become major problems or disruptions. BPs can support best practices by helping board members engage in deep, meaningful dialogues about consequential topics. BPs can help to balance the information boards receive to ensure they are not overloaded and can focus on what matters most.
  • BPs can find opportunities for small groups of presidents, board chairs, and board professionals to participate in programs or have conversations about governance, leadership, and key topics in higher education. BPs are in a unique position to encourage presidents and board members to share their concerns with each other as colleagues in a “safe environment” (e.g., via a consortium or AGB) and have strategic conversations on common issues. These dialogues often promote the exchange of ideas and solutions to common concerns.

AGB and Board Professionals

Board professionals can also help their chief executives and board members take advantage of new AGB resources that were recently developed and launched to support AGB member governance goals. Two of the new services that launched on July 1 include:

  • AGB Board Self-Assessment Tool – This is a self-service tool supported by Qualtrics that focuses on mission and strategy, institution sustainability, culture, philanthropy, oversight, and accountability. Board member responses are anonymous and confidential. The completion time of the anonymous survey for board members is approximately 30 minutes.
  • AGB One-Hour Governance Consultation – This service connects board members with AGB consultants to discuss governance-related challenges, opportunities, resources, and best practices. An optional component includes a governance consultant providing a 20-minute review with your board to discuss specific matters related to successes, and current or emerging issues.

AGB recognizes the important work and essential role of BPs. As proof of the mutual respect for BPs, AGB’s Council of Board Professionals was established as an advisory group that provides insights and thought leadership on various issues concerning boards, foundations, and board professionals.

  • AGB Board Professionals Certificate Program. This program was recently created for and by BPs, with AGB, to offer BPs a professional development certificate program to build their skills. Currently, over 200 BPs are participating in this program! For learners to proceed through the modules, which include readings, videos, practical applications, and other resources, BPs must successfully complete a module before moving to the next. A digital badge and certificate are presented upon completion. This is a top-notch program and a tremendous opportunity for board professionals. AGB hopes that it will continue to help BPs serve as strategic partners.

Key Takeaways

The fall semester is starting or has started for most of us. What’s out there is anyone’s guess! Are we prepared? Many of us are somewhat prepared, or as prepared as we can be… BPs will continue to help presidents and board members identify and respond to governance needs as they recognize when a big change is needed or when small adjustments are warranted and implemented. BPs help their presidents and board members stay poised and ready!

  • The role of the board professional is critical as BPs shape how presidents and boards think and talk about current/real or future/potential governance issues. Ultimately, this shapes what happens in boardrooms and beyond.
  • Board professionals provide knowledge, context, and insights to help institutional and board leaders govern effectively. As a result, board members better understand their governance responsibilities, fiduciary duties, and how their work and decisions impact their community.
  • Board professionals can work with their presidents and board chairs to create policies and practices that support board members as strategic thought partners. BPs support their presidents and board chairs by sharing their own observations and making presidents and board chairs aware of issues/concern that might not be on their radar. By sharing their expertise and connecting people and ideas, BPs support critical relationships for effective governance.

Saletta A. Holloway, EdD, MPS, is the senior vice president for board relations & community engagement at Meharry Medical College and is a member of AGB’s Council of Board Professionals.