AGB President & CEO Update: Board Leadership and Independent Thought

By Henry Stoever August 2, 2021 October 26th, 2021 CEO Update

We have recently been bombarded with stories about college and university boards being pressured by external groups. Public officials, policymakers, donors, alumni, and others are, in unprecedented ways, seeking to influence board and institutional decisions about hiring, tenure, and curriculum—matters that have historically been driven by faculty input and recommendation.

This intense pressure to make decisions to satisfy a particular individual (typically a prominent donor) or yield to political pressure is diametrically opposed to the fundamentals of good governance but can be difficult to resist. The consequences of defying such pressure can be formidable: revoked gifts, shortened presidencies, diminished appropriations, and broken relationships.

In the face of this new activism directed at higher education, board members should be open to stakeholder input and must ensure that the board ultimately acts in the best interest of the institution. It is also vital, as described in AGB’s Principles of Trusteeship, that even as board members rely upon their own independent judgement in the deliberative stages of decision-making, all should publicly support the final decisions that the board makes. Moreover, each board member owes a fiduciary duty of loyalty to the college or university and not to any constituent group. The board’s priority must be the long-term welfare of the institution.

To help guide the board’s actions, the AGB Statement on External Influences on Universities and Colleges advocates the following four best practices for board governance:

  1. Preserve institutional independence and autonomy.
  2. Demonstrate board independence to govern as established in charter, state law, or constitution.
  3. Respect academic freedom and be the standard-bearer for the due process protection of faculty, staff, and students.
  4. Assure institutional accountability to the public interest.

The AGB Board of Directors’ Statement on Justice, Equity, and Inclusion further recommends that boards develop and apply an equity lens in board processes. This includes boards making concerted efforts to gather feedback from members of the campus community and other interested constituents—especially traditionally underrepresented groups—as the board seeks to act in the best interests of the institution. Such efforts might include formal listening sessions, coordinated by the president, such as town halls or smaller meetings to which groups are invited to share their perspectives with the board and senior leaders. Such efforts also demonstrate the board’s respect for diverse perspectives.

Questions for board and committee chairs:

  • How will your board ensure that diverse perspectives are included in board conversations?
  • Does the composition of your board and committees reflect diverse backgrounds, experiences, and expertise that are accretive to overseeing the development and execution of impactful strategies?
  • How can your board avoid even the appearance of undue influence in the boardroom?

Questions for board members:

  • Do you have any personal or professional relationships that could interfere with your ability to make decisions in the best interests of the institution?
  • Are you familiar with your board’s conflict of interest policy and disclosure process?
  • Have you completed a conflict of interest and disclosure statement and kept it current?

Questions for presidents and senior staff:

  • How are questions related to external influences explored in board education materials?
  • How might you create opportunities for perspectives that are missing in board discussions to be heard?

Toolkit for New Presidents

Given the frequency of presidential transitions across higher education, AGB has created the New President Toolkit, offering essential guidance and recommendations for success in this new era of higher education leadership. This new resource includes sections on board relationships, key responsibilities, presidential development, and additional resources. This toolkit will be valuable not only for new presidents, but also for board committees and other staff charged with supporting the president’s transition.

Thank you for your commitment to strategic board governance.

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