AGB President & CEO Update: Strategic Governing Boards Will Help Shape Our Future

By Henry Stoever May 1, 2020 October 26th, 2021 CEO Update

Thank you for your leadership, hard work, and determination to transition instructional delivery, new student living models, and staffing of your foundations and institutions over the last two months. Your students, faculty, and staff exhibited creativity and determination as you navigated the first of three phases created by COVID-19. I recently met virtually with dozens of board members, foundation CEOs, and institutional presidents, and we discussed the three phases of this crisis:

  • Phase 1: Emergency. Sending students home, creating online programs, and establishing safe learning and staffing environments were the short-term responses to the emergency situation.
  • Phase 2: Transitioning. Understanding and evaluating new paradigms that may shape the future of your institution’s operational business models and foundation’s investment strategies will likely consume the majority of your board’s and executive team’s time for the next 12 to 24 months.
  • Phase 3: Transforming. Based on key findings from phases 1 and 2, coupled with strategic alternatives that your board and you consider during phase 2, the third phase will likely form the basis of how governance and institutions will operate for many years.

As we turn the corner on phase one, strategic governing boards will be essential to defining the future of your institution.

As you may have heard speakers and me discuss during our virtual  National Conference on Trusteeship and Workshop for Board Professionals in April, it is unlikely that the future of higher education will return to historic norms. While many boards have increased engagement with presidents and management teams to determine short-term tactics during phase 1, this next phase will require a higher level of strategic leadership from boards and you on three fronts.

  1. Increase Oversight of Financial Scenario Planning. Enrollment, expense, investment, and revenue variables will differ significantly across scenarios, and a good place to start is our recently released resource Understanding Enrollment Management. I urge you to develop scenarios regarding when to open your doors, how to set tuition for pure online versus on-campus instruction, how to potentially evolve transfer credit policies, how to reallocate investments, and how your institutions can help educate the tens of millions of newly unemployed.
  2. Strengthen Oversight of Academic Quality. While governance traditions relying on faculty and staff to drive academic quality will likely remain strong, board members should deepen their understanding of how the board, key administrators, and faculty define and measure academic quality at their institution. Board members should determine the data the board needs on student success to ensure the decisions they make about policies and budgets help strengthen student outcomes. A suggested next step is to read this recent Trusteeship article.
  3. Bolster Oversight of Strategy Development. This is where your board’s value is most critical to the future of your foundation and institution. Important questions to potentially ask include:
    • What is the vision for our foundation and / or institution, and how do we define and monitor progress toward this vision? How do we define and measure specific, desired outcomes of our students, foundation, and institution over the next five years?
    • How can we align our foundation’s and / or institution’s mission, plan, and budget to achieve desired outcomes? What programs and initiatives are most accretive to our mission, and what programs are least accretive to our mission? What data do we need to prioritize scarce resources?
    • How should we think about cultivating innovation, diversifying revenue, and establishing new partnerships and alliances to drive long-term sustainability?
    • Lastly, ask the tough question: How is our foundation or institution “uniquely” differentiated from other foundations or institutions our donors and applicant pool may consider?

As your board, executive team, and you enter phase 2, I urge you to act with a sense of urgency and realize that the traditional role of the board in shared governance can vary in crisis versus normal operations. I believe during this crisis it is important for board members to lean in, listen, and learn about the challenges your institution faces in order to support and lead with the president and staff in accordance with fiduciary duty. While no one knows the duration and definitive disruptive impacts of this crisis, we all know that higher education remains critically important to our societies and economies.

This moment in time is profound, and there will be a point in the future when we look back and ask, when catastrophe hit, did we have the right mind-set? Did we have the right approach? Did we draw upon all of the resources at our disposal?

At AGB we are reflecting on these questions. We will take this journey with you to create strategic governing boards that help reimagine the future of their institutions.  As we deepen our alignment with you during this journey, AGB is providing more, unique, and complimentary services for our members such as crisis response teams and discussion forums to ask tough questions and discuss key issues with your peers. The entire AGB team is here to help.

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