Council of Presidents Meeting: Presidents and Boards Leading Change

By Andrew Lounder October 15, 2020 Blog Post
Blog Post

AGB’s Council of Presidents recently gathered to discuss two essential topics: 1) institutionwide diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives—and how boards can make a difference; and 2) lessons learned from the fall semester and implications for spring and beyond in a COVID-19 environment. The key context for this seemingly bifurcated agenda is that AGB continues to hear from many presidents that these two topics are being treated with equal importance—and urgency—by many colleges and universities.

One objective we hold whenever we convene an AGB advisory council is that as we learn, so will our members. This is even more important in the current environment. While the specifics of these advisory council discussions are held in strict confidence, we will frequently share high-level insights that emerge from them—for example, AGB President and CEO Henry Stoever’s blog about the recent meeting of the AGB Council of Board Chairs.

Here’s what we learned in our most recent discussion with this esteemed group of college, university, foundation, and multicampus system presidents and chancellors:

DE&I Initiatives and the Board Role

Governing boards are engaging in DE&I initiatives in a number of ways this fall, and many AGB members are leveraging AGB’s DE&I resources to augment their plans.. Prominent among them is direct engagement through special task forces, standing committees, and ad hoc committees. For example, many boards are expanding the mission of their governance committee charters to include DE&I; conducing anti- and implicit bias training for their boards, leadership teams, staff and faculty; creating diversity statements; and issuing reports on progress made to their related goals. Other examples include the creation of stand-alone diversity and inclusion committees; a social justice action committee; and concurrently expanding other committee charters to reflect their oversight of DE&I.  The goals from these efforts are to ensure that the board’s DE&I policies manifest across the institution to include all departments, campuses, and/or system locations; to enable the institution to create a sense of belonging for all communities; to become more authentic for its mission; and to ensure that all constituents realize that their efforts are not viewed as being politically correct.

This council meeting confirmed that there appears to be no one-size-fits-all approach to this work. As one council member shared, “This is important work, and DE&I are crucially important topics for our board, institution, and communities.”  Another shared, “We all suffer from cognitive bias, especially when under stress.” This is especially true as all institutions and teams are navigating through the compound effects of the pandemic. Some larger institutions have established multiconstituent, campuswide task forces—often including an array of subcommittees charged with a closer look at things like faculty diversity, campus policing, admissions practices, and more—which typically include one or more board members. Some of these larger task forces are charged narrowly with information gathering and policy proposals related to racial injustice, and others are meant to look at inequities more broadly.

Distinct from the institutionwide task force approach, many boards are holding plenary discussions, and some are engaging the subject of DE&I through standing committees, such as the governance, executive, or academic/student affairs committees. Especially in private institutions, governance or nominating committees may be focused on two prospective activities: 1) diversifying the composition of the board, and 2) board member learning and expectations of service leading to a culture of inclusion on the board itself (including antibias training). Academic and/or student affairs committees are taking a fresh look at student achievement gaps and student success metrics (especially by race/ethnicity), campus climate, and the value of both academic and student support programs to minoritized groups. This work is being undertaken to ensure the board understands and informs institutional aspirations going forward. Also, executive committees may serve as coordinating bodies for delegating, overseeing, and disseminating the board’s work, and in many cases they are well positioned to inform and help align the thinking of the board chair and president.

A related issue that has emerged in both public and private boardrooms is the politicization of DE&I initiatives, including anything from trustee reluctance to endorse or participate in antibias training to overt suspicion of a “leftist agenda.” Presidents reflected on the importance of language choices in these circumstances, and maintaining a business-oriented focus on student access and outcomes, customer service, and the value of a healthy campus culture for organizational effectiveness. Whatever the lens may be, many governing boards are engaging with DE&I issues in new ways this academic year.  As we transitioned to subsequent agenda topics, one council member emphasized the importance of communication from the president to all constituents regarding why, how, and expected outcomes from their DE&I initiatives.  AGB’s president shared the importance of this topic: “Justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion constitute one of AGB’s two strategic priorities, along with our Principles of Trusteeship initiative. Another council member shared, “We need to get beyond buzzwords and focus on outcomes.”

Lessons from Fall 2020

AGB’s advisory councils are built to be reflective of the diversity of American higher education, and in that context it seems apparent that most institutions are planning to continue down their current paths next spring—perhaps hoping for an incremental increase in on-campus activities, but not a major shift. That said, one of the widely shared principles guiding decisions around how to deliver services has been and will continue to be focused on “flexibility.” This principle is likely to be interpreted locally, with some leaders advocating passionately for hard-and-fast decision thresholds dictating course adjustments (e.g., stock of personal protective equipment, testing volume, and quarantine capacity). Others shared looser guidance, to which they are no less committed, such as: “If it’s too dangerous for faculty to be in the classroom, then it’s too dangerous for staff to be in residence halls.”

Online instruction and working remotely were common options for many institutions this fall, raising the importance of cyber security. Boards should be well informed about cyber risk management practices and protocols for informing the board of attempted and actual incidents. AGB is working with Internet Security Alliance with support from AIG to develop a cyber risk manual for boards this year.

Additionally, for many presidents, relationship building has become paramount in this fast-changing COVID-19 environment, with a goal of increasing understanding and trust among all who have a stake in institutional vitality and community health. This is true of faculty relations, as well as student relations and staff relations, town relations, and more. Presidents have developed various methods of engagement, but spending time, sharing information, and demonstrating responsiveness seem to be key ingredients.

The AGB Council of Presidents will meet again next quarter, and AGB members will have the opportunity to dive into these topics during our upcoming Foundation Leadership Forum (January 25–27), the Board Professionals Conference (April 6–8), and the National Conference on Trusteeship (April 12–14). Registration for these virtual events is now open, and I look forward to seeing you there.

AGB thanks our partner AIG for its support of the Council of Presidents and our work on cyber risk.

Andrew Lounder, PhD, is AGB’s senior director of programming and council engagement and a trustee of Wheaton College in Massachusetts.