As a president and later as a trustee, the AGB national conference and AGB publications were my first stop for programs and materials because they spoke directly to my current interests. It was as if they read my mind. I felt informed, affirmed, and better prepared.
Although that was years ago, it is even more valuable now to have such a resource for higher education leadership. Trustees are part-time volunteers almost always from other professions and industries, and the institution needs those diverse perspectives. For maximum input value, trustees need contextual information and guidance on determining what matters most here and now. Then they look across the landscape, bring helpful new people and ideas to the table, and take the long view. If the institution were a large ship on the ocean, the board would be in a helicopter, not responsible for daily operations, able to see far in all directions, and making sure smoke is visible only in the right places.
The question is, how do the board and institutional leaders step back from the demands of today, assess which waves, whales, and seagulls need attention, and chart their strategic course afresh? Moreover, when do they have time?
Strategic Boards are Purposeful about Board Education and Discussion
Institutions with strategic boards that make serious efforts to learn, understand, and pursue collective wisdom together are blessed. Boards that take on strategic issues without devoting adequate time to learn, discuss, learn more, and explore together are very likely to create unrealistic, unworkable, and off-target expectations. It takes time.
And there’s the rub. I’ve never met a board that wanted longer meetings, and trustees are already challenged for time to learn enough about the institution, its environment, and governance itself. Carving out education time can be difficult, so it helps to start by pruning the existing agenda. For example, you might:
- Eliminate reports that read like someone’s work calendar in narrative form. Replace them with strategy-level information and future-directed ideas.
- Assume that everyone read the agenda materials before the meeting. Reiterate them orally only when the stakes are very high.
- Be purposeful. Use the institution’s mission and the committee’s charge as criteria for agenda time.
Proactive, thoughtful planning for how to spend learning time can make the benefits additive rather than random. Regularly scheduled meetings can fit segments of strategic issues into the time saved, but becoming a more strategic board requires more time, foresight, planning, and commitment.
That often means at least one well planned day at a board retreat.
Refresh Your Perspective on What Matters Most
Start by seeking consensus about what matters most, strategically, to the institution’s future. If the answer is “enrollment,” look deeper. Why enrollment? What are the root causes of enrollment problems? Perhaps there are unmet student needs, untapped student types, reputation problems, or a dysfunctional business model. Ultimately the board and institution may decide their greatest opportunity is to address the changing needs of students today and make potentially significant changes to thoughtfully address their needs.
As usual, AGB steps up with a new resource to help launch a strategic issue focus. Top Strategic Issues for Boards, 2022-2023 (TSI23) is available to download free for AGB members.
It identifies five current major challenges based on input from many AGB members and other leaders. AGB publishes this report every even-numbered year.
This year, the top strategic issues are:
- Institutional vitality, including competition from online providers, program and curricular relevance, anticipating serious financial risks, and opportunities for institutional affiliations
- Improving student outcomes, including retention and graduation rates, diversity and inclusion initiatives, tailoring to workforce needs, and student mental health services
- Strengthening civic engagement and democracy, including preparing engaged citizens, modeling civil discourse, and standing up for freedom of thought and expression
- Grooming new higher education leaders, including succession planning for all administrative levels and recruiting and educating board members for board leadership roles
- Managing serious risks, including postpandemic challenges, cybersecurity, preventing and properly handling sexual misconduct, and repairing reputational damage when it occurs
We recommend that all board members review the publication for its current, widely accepted commentary on some of the challenges likely facing their and others’ institutions. Each of the strategic issues sections includes questions board members can use to assess its relevance to their institution. Even if relevance appears to be low now, understanding these issues often contributes to good decisions on other matters. Public turmoil on campus is not on the list, for example, but managing reputational risk, essential for the best possible outcome of campus turmoil, is addressed.
Whether time and resources are scarce or plentiful, boards can add value to their institutions at the strategic level when they focus on what matters most and take the time to do so thoughtfully.
Planning a Retreat
Annual retreats are ideal settings for strategic issues. Already this year, a number of boards have purchased physical copies of the TSI23 report for all their trustees, apparently to facilitate follow-up discussions. Some strategic discussions may take a few hours as part of a longer retreat, others may be the sole focus of one to two days in retreat.
Thoughtful preplanning is essential for retreat success:
- What strategic issues are we already working on?
- Do any of AGB’s top five apply to us?
- What are our goals?
- What outcomes do we expect?
- Shall we focus on all five or just one or two strategic issues?
- What are the key elements of the issue?
- Who else could help us better understand?
- What information do trustees need to prepare for substantive discussion?
- Who on staff or on the board can we tap for their relevant expertise?
Suppose that the board and cabinet at fictional Maple State University have discussed such questions and decided to have a retreat.
Fictitious Case Study: Maple State University
Trustees and cabinet members at Maple State University aim to develop a distinctive feature with high positive impact on students and society. After a good deal of reading, conferring, and discussing, they have decided to explore the potential for democracy and civic engagement to become a distinctive feature of the university.
Located in its state’s capital city, MSU personnel are more aware of government and politics than others may be. One trustee is a former legislator, and another is a former state attorney general. The new president is an historian who has become deeply concerned about the decline in civil discourse, growing fragmentation among social groups, and public policy changes that greatly reduce the impact of civic engagement. Several faculty members are well known for their relevant expertise in communication, sociology, government, and ethics.
Support for considering democracy and civic engagement as a distinctive feature for MSU has been building, although no one is naive enough to think that it is without risk in the current political climate. In fact, some believe the risk of doing it is less than the risk to students, society, and democracy of not doing it. The president and the board have decided to take a next step: engaging members of the university community in considering the idea.
Emphasizing that these activities are intended to inform deliberations about an idea that may or may not be affirmed, President Anderson has asked ad hoc committees of faculty, student development staff, university relations, and the foundation to brainstorm the potential options, advantages, and concerns in their purview.
The purpose of the board retreat is to explore opportunities and concerns from the perspective of the university’s vitality and viability. Will it strengthen the outcomes for students, and can it be done sustainably? The expected outcome is a decision to explore further or change course.
The morning of the retreat, trustees and cabinet members will hear from and discuss with the ad hoc committee chairs and hear a panel of community and political leaders sharing their responses to the idea.
That afternoon, trustees and cabinet members will participate in a facilitated force field analysis to summarize the forces for or against the idea, decide whether to proceed or go in a different direction, and either way, identify next steps.
Whatever they decide, they will have built relationships, gained perspective, and engaged in activities that represent the highest level of value to themselves and their institution. But it does take time and thought.
The more a trustee understands the dynamics of both the institution and the higher education industry, the better able they are to bring useful guidance and questions to the board.
For strategic matters, high-quality, on-target, syntheses of information, like Top Strategic Issues for Boards 2022-2023, are far more valuable than treatises or spreadsheets.
Problem solving works best when you spend at least 50 percent of the time defining the problem. Achieving effective board education and retreats requires at least twice as much planning time as event time.
A strategically engaged board requires using time, both within and outside meetings, in thoughtful, inclusive ways.
Trustees need time to think, learn, and discuss deeply enough to make decisions that are not only sound but wise, discerning as well as smart.
Ellen Chaffee, PhD, is an AGB senior fellow and consultant.
Opinions expressed in AGB blogs are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the institutions that employ them or of AGB.