Your Board Must Do the Work of the Governance Committee If You Don’t Have One!

By Merrill Schwartz October 15, 2019 May 11th, 2021 Blog Post

The right people, focused on the right issues, with the right relationships—those are the essential ingredients of an effective board, according to AGB’s recent publication An Anatomy of Good Board Governance in Higher Education. But how does a board channel the interests and energy of its board members to be an effective board, especially at public institutions, where members are typically selected by gubernatorial appointment or election? That’s the work of the governance committee.

However, only 20 percent of public college, university, or system governing boards actually have a governance committee, according to AGB’s most recent survey on board policies, practices, and composition. The typical work of the governance committee includes orienting new members, ongoing board education for all members, board assessment, updating bylaws, and assessing the skills and backgrounds of current members against those needed now and in the future. These are the tools for ensuring that board members understand their responsibilities, share a common commitment to board goals and priorities, select the right leaders, engage appropriately, work well with the administration, and organize board committees strategically to accomplish their goals.

In general, boards assign their work to appropriate committees in order to focus attention, skills, and time on matters of importance that need exploration and development to find the right solutions. This enables the chair to use the board’s time and talent effectively. Unfortunately, many boards don’t spend enough time developing the tools needed to do the work of the board: the board’s members, culture, structure, and policies. Fulfilling the fiduciary responsibilities of a trustee, holding the board accountable, and meeting the expectations of accrediting bodies requires this focused attention on who serves, how the board is organized for work, and how well it performs. A committee with this charge can help organize and prioritize these efforts, and AGB’s new booklet, The Governance Committee—Public Institutions (Cartwright, 2019), provides guidance for boards that would like to create one. It’s also essential reading for boards that do this work through a committee of the whole or executive committee—or need to perform this work and are not.

Simple changes can make a big difference in promoting good board practices. Start with a statement of commitment for new trustees and an engaging onboarding process. Inform the appointing authority of the strengths of current members and needed skills and backgrounds to enhance board composition. Use a retreat to take a good look at the board and how it’s organized to find new ways to accomplish the work of the board—and serve the institution better.

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