“Great Expectations” and Board Education

By Jonathan R. Alger April 28, 2021 May 11th, 2021 Blog Post

Opinions expressed in AGB blogs are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the institutions that employ them or of AGB.

Americans love comparisons and rankings, and colleges and universities are facing heightening demands to develop measurable goals and benchmarks for institutional progress and assessment.  There may be plenty of raw data available, but the hard work comes in developing meaningful metrics, including identification of applicable peer and aspirant peer institutions, for different aspects of an institution’s programs and operations. Information and data literacy is one of the key skill sets of the 21st century that all students need, and the same is true for administrators and board members. So how can institutional leaders ensure that board and administrative expectations are tethered in reality with accurate facts and context?

The answer to this question starts with the premise that board members and administrators alike must work in partnership to model what it means to be lifelong learners and students of higher education. These roles require some degree of humility, open-mindedness, and intellectual curiosity. College and university leaders must share clearly messaged, digestible, and relevant information while board members dedicate adequate time and energy to assimilating the data.  Administrators must make extra effort to provide information in context, including national trends data, discussion of potential peer comparisons for specific purposes, and time series data.  This iterative process should start with institution-specific board orientation and be reinforced with continuing board education.

My own institution is a case in point. We were founded as an all-women’s teachers college in 1908, and gradually evolved into a fully coeducational, comprehensive public university that is now on the cusp of national research university status. We seek to maintain fundamental components of our institutional identity and distinctiveness while enhancing our academic programs, diversity and inclusion efforts, reputation, and impact.  In articulating reasonable goals and metrics, we often struggle to identify appropriate peers or aspirant peers for various purposes in light of our history, location, and institution type.

Coming to grips with these types of questions is one of the most important responsibilities of administrators and boards in a dynamic higher education landscape. For example, when discussing enrollment trends and concerns with the impending “demographic cliff” of the number of college-ready high school seniors in certain parts of the country, it will be important to consider the present and potential future recruitment reach of the institution. An analysis of “overlap” institutions for admissions purposes can be instructive and revealing. In a related vein, decisions about tuition rates are also key decisions for boards, but cannot be made in a vacuum without detailed information related to available financial aid, as well as demographic data on the applicant pool, yield, and student body over time.

Likewise, when setting fundraising campaign goals, administrators and board members first need to understand the profile of the institution’s alumni and donor base, including such factors as demographics by age and professional backgrounds. Reading headlines about other universities’ campaign goals, without this kind of institution-specific context, can create unrealistic expectations.

Determining salary scales is another area that requires particular attention to relevant comparators. Here, a clear understanding of faculty and staff workloads is critical based on institutional type and mission, along with analysis of the institutions with which a college or university competes for talent. Geographic factors and cost of living will of course also play a role.

For these reasons, presidents, board chairs, board professionals, and committees responsible for board member education all need to think both proactively and responsively about topical readings, materials, and discussion that can inform board members’ perspectives—and thus to make them more “tethered” and “relevant.” In turn, board members who seek to be engaged and effective in carrying out their fiduciary responsibilities can and should ask questions designed to help them understand the specific context of their college or university, and how it compares and contrasts with other institutions that might appear to be similar on the surface. Even devoted alumni of an institution cannot be expected to have relevant, up-to-date, and accurate knowledge of such topics without significant effort. Continuing education in these areas also enables board members to serve as more well-informed and confident ambassadors and advocates for their institutions when dealing with external constituencies.

Governing boards meet only periodically, and given the constraints of time and attention it can be tempting to seek to jump to comparisons and conclusions quickly. Board members will provide better leadership and guidance, however, when they are well-versed in the specific context of the institution as well as in the overall trends affecting higher education nationally.  Just like our students, this means that leaders in higher education need to keep doing their homework.  There might not be a final exam for board members, but the stakes and consequences related to their fiduciary decisions are certainly significant for current and future generations of students.

AGB thanks our partner AIG for its support of the Council of Presidents.

Jonathan R. Alger, JD, is the president of James Madison University, a public comprehensive institution in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.  A lawyer by training, he has held previous positions at Rutgers University, the University of Michigan, the American Association of University Professors, and the U.S. Department of Education.  He currently serves as a member of AGB’s Council of Presidents, which last convened on March 16.

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