Perhaps Not So Simple

By Richard D. Legon March 22, 2019 May 13th, 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.

AGB recently published an “anatomy” of good governance, arguing that the right combination of board makeup, focus, and culture can go a long way toward ensuring success in the boardroom. Long experience has shown that the ability of a board to address effectively the issues that come before it can be hamstrung by inattention to these three central variables—a danger even for public boards, which have less sway over appointments. Simple!

We probably should have added a fourth, equally “simple” characteristic of an effective board:  willingness to step up. Even a board with a nearly perfect membership profile, strategic agendas, and a comfortable and inclusive culture still needs to understand the distinctions among passivity, engagement, and micromanagement. (Due to space limitations, I’ll dispense with the issue of micromanagement, other than to suggest that such behavior is neither acceptable nor all that helpful.)

Accountability and fiduciary duty are the ultimate and most acceptable lanes for governing boards to occupy. In other words, boards must own their responsibility. Anything less will certainly result in governance failure at some level. And, with today’s headwinds coming at higher education with full force, governance failure at any level is not tolerable.

I’ve been thinking over the past two weeks about the admissions scandal that has engulfed some of the country’s most elite institutions. No doubt you, too, have been monitoring this story. While favored admissions practices are not new or surprising, something about this latest case of fraudulent behavior has caught the nation’s attention—and not in a good way. Whether it’s the Hollywood aspect, or the dollars involved, or the blatant cheating, or, once again, the link to intercollegiate athletics—the soap-opera nature of the story seems to be piling on for a sector where stories of malfeasance, corruption, conflict of interest, and sexual assault seem to be too common. The cumulative effect is to exacerbate further the crisis of public trust in higher education.

Perhaps no governing board could have anticipated this latest scandal. But effective governance requires that all boards now step up—by reviewing policies that might not be as locked down as necessary, by understanding risks in admissions and other less prominent areas of oversight.

Transparency between boards and administrators is the coin of the realm, but so too are curiosity and ownership of board responsibilities.

In the end, effective board governance can, indeed, be simple—so long as the requisite characteristics are present and maintained. Getting governance right requires action; it may be simple, but it’s not easy.

Richard D. Legon is the president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, as well as a member of the board of Spelman College.

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