Opinions expressed in AGB blogs are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the institutions that employ them or of AGB.
AGB High Priority Initiatives 2023–2024
At the most recent meeting of the Council of Finance Committee Chairs (CFCC), AGB staff began by talking about the association’s three high priority initiatives for the coming year.
#1. The Council on Higher Education as a Strategic Asset (HESA). AGB observed that no other organization is grappling with the crucial role colleges and universities play as national assets at a time when the United States is losing its competitive position globally and data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) suggests weakness in the country’s educational infrastructure. AGB has recruited 50 “commissioners” with a broad array of experiences from the business, government, higher education, military, and nonprofit sectors to develop recommendations for federal, state, and higher education leaders about the specific investments needed to improve student outcomes and produce graduates that can meet the nation’s strategic needs. AGB hopes those recommendations will become part of the 2024 election cycle and serve as a platform for working with the next presidential administration in shaping education policy.
#2. The forthcoming 2023 “AGB Board of Directors’ Statement on Influences Impacting Governing Board Independence and Leadership.” Currently in development, the statement focuses on board responsibilities to: (1) preserve institutional independence and autonomy, (2) demonstrate independence to govern as established in charter, state law, or constitution, (3) keep academic freedom central and be the standard bearer for the due-process protection of faculty, staff, and students, and (4) ensure institutional accountability to the public interest. While AGB has issued statements on external influences previously, the challenges of the current environment have created a need to reaffirm those principles as integral to the mission of AGB and its members.
#3. Board oversight of technology and the digital transformation of academia. The discussion among council members about this topic was broad ranging, as the digital transformation taking place in higher education offers both opportunities and challenges. Technology is advancing the way institutions teach, offers new and exciting platforms to improve student learning outcomes, and has the potential to expand higher education’s capacity to fill the nation’s need for more employees with essential skills. At the same time, however, new technology can be expensive, can pose thorny ethical questions, and can dramatically change the character of a students’ educational experiences negatively as well as positively. Thus, boards must play a leadership role in balancing the benefits of technology with any adverse consequences it might have.
Priority Committee and Board Agenda Items for 2023–2024
AGB’s initial comments segued into the council’s agenda for the August meeting, which was to focus on the most important committee and board priorities for 2023–2024. The environment following the COVID-19 pandemic has raised a host of unanswered questions that boards will need to address going forward, and council members said it would be interesting and useful to hear how colleagues and peer institutions are thinking about their own board agendas for the coming year.
More specifically, council members wanted to know how board leaders plan to prioritize critical issues and adequately explore them, given the limitations on face-to-face meeting time. What issues are rising to the top of the list, and how are boards asking institutional leaders to prepare the necessary materials to have productive conversations about those issues? Are certain topics deemed existential threats and if so, which ones? And just as important, how can boards, in consultation with institutional leaders, debate those serious topics yet also not lose focus on the routine yet vital oversight of their institution?
To help facilitate the council’s discussion, AGB shared a white paper with its members highlighting AGB’s Top Strategic Issues for Boards 2022–2023 report, which is organized around five current and pressing themes that boards should keep top of mind in the coming months.
#1. Ensuring institutional vitality. This encompasses taking a hard look at the relevance of institutional missions, current curricula, and program offerings. It also involves keeping pace with new technology and meeting the challenges that hybrid instructional modalities pose. And it includes being open to evaluating the long-term strategic value and implications of mergers, affiliations, and partnerships, as well as being prepared to deal with all manner of other financial issues and concerns.
#2. Improving outcomes for students. Achieving better outcomes for all students requires focusing on retention to maximize graduation rates. That means offering diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives to ensure all members of an institution’s living and learning community feel a sense of belonging, as well as providing mental health and basic-needs services for students—the demand for which the pandemic has significantly magnified. Enhancing student outcomes also calls for better tailoring programs to prepare students for workforce needs through internships and long-term work-study opportunities.
#3. Strengthening civic education and democracy. Board members must recognize the responsibility that every college and university has to prepare an engaged citizenry, model civil discourse and tolerance of diverse viewpoints, and stand up for freedom of thought and expression. Higher education can and must unite Americans in pursuit of democracy and the common good.
#4. Preparing new higher education leaders. A recent wave of retirements among chief executives and leadership team members underscores the urgency for boards to ensure their institution is devoting the necessary attention to hiring effective leaders and engaging in thoughtful succession planning. Boards are responsible for not only identifying, inspiring, and retaining the best chief executive for their specific college or university, but also for helping recruit and secure strong provosts, deans, and other key administrators. Boards, especially those that are self-perpetuating, must also make it a priority to bring on the next generation of board members and leaders who can add strength and diversity to their own ranks.
#5. Managing serious risks. Nothing could have fully prepared any board for the overwhelming challenge of operating an institution of higher education during a sudden and unforeseeable global pandemic. Yet looking ahead, colleges and universities face a welter of serious and at least somewhat predictable risks that leadership should be ready for. Boards and chief executives must develop strategic risk-mitigation and crisis response plans to actively prepare for, respond to, and recover from an ever-widening range of threats—including cyberattacks to sensitive databases, incidents of sexual misconduct, financial mismanagement, shared governance disputes, and inadequate responses to undue influence from politicians and donors, to name just a few.
Council members agreed that an essential element of a board’s fiduciary obligation is to ensure that it is prepared to oversee effectively the panoply of risks that colleges and universities regularly encounter from all directions. Future crises in colleges and universities are inevitable, so boards should diligently prepare to address them as quickly and as well as possible. In their fiduciary capacity, boards will need to act as the long-term guardians of their college or university and look to the horizon, asking themselves: “What are we doing to secure our institution’s future?”
Questions Boards Should Ask
- In higher education’s shared governance environment, how can and should a board or committee work with the president and senior leadership to identify, assess, and mitigate the myriad risks confronting their institution in the current environment?
- Based on AGB’s Top Strategic Issues for Boards 2022–2023 report, which of the five themes represents the most significant risks to your institution? Have you identified any other specific risk factors?
- At the AGB 2023 National Conference on Trusteeship Meeting in San Diego, the participants in our council session discussed the efficacy of a higher education degree and return on investment. From your perspective, do you believe the declining public confidence in a higher education degree represents an existential threat, and how can boards, working with institutional leadership, help address people’s concerns in this highly polarized environment?
- A recent Gallup Poll showed 36 percent of Americans have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education, which is down about 20 percent from eight years ago. From your vantage point, are there specific programs or initiatives that would heighten confidence in higher education in this country, yet require investment or reinvestment, that you’d like to see the Higher Education as a Strategic Asset commissioners recommend?
- While much of our discussions have focused on the sustainability of the higher education business model, in times such as these, one might be reminded of the maxim “physician health thyself.” What can and should boards do in a period of heightened skepticism to demonstrate their capacity to bring credible and viable strategies and solutions to the table?
Stephen T. Golding is a senior consultant for AGB Consulting and the ambassador to AGB’s Council of Finance.