A Question For Richard Chait, PhD

How Has AGB Influenced Higher Education Governance in the Last 100 Years?

By Elena Loveland    //    Volume 29,  Number 3   //    May/June 2021

In honor of its centennial, Trusteeship magazine interviewed Richard Chait about AGB’s role in higher education governance over the last 100 years. Chait is a professor emeritus at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education who studies the management and governance of colleges and universities, including the roles, responsibilities, and performance of boards of trustees. He contributed to many of AGB’s landmark initiatives, including cofacilitating the Institute for Board Chairs and President, as a member of the National Commission on College and University Board Governance which produced the report Consequential Boards: Adding Value Where it Matters Most, as author of “The Bedrock of Board Culture” in Trusteeship magazine, and as a member of the working group for the recently published Principles of Trusteeship.

What is a defining characteristic of AGB among other higher education associations? 

A defining characteristic of AGB has been its attention to both sides of the governance partnership. It hasn’t focused on trustees in isolation. AGB has been very attentive to the working relationship or partnership between boards and presidents. In fact, one of AGB’s signature programs has always been for the last 25 to 30 years, a board chair–campus CEO institute that they attend together. Additionally, AGB has given careful consideration to the role of faculty and staff in a shared governance model. So, it’s distinctive in the sense that its primary clientele, its primary audience has been boards of trustees, but it has expanded and extended that scope to include other components and other constituents who are critically involved in governance.

What do you think is most notable over 100 years that AGB has done to help shape the landscape of American higher education? 

I think AGB has had a significant impact over the years. It probably can be measured by the improvement in the performance of boards, the degree to which boards take their work more seriously, and their readiness now to be more self-aware and more accountable for their performance. If I were to turn the clock back 45 years, there was very little in the way of accountability for boards. I often would comment that when colleges and universities experienced mismanagement, the board fired management and when they experienced “misgovernance” they fired management. Now, I think it’s different. I think boards of trustees have a greater openness to self-assessment, and a lot of the credit goes to AGB. We started with what in retrospect were fairly primitive self-evaluation tools and techniques, but AGB has become ever more sophisticated. So, if I were inclined to single out one reason that AGB has had such impact, it’s been that they have encouraged and equipped boards of trustees to be reflective about their practice. It’s not too hard to be inspired by AGB, particularly for someone who has made a life’s work out of the study of boards of trustees. The association has been open-minded, receptive to new ideas; it has provided opportunities to disseminate those ideas; and it has disseminated those ideas.

What do you think is the legacy that AGB has established in its 100-year history? 

When I think of the legacy of AGB, I think about how much has changed in the four and a half decades that I’ve had the privilege to affiliate with the association. When I first started, I had to pronounce governance really carefully. I had to articulate each syllable because most people, when I said I studied governance, assumed that I studied government. Governance was not even a term that had currency in the mid-1970s. If you fast forward to today, the changes are just dramatic. What was once seen as highly innovative activity—whether board orientation, board self-assessment, board retreats, benchmarks for boards, systematic approaches to the selection and evaluation of trustees—all of those innovations of years gone by are now conventions of the current generation. I’ve measured AGB’s impact by how much has changed in the conduct and mind-set of boards. In the mid-1970s and the early 1980s, most trustees viewed their role as ceremonial, ornamental, and substantive only at times of crisis. Today, I think boards of trustees realize that they actually have a job to do; they have consequential work to perform; and, as a result, they take their roles and responsibilities far more seriously than was the case 45 years ago.

Related Resources

Principles of Trusteeship: How to Become a Highly Effective Board Member for Colleges, Universities, and Foundations 

“Consequential Boards: Adding Value Where it Matters Most” 

“The Bedrock of Board Culture” 

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