AGB Launches National Commission on College and University Board Governance

By    //    Volume 21,  Number 4   //    July/August 2013

AGB is pleased to announce the formation of the National Commission on College and University Board Governance. The Commission, chaired by Philip N. Bredesen, the former Governor of Tennessee, will include highly respected leaders from inside and outside of higher education.

Throughout the next year, the Commission will examine how well prepared the governing bodies of higher education institutions and systems are to address the myriad challenges confronting our sector. Our model of board governance has long distinguished the United States “system” of higher education from the centralized governmental models used elsewhere in the world. We believe it contributes to the diversity and resilience of our higher education sector, and to our deserved reputation for having some of the best institutions in the world. But the basic model of governance hasn’t changed in over 300 years, and it is time to take a fresh look at it.

AGB’s last two national commissions, in 1996 and 2007, urged boards to respect and support effective and visionary leadership among chief executives. In addition, they encouraged boards to recognize their ultimate fiduciary authority in the context of multiple stakeholders. Those admonitions remain wellgrounded and durable statements of effective practice.

Yet the pace and extent of change in the current environment make it incumbent on us to reconsider further board and governance effectiveness. As Governor Bredesen has said, “America is justifiably proud of its institutions of higher education and their contributions to our nation’s success. A robust system of self-governance has been an integral part of the strength of these institutions, but higher education is facing new and escalating challenges in its mission, environment, and public expectations. The boards of these institutions and their approach to governance must respond. This is far better accomplished within the system than by state or federal mandate or public pressure.”

The AGB Commission will not dwell on creating another reiteration of the need for change in higher education. We accept as a given that higher education is undergoing fundamental shifts in academic delivery, student demographics, finances, and overall expectations. The Commission will hone in on the issues that define these changes from the perspective of board governance, answering the question of how boards in particular, and higher education governance in general, must also change to meet these challenges. A premise of our Commission is that if we believe in the value of independent governance, we must be prepared to adapt it as needed to affirm and sustain the connections between our institutions and the rest of our society.

The business of higher education is a major topic of our public policy debate—how we price it, the needs and expectations of the students we serve, the programs we offer, and how those programs connect to our society and its economy. The Commission’s agenda will look at how these factors are evolving and what that suggests for boards and governance. What does the changing landscape mean for such things as board size and structure, institutional finance, shared governance, academic quality, student learning, and meeting the public’s expectations for higher education? No less important, given the substantial role of public systems, what kinds of attention should be given to the complex field that is board governance?

Fifty years from now, our country will be a better place or a worse one based on our success in adapting our colleges and universities to serve the needs of society. Bold and engaged leadership will be required to ensure the continued effectiveness of higher education in preparing our population for the future. The business of higher education is no longer just the business of people inside the academy; it is integral to the success of our society, our democracy, and our economy. As such, we have a duty to break new ground to ensure American higher education enjoys a capacity for effective governance that can stand up to the challenges of a new era.

We look forward to the exciting and important work of this Commission through the coming year. AGB is pleased to be moving this conversation forward.

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