AGB Today and Tomorrow

By AGB    //    Volume 29,  Number 2   //    March/April 2021
Trusteeship Magazine: March/April 2021 Cover

AGB is passionate about empowering board members to serve as strategic thought partners with their presidents and leadership teams, focusing on such important matters as student success and institutional vitality in the post-COVID-19 world. As AGB celebrates its 100th year, AGB President and CEO Henry Stoever provides insights into the significance of the association’s role in the ever-changing landscape of higher education and its priorities for years to come.

TRUSTEESHIP: Why do you think AGB is so important to higher education governance? 

STOEVER: AGB is critically important to higher education governance. Given that many board members come from outside of higher education where decision-making is typically very different, AGB provides them with important knowledge and understanding about the best higher ed governance practices. We also offer boards abundant resources about issues of importance to colleges, universities, and higher education foundations. We suggest proven approaches to problems facing our member institutions. Our consulting and search practices make available to the higher education community unparalleled expertise. In addition to our focus on board members, we are equally committed to working productively with presidents and their leadership teams, including board professionals, who work closely with and depend on the expertise and the support of their boards.

TRUSTEESHIP: What is one of the key ways in which AGB helps educate trustees about governance? 

STOEVER: One of AGB’s primary areas of focus is fostering an effective board chair-president partnership. A healthy chair-president relationship ensures that board agendas are focused on the most significant strategic matters facing the institution. This partnership also reassures the other board members that they are being fully informed about and can raise questions about matters of institutional importance as they consider both the institution’s challenges and its opportunities. And, of course, such knowledge is essential for board members if they are to fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities. It also goes with- out saying that when board members are appropriately informed, they are far more likely to support the president.

TRUSTEESHIP: What is the most important challenge that higher education boards face today? 

STOEVER: I think most of us would agree that the single most important issue that higher education institutions need to address is their financial sustainability. Many colleges and universities have for years been experiencing declining net tuition revenue, caused most notably by changes in the college-going population and by increasing tuition discounts. Many public institutions have seen a cut in state support. The pandemic has intensified these problems. It is now commonly understood that the business model for higher education is no longer sustainable. Therefore, redefining that model must become a high and immediate priority for institutional leaders and board members. This is another area where AGB can provide boards, presidents, and leadership teams with important expertise and resources.

TRUSTEESHIP: Why are boards of trustees important not only to institutions but also to society at large? 

STOEVER: Board members need to be focused on the long term so that their institutions can continue to fulfil their important missions and thrive over time. Higher education is an incredibly important asset that contributes to the well-being of our country, our society, and our economy, not just in the United States but also around the world. Securing the future of these valuable institutions may in fact be the most critical trustee responsibility.

To ensure the long-term vitality of each institution, my colleagues at AGB and I believe that in addition to fulfilling their oversight function and thinking about strategic matters, trustees need to understand and focus on student success. They must encourage and support efforts to give students the knowledge, understanding, and tools that will enable them to fulfill their own personal and professional aspirations and become educated citizens.

TRUSTEESHIP: What are AGB’s priorities to help boards now and into the future? 

STOEVER: AGB has three strategic priorities: (1) to advance higher education’s focus on justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion; (2) to encourage boards to understand and adopt the tenets of our forthcoming book, the Principles of Trusteeship; and (3) to support boards, presidents, and their leadership teams as they undertake strategic transformation.

Justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion are essential values that we at AGB believe every organization needs to embrace. On an institutional level, they should inform strategies, decisions, policies, and practices. On a personal level, they should create a feeling of belonging for every member of the campus community. Indeed, everyone who is part of a college, university, or foundation—whether a student, faculty member, or staff member—should feel welcome at their institution, should see themselves as part of the community and—it should go without saying—to be treated with dignity and respect. Our JDE&I initiative will include the AGB Board of Directors’ Statement on Justice, Equity, and Inclusion to be published later this spring; a suite of new, practical tools and resources; and a new service from AGB Consulting on JDE&I. Importantly, these values will be treated as the thread that is woven through all the cloth we weave.

The Principles of Trusteeship initiative grew out of AGB’s 100 years of focusing on strengthening governance of higher education boards and reaffirms our commitment to empowering board members to serve as strategic thought partners with their presidents and leadership teams. The Principles of Trusteeship project is focused on helping individual board members learn about the critically important attributes and skills and perspectives that are required for individual board members to be effective board members. For example, we believe that this initiative will serve as a new, practical resource for board members that will inform board action. We hope that these principles will be central to all orientation sessions for new board members.

Strategic transformation inevitably will be a multifaceted and long-term endeavor. This area of focus emphasizes the need for board members to become genuinely engaged in their work. For example, trustees need to commit significant time to learning about their institution and about higher education and its challenges more broadly. They also need to leverage their expertise to help their institution thrive in the future. To help meet these needs, AGB Consulting is launching a new practice area on strategic transformation.

TRUSTEESHIP: How would you describe AGB’s impact and legacy? 

STOEVER: AGB’s impact over 100 years of strengthening higher education governance has, in great part, informed trustees about what they need to know, what they need to do, and how presidents and leadership teams should work effectively with their boards. Effective boards add more than just oversight. Our goal going forward is to continue to enable board members, in this new challenging environment, to be strategic assets for their institutions and with their leadership team members.

One of the things that I have learned over the last couple of years as the president of AGB is that volunteer board members serve in their roles because they have a higher calling. The countless number of board members with whom I’ve been privileged to talk are truly passionate about helping their colleges, universities, and foundations. Even as many board members are selected, appointed, or elected because of their philanthropic capacity, they also add great value because of their strategic insights and wisdom. Their higher calling, in my mind, is that board members aspire that their institution create dynamic and talented graduates who have the desire and capacity to be lifelong learners. For some institutions, it will be to seek to prepare students who will make a contribution to the world. For others, it will be to foster workforce readiness. In yet others, it will be to support significant research and to provide innovative opportunities for industry, government, and higher education itself to leverage into the future. In all cases, effective board members help their institutions fulfil their mission.

As we at AGB enter the next century of our organizational history, we look forward to continuing our important work together.