Aging In

By Chris Rasmussen    //    Volume 24,  Number 4   //    July/August 2016

It wasn’t quite the shot heard ’round the world, but the news in late April that millennials had become the largest living generation—surpassing the 75 million baby boomers in the United States—was nonetheless a watershed moment. Much has been written about this long-anticipated generational shift and the acceleration of baby boomers into retirement. Most of the attention has been focused on the workplace and the vast cache of technical knowledge and skills that will need to be replaced in order for businesses and organizations of all types to remain successful. Within higher education, the conversation has centered on the aging of the faculty and of presidents, and the associated need to identify and prepare talent to move into positions of academic and administrative leadership.

But what about boards? Data from AGB’s Policies, Practices, and Composition of Governing and Foundation Boards 2016 suggest a critical need to tend to the coming demographic change for higher education governance. The average age of board members is now 57 for public institutions and 59 for independent colleges and universities, while the fastest-growing age group on boards is individuals over 70. Only 15 percent of independent board members and just under 20 percent of public board members are under the age of 50. While much of the national conversation about generations has focused on millennials (individuals born roughly between 1982 and 1998), there are also comparatively few members of Gen X (born between 1965 and 1982) on higher education governing boards. As time goes by, the pressure is on for boards to engage the next generation of members to lead their institutions forward.

Benefits of Younger Board Members

We’ve all heard the generational stereotypes, whether they be of millennials, Gen X, or baby boomers. Millennials have been variously stereotyped as narcissistic, selfie-taking, impatient, technologyobsessed, materialistic, text-happy, socially challenged, and having a poor work ethic. Ouch! Writing for the Huffington Post in “5 Valuable Gifts of the Millennial Workforce,” Shinjini Das reframed what are mostly negative stereotypes into characteristics that are quite beneficial to any team or organization, including fresh perspectives and renewed energy, a thirst for challenges and a hunger to grow, a desire to be a hero and create a profound impact, a keen sense of adaptability, and a quest for mentors and brutally honest feedback.

Leaders and advocates in the nonprofit sector have been promoting the value of engaging younger board members for some time, highlighting the benefits to organizations that range from increased board diversity to more strategic use of technology to additional creativity in marketing and fundraising to opportunities for succession planning. A 2015 report from Charities Aid Foundation, “Young Trustees Guide: Developing the Next Generation of Charity Leaders,” highlighted the various benefits of increasing the number of younger trustees on nonprofit boards, including:

  • Increasing public confidence in an organization by having a greater range of people (and potential clients) represented on the board, which can in turn encourage greater support from the public;
  • Challenging a possible disconnect between board members and beneficiaries, as a diverse range of trustees can help to ensure that a charity is fair and transparent in its operations and provides appropriate services and communications;
  • Benefiting from a greater range of skills and viewpoints, which can result in increased flexibility, greater scrutiny, and improved decision making;
  • Engaging younger board members who are hungry to learn and make a difference, and who may ask questions that others won’t; and
  • Clearly demonstrating an espoused commitment to equity and inclusivity at the highest decision-making level in the organization.

At a time when the business of higher education is most challenging—and when governance is more complex than ever—boards need to engage the best talent available. Boards must also take steps to ensure that the next generation of leaders and servants is prepared to guide our institutions into a relevant and sustainable future. The passing of time will usher in a new generation of entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and leaders with a different mix of values, interests, and motivators. How do younger board members see the challenges facing higher education and institutional governance? What do younger candidates for boards expect to gain and contribute to board service? How will college and university governance change as a result of the coming generational transition? How should boards and presidents prepare for such a change?

The Baker’s Dozen

To begin to answer these questions, my colleagues and I at AGB held conversations with a baker’s dozen of “younger” board members—all under the age of 45, and most younger than 40. These board members represented a wide range of institutions, both public and independent, large and small. They also came to boards via diverse pathways, including through governance and trustee committees, statewide ballot, and appointment by governors, legislatures, and municipal officials. Included in the mix were board members from a historically black university (HBCU) and from a Canadian institution. In addition to participating in conference calls, five of the 13 board members attended AGB’s 2016 National Conference on Trusteeship and spoke to a capacity audience about their experiences. Clearly the issue of bringing younger leaders onto boards was on the minds of many conference attendees!

Roughly half of our participants were newer to their boards, with fewer than three years of service, while five of the 13 had more than five years of experience. They came from a wide array of professional backgrounds, including law, finance, education, government, insurance, and nonprofit work. One was a current board chair of a large community college, while another begins a term as board chair at a private liberal-arts college this fall. One participant described himself as being simultaneously the longest-tenured member of his board and also the youngest by about 10 years.

We asked these 13 individuals to share some of their experiences as comparatively young members of their boards. We also asked them to look ahead at the challenges facing higher education and how board structures and board work might need to change if our institutions are to thrive in the coming years.

Generational Lenses

While generalizing can be dicey, there is something to be said for the timing of a generational cohort’s coming of age and specific influences on the lens through which they view the world—a lens shaped by technology, media, social structures, the economy, and the political environment. Board members may also have varying perspectives on the challenges and opportunities facing higher education as a result of their particular generational lens; that is to say, our perspectives may differ from our colleagues who came of age at a different time. There may be challenges and opportunities on the horizon that baby boomers see or experience differently than members of younger generations. We asked our participants for their outlook on challenges that will face future boards down the road.


Our conversations with younger board members aligned with what scholars and futurists have been saying about the needs and expectations of younger leaders. The following are 10 insights for recruiting and engaging the next generation of higher education board members.

1. They (younger board members) feel a responsibility to engage deeply and to demonstrate the potential of their generation. Our participants also reported having remarkably collegial and welcoming experiences on their boards.

2. They can be inspirational to current students, whether it is for their early professional success, their ability to balance career with family, or the fact that they have a seat at the governing board table.

3. They can provide a “check” on 30- or 40-year-old anecdotes of “when I was a student.” Their own more recent anecdotes can also be limiting, but the ability to present an alternate perspective rooted in a different era can help send a message about both the timelessness and the time-specific nature of the student experience.

4. Millennials, in particular, may be less willing to dance around key issues like completion and cost. In many cases, they are more willing to speak directly in naming a problem and can be less inhibited by decorum, which can help to advance dialogue in a meaningful way.

5. They are accustomed to collaboration—in some cases in ways that can strike older board members as overly process-oriented. They are also often comfortable with messy decision making and can be less concerned with reaching an elegant conclusion.

6. They launched their careers at a time when frequent job changing was not necessarily reflective of a lack of commitment or perseverance. In general, they have more diverse and varied career pathways than their colleagues, and their life experiences can be wider ranging.

7. While they may lack the professional networks of older board members, they often bring incredible breadth and interconnectedness, facilitated by the use of social media to bridge and link various social, familial, and career circles.

8. They can be more open to calculated risk and more readily question long-held ideas and assumptions.

9. Many younger individuals are attracted to board service, but they may lack information about opportunities to serve. Boards need to make themselves more accessible and make avenues for service clearer.

10. There are real challenges for younger board members that relate to phase of life. In addition to often having young children and less disposable income, they may have less job and schedule flexibility than older board members. They may look for ways to give (or give back) to institutions that allow for customization of “when” and “where.”

In addition to building for the long term, boards need to be sufficiently diverse to connect with the full gamut of constituencies. They must be capable of injecting a dose of understanding and perspective across the institution’s community. Younger board members can be a key part of a strategy to develop a more diverse board.

Higher Education Finance and the Business Model

In our conversations, younger board members affirmed the need to find new ways of funding higher education and diversifying revenue streams. They expect that the challenges that exist today—with declining state funding, pressures of student loan debt, and increasing institutional operating expenses—will only get worse. While boards have been somewhat responsive on the issue (with examples of strategies such as differential tuition for out-of-state and international students and guaranteed four-year pricing), younger board members may feel a greater sense of urgency to shape fundamentally different business models to sustain their institutions.

Student Demographics, Market, and Mission

Younger board members graduated from college and began their careers at a time of greater demographic diversity than did their older counterparts. Our participants noted that while our colleges and universities have known for some time about the changing demographics of high-school graduates, many institutions seem to have been caught off guard in developing a strategic response to these changes. Competition for a smaller number of academically prepared and low-to-moderate-need high-school graduates is heating up. Certain international markets—most notably China—are shrinking, given the improvement of higher education opportunities and the quality of institutions in other countries. Expectations are increasing for practical, customized, and career-focused academic programs that lead to specific and immediate labor-market outcomes. Again, our participants communicated a sense of urgency for boards to make tough decisions about how their institutions will need to change to serve an evolving market while remaining true to mission and values.

Workforce Shifts

It’s no secret that younger generations are generally more comfortable with and strategic in their use of technology. Our participants spoke to the need for future boards to lead their institutions through a modern technological revolution, with an expanding pace of automation, the increasing outsourcing of many white-collar jobs, and the unknown impact of artificial intelligence on the economy and culture. Managerial roles in the American workforce (jobs that often require college degrees) will change in ways that are not yet well understood. While it is anticipated that an increasing proportion of jobs will require a postsecondary credential, the specific workforce implications of technological change largely remain to be seen.

Regulation and Government Relations

Our participants shared a sense of foreboding that any institution, despite the best efforts of institutional leadership, could run afoul of some government regulation or become ensnared by scandal. They expressed concern that governments rely too much on simplistic metrics, such as loan default rates, for our most accessible institutions; that partisan politics will continue to generate major shifts in higher education policy with each successive election cycle; and that the increasing scarcity of state (and possibly federal) funds will continue.

Shared Governance

Younger board members spoke to the need for boards and faculty to work more seamlessly and collaboratively to tackle the big challenges facing higher education. One participant said that, “there is a burden on the faculty to become educated on the same issues boards must learn and lead on.” They wanted boards to do a better job of getting faculty focused on broad learning outcomes and skills development—not just on disciplinary knowledge (as important as that is seen to be). We heard an imperative that boards and faculty must take nothing for granted and avoid complacency in governance.

Lenses on Governing

The generational lenses through which individuals view the challenges and opportunities facing higher education also can shape the way board members approach the task of governing, including the type of practices required for boards to be effective and consequential in their work. In our conversations with younger board members, we heard a number of thoughts on how board work might evolve to ensure that governing boards are up to the task of confronting the challenges and opportunities they will face:

  • Boards will need to be more collaborative and creative in recognizing and solving problems—both of which are archetypal traits of younger board members.
  • In the spirit of shared governance, boards will need to demand more of themselves and more of the faculty, sometimes together. Governance will need to fire on all cylinders if institutions are to survive and thrive.
  • Successful future boards must find ways to have more blunt discussions of the kind often inhibited by internal and external politics.
  • Not surprisingly, our participants said that boards will need to make better use of technology to enhance their work, even questioning the need to physically convene the board with such regularity.
  • We also heard that technologies like Skype, WebEx, and online board portals are unlikely to reduce the burden of meeting attendance but instead will contribute to improved board engagement between meetings.
  • Boards will need to partner with their presidents to advocate the cause of their institutions and to engage constructively with key policymakers and influencers.

Strategies for Engagement

The recruitment of board members of any age involves a degree of wooing— whether it’s a private institution board that is self-perpetuating or a public board to which individuals are appointed by a governor or another public body. Once prospective board members have been vetted and deemed both highly qualified and desirable for service, they need to be sold on committing the precious commodity of time to an institution or system. Millennials, in particular, have been described as reserving their limited discretionary time for activities and causes about which they are most passionate, aiming to see tangible outcomes from their involvement, and desiring more immediate results from their work. They also want to be involved in their work in a meaningful way—not just as an observer or as someone who must “wait their turn” to move into a leadership role.

Serving on a board can involve other practical obstacles—including the travel commitment required for individuals who do not live close to the campus or meeting location. This can be a particular challenge for younger board members, who often have children at home and can be at a stage in their careers where any non-work-related time is at a premium. Family and professional commitments can make travel to board meetings a challenge. This can be especially difficult for members of public boards, which meet as frequently as once a month and operate under strict open meetings laws, often with limited alternative means of participation. (On this note, one of our public board participants told a story of being on a family vacation and telephoning into a board committee meeting from a hotel bar—but only after posting signs at the entrance and preparing copies of printed materials for anyone who might come to listen to the proceedings on speaker phone!)

Younger board members can be at a less predictable (or more chaotic) stage in their careers, with semi-regular moves to new jobs and new work locations (which can exacerbate the travel challenge). Others are entrepreneurs at key stages in business development and social ventures, putting time at a premium. The “urgency of the now” phenomenon among many millennials can bring impatience with lengthy deliberation, which can be so far removed from the decision points that board service may be seen as an only marginally effectual enterprise and thus perhaps not worth the time.

Relative youth and being in early-to-mid-career means that younger prospects often do not have the financial-giving capacity—or the networks of potential donors—that may be expected of board members, particularly of independent institutions. On the group level, younger board members have not yet achieved the professional earning power or accumulated wealth of their peers from older generations. In many cases, however, their potential earning power is significant, and their ability to rally networks of peers and associates to a cause is remarkable.

Boards are called to bring the best possible talent to the table, with teams intentionally built to do their best work. Reducing the prominence of personal giving or fundraising capacity from the criteria used for board member selection could further efforts to diversify board membership, including bringing more women, individuals of color, and younger members onto the board. One participant in our conversations noted that the board on which that person serves had done just that. This can be a key step in engaging a broader array of talented individuals in strategic oversight of higher education.

There is also strength in numbers. For boards large enough to accommodate a critical mass of younger members, bringing multiple individuals onto the board can reduce the “token young person” effect (often seen with student trustees) and bring a voice to a cohort that furthers the ability of younger board members to make a difference in strategy and outcomes. Interestingly enough, three of our participants noted that their board or appointing authority had taken this approach. One participant noted the benefit that came from being “treated as equals within the boardroom,” saying, “When we get to the nitty-gritty discussions, the conversations have become that much more enriched—the millennials at the table seem to very quickly call a spade a spade… they tend to be a bit more vocal about things like, ‘hey, we can cut out the middleman in some of these circumstances.’ Likewise, to implement new and innovative policies or philosophies, the seasoned board members have been very good about using their political and business expertise to move muscle in that direction. So it’s really been a beautiful relationship in that everyone calls upon their strengths to move the institution forward.”

Younger Board Member Project Participants:

Davede Alexander, Bridgewater State University (MA)
Matthew Crisp, Radford University (VA)
Christopher Dolan, College of St. Scholastica (MN)
Emily Hodges, Louisburg College (NC)
Kelly Minty Morris, Oregon Institute of Technology
Aimee Olivo, Prince George’s Community College (MD)
Abdul Omari, University of Minnesota
William Payne II, College of William & Mary (VA)
Cara Petonic, Bryn Mawr College (PA)
Barrett Thomas, Grinnell College (IA)
Dana Thompson, Wayne State University (MI)
Nicole Washington, Florida A&M University
Matthew Wilson, University of Western Ontario

The owner of this website has made a commitment to accessibility and inclusion, please report any problems that you encounter using the contact form on this website. This site uses the WP ADA Compliance Check plugin to enhance accessibility.