Awarding Exceptional Board Leadership

By April 5, 2017 March 7th, 2019 Trusteeship Article

The John W. Nason Award for Board Leadership recognizes governing boards that have demonstrated exceptional leadership and initiative; unusual courage in the face of difficult circumstances; and significant achievement that benefits their institution, system, or foundation in ways that truly matter. This award is named after a higher education leader who demonstrated these characteristics personally and who was a staunch advocate for good governance. Over the course of his life, John W. Nason served as president of Swarthmore College, Carleton College, and the Foreign Policy Association. He made immense contributions to the field of higher education governance and boards and worked with AGB in many roles, including adviser, mentor, author, and speaker. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment was serving as chair of the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council, helping more than 4,000 interned students continue their studies at higher education institutions across the nation during World War II.

In only the second year for the Nason Award, AGB received nearly 70 nominations describing impressive work led by boards of public and private institutions and foundations. This year, AGB is pleased to honor five boards. A summary of their entries follows.


Today more than 25 percent of American college students live with learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders, and processing and other disorders. When Beacon College was conceived of nearly 30 years ago as an institution of higher learning for students who learn differently, resources were limited. A group of parents seeking post-secondary educational opportunities for their children envisioned a place where these young scholars could succeed with proper accommodations and support. Small classes and multi-modal instruction were complemented by mentors who acted as surrogate “left brains” for those who struggled with executive functioning.

What started as an experiment for 30 students from families of means morphed slowly—with accreditation in 2003 from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and the introduction of federal student aid—into something a little more diverse.

But with accreditation came other challenges, namely a too-slow approach to growth, employee attrition, a patchwork admissions strategy that hindered enrollment increases, and a lack of appropriate faculty training about the learning process for students with learning disabilities.

The board—many of its members handpicked by the president—lacked visionary leadership and cohesion, and failed to provide direction to the administration. Meeting attendance was sporadic; decisions were rubber-stamped. Something had to give. In 2010, board members reached out to AGB for guidance on how to fulfill their fiduciary duties and to clarify roles and responsibilities. The election of a new chair should have altered the balance between board and president, but trustees remained in the dark about important institutional initiatives.

Subsequently, a meeting of the board was called at which it was determined that the president should be dismissed; a qualified interim leader was installed in January 2011. A second interim president was eventually selected as the search for a permanent leader was conducted. The institution expanded its academic offerings and programs while personnel stayed the course.

“Beacon on the Rise,” a planning document, helped chart the way forward, as did a one-day retreat intended to refine a collective vision for how Beacon should perform and its place in higher education, as well as the role of its future president. The board implemented shared governance tenets through a series of focus groups with select faculty and staff that identified and prioritized the know-how, skills, and abilities the new president would need to succeed. In March 2013, a permanent president was hired, with Harvard credentials, one of the implementers of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

The institution has been revitalized. Highly qualified and appropriately credentialed professionals now staff administrative roles. A standing board committee structure facilitates regular reports to the board. Term limits help to rotate in fresh ideas and approaches from new members. External consultants helped to draft a new campus master plan. The student body has increased by 70 percent since 2013, and academic offerings have grown, too. Student and parental satisfaction rates are high, as are the graduation rate (83.3 percent) and the post-degree employment and advanced study rate (82 percent). Both rates are exceptional for Beacon’s population.

Of equal importance is the true partnership that exists between president and board, which can now focus on governance while the administration manages the college. The board will continue to promote improved educational quality and internship options for students to help pave their way into graduate schools and jobs with value and dignity.

Future challenges surely await, but today Beacon College survives and thrives.


A new president, a strategic plan, an earthquake. Any one of these might have a significant effect on an institution. All three taken together produced spectacular results for this prestigious private university in Mexico that boasts 7,500 students on three campuses.

It began in 2010, with the inauguration of Dr. Fernando León- García as the institution’s sixth president. As he moved to begin implementation of the CETYS 2020 Plan, which rested on the pillars of commitment to academic quality, achieving global competitiveness, consolidating learning communities, and sustainability, the unthinkable happened: A major earthquake struck, severely damaging the main campus in Mexicali. Sensing an opportunity to not just rebuild but to create new, state-of-the-art facilities, the board raised its campaign goals and acted as one, rather than as multiple regional boards.

But in doing so, the board also recognized that it must radically change itself. Although they had previously engaged counsel from American board governance experts on conduct and best practices, board leadership knew a more dramatic approach was now necessary. No longer could the board number close to 100, with lifetime appointments, regional factions, and too much power in the hands of the executive committee. Creating a more streamlined structure and addressing the board’s unwieldy size were the first orders of business.

The board convened the CETYS Task Force on the Future of Board Governance. Its goals included drafting appropriate policies and moving toward a true system governance model. To do so, the board size had to shrink; board members had to commit to fundraising goals; a common vision of CETYS as a system, not separate campuses, had to prevail; the board needed to focus its efforts on strategic issues; and diversity of age, gender, and more was to be encouraged. Furthermore, the selection process for members would henceforth prioritize commitment to the CETYS mission, not longevity.

The board introduced a new governance model of “One Dream, One Team” in April 2014 and began implementing reforms, including this: “We are not breaking things up, we are building something new.” The early signs are encouraging. There have been fewer meetings than the overwhelming number in the past, and agendas are increasingly strategic in nature while still mindful of essential fiduciary responsibilities. Overall, board member attendance and participation is up by 32 percent. All committees have held their regular sessions. Trustees have made and facilitated numerous million-dollar pledges, a groundbreaking development in the institution’s history. The pool of potential committee chairs is now more diverse, with generational succession planning in mind. Overall board engagement and enthusiasm are higher than ever before, and increased awareness of fiduciary responsibilities is evident. And, the aggregate impact of this commitment has led to CETYS University achieving institutional accreditation with WASC and program accreditation with ACBSP and ABET, along with a Campaign for CETYS 2020 that has raised over $52 million from different sources.

The board is now smaller—about 60 members—and is considering entering into public-private partnerships as part of a construction drive; the implementation of a conflict-of-interest policy and oversight process will help to manage and navigate risk. Other institutions in Mexico are paying attention. CETYS demonstrates to them the benefits of having an engaged, properly oriented board that provides strong leadership and oversight. The potential benefits for students and the overall fulfillment of respective institutional missions are evident.


The College of William & Mary Foundation is committed to excellence in governance and trusteeship. The foundation’s volunteers and staff have devoted a great deal of time, resources, and energy towards adopting best practices for all aspects of their structure, recruitment and orientation, evaluation of board effectiveness, and enhancement of their philanthropic mission.

In 2010, the College of William & Mary Foundation board of trustees began a two-year process of examining its structure and bylaws. As a result, the board streamlined its committee structure so that all standing committees were focused on the foundation’s mission, eliminating several committees that were not mission-driven, and established sub-committees of the development committee to focus on some of the college’s top funding needs—scholarships and athletics excellence.

Recognizing that the identification of potential trustees is a key focus of the board’s work, the committee on trusteeship began annually reviewing board demographics and setting goals for achieving a board composition that more closely resembles the diversity of William & Mary’s alumni and student body. The committee also developed a document that is shared with every nominee being actively considered for the board, outlining the mission of the foundation, the role of its trustees, the responsibilities of trustees, and the foundation’s commitment to diversity, among other items. The board consistently receives an enormously positive response from nominees regarding this document.

Following recruitment, the board focuses on effective onboarding and orientation. The board undertook initiatives to drive trustee education by developing, in 2015, “Trustee Engagement Plans” for every trustee who wishes to participate (currently about 90 percent opt in). The establishment of an engagement plan for each trustee encourages and supports a meaningful volunteer experience that is beneficial to both the trustee and the college.

In keeping with its philanthropic mission, in June 2012, the foundation established a task force on women and philanthropy. With a greater than 50 percent alumnae population and the 100th anniversary of coeducation at W&M taking place in 2018, the foundation recognized the perfect time to embrace this topic in a strategic way. Through the work of the task force, the foundation has played an important leadership role in providing research-based recommendations for how best to enhance women’s lifelong philanthropic relationships with the university.

The success of this task force inspired the foundation to create additional task forces centered around under-represented groups— primarily African-American and LGBTQ alumni. These task forces have appropriately evolved into a campus-wide initiative to address the important and relevant issues of inclusiveness and equity across campus.

The foundation also played a significant role in helping to develop the messaging of the “For the Bold” campaign, a key priority of which is to substantially increase scholarship support. The scholarships subcommittee elevated the conversation around scholarships at William & Mary to connect with the national dialogue about the rising cost of higher education in general, and the idea that underrepresented communities are especially impacted by these increases. Leading by example, the foundation board adopted an increase in the minimum annual giving expectation of all trustees from $10,000 to $25,000. It also established a campaign giving goal for trustees of $50 million in 2012; in the spring of 2016, it voted to raise the goal to $100 million, representing 10 percent of the overall goal. By October 2016, trustees’ gifts and commitments had already surpassed $83 million.

Through the College of William & Mary Foundation board’s continued focus on engagement, structure, and philanthropic mission, it provides exemplary leadership to the university and its many constituents.


Beginning in 2012, The Ohio State University board of trustees initiated and implemented a major transformation of its Wexner Medical Center (WMC), significantly impacting both the university and its surrounding community. This key strategic overhaul, which brought Ohio State into alignment with the best practices of major academic medical centers, resulted in a collaborative alliance among three parties: the medical center leadership, the WMC board, and the university board of trustees.

The Wexner Medical Center is a medical research and teaching facility representing approximately 50 percent of the university’s budget. At the initiation of the 2012 transformation, the university’s board of trustees was struggling to understand this increasingly complex enterprise. The past decade had witnessed the opening of two new hospitals and research centers and the announcement of the construction of a $1.1 billion cancer hospital. The board of trustees faced an ever-widening scope of issues, and needed to add experience with aspects of medical-center governance. While the governance structure of WMC grew in size as the institution expanded, the board evolved the scope of its oversight responsibilities.

By 2012, the WMC had five different boards, none of which had fiduciary authority. The four hospital boards made recommendations to the medical center board, which in turn made policy and strategy recommendations to the medical affairs committee of Ohio State’s board of trustees. A clear need emerged for more effective oversight and better partnership among hospital and university senior staff, hospital board members, and trustees.

OSU’s new board chair proposed a plan to eliminate the individual hospital boards as well as the medical affairs committee and restructure the WMC board to include six trustees from Ohio State, six at-large community members, and three key university administrators (Ohio State’s president, the WMC CEO, and the university’s CFO).

After ratification of the plan, the board of trustees moved quickly; the new structure was proposed in April 2013, and board working groups finalized the details of structure, bylaws, and public dissemination and voted to approve that June. Given the velocity of change in the academic medical center industry and the ongoing expansion of Ohio State’s medical center, the new medical center board needed to prepare as quickly as possible.

In the first year following the announcement and implementation of the new board structure, the new medical board met once per month to educate itself and establish procedures and priorities. Incoming and outgoing leaders worked in a highly collaborative manner to ensure smooth transitions with a relatively new governing structure.

In the almost three years since the restructuring of the WMC board, all associated parties have continued to work together to refine the new structure. Term lengths and limits have been adjusted to accommodate essential relationships, and the “lead university trustee” has emerged as a critical role in sustaining interactions between the WMC board chair and the Ohio State board chair.

The results speak for the success of the Ohio State University board of trustees’ realignment of its medical center board—and a number of specific accomplishments during this tremendous governance change reflect that outcome. The medical center continues to serve an ever-increasing share of Medicaid and needy patients. The new cancer hospital opened on time and under budget. Fundraising success is at an all-time high. In October 2016, the medical center was awarded the University Health System Consortium Quality and Accountability Award for the fourth consecutive year. With these very public successes in hand, the WMC board continues to grow, evolve, educate itself, and ensure effective alignment between medical center and university governance.


With jobs in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) industries predicted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics to grow significantly over the next few years, there exists an acute regional and national need for graduates in those disciplines—particularly from diverse populations, who are underrepresented in those fields. As a leader in the retention and graduation of Latino students, Whittier College is ideally suited to meet this critical need.

Founded by Quakers in 1887, Whittier serves as a model for how to engage and motivate students from diverse backgrounds. Of its student body, 61 percent identify as people of color, about 40 percent are the first in their families to attend college, and approximately 30 percent are eligible for Pell grants. Whitter College’s board of trustees recognized that, as a leader in the retention and graduation of Latino students, the institution is uniquely qualified to increase the representation of STEM graduates from underrepresented groups. The board also identified opportunities to expand curricular offerings related to the allied health fields.

In order to succeed in these undertakings, Whittier needed to update its aging science building, a project fraught with challenges— the budget being paramount to the trustees.

In February 2012, the board unanimously voted to undertake the Science and Learning Center project—a plan to update and upgrade the laboratory and classroom space known as the Stauffer Science building, originally constructed in 1967. A bland, 300-foot long, four-story building that separated classrooms from faculty offices and lounge areas, the Stauffer Science building countered modern science pedagogy, which emphasizes collaborative and interdisciplinary work. The board’s buildings and grounds committee carefully selected project planning consultants and architects who bolstered the goals of putting science on display, fostering collaborative research, and creating an academic hub.

The emergent design transformed the Stauffer Science building into a bold and beautiful new Science and Learning Center. The re-envisioned facility would foster creative collaboration via its flexible classrooms, collaboration zones, labs designed for interdisciplinary discovery, and numerous shared work areas and intermingled faculty offices.

Three major ancillary projects would have to be accomplished in conjunction with the renovation: a $2.5 million upgrade to the college’s electrical grid; the reconfiguration of 32 portable buildings into classrooms and labs to accommodate the displaced functions of the building during construction; and the construction of an extensive, ADA-compliant pathway between the lower campus and academic village on the upper campus. The total cost? $52.5 million.

In the most ambitious fundraising in Whittier’s 127-year history, the acumen of the trustee’s financial committee played a critical role in determining how to fund this massive capital undertaking. Employing effective peer-to-peer gift asks facilitated by the trustee advancement and campaign committee, 100 percent of board members made major financial contributions to the project. Five trustees made $1 million gifts; most others contributed $100,000 or more.

On September 23, 2016, members of the board of trustees gathered together on the steps of the Whittier College Science and Learning Center to simultaneously cut a ribbon signifying the completion of the project they worked so hard to bring to fruition—and on budget, too. Thanks to the vision, wisdom, and dedication of the board, the new Science and Learning Center is transformative. While it serves many roles, its most important is preparing a new and diverse generation of graduates who will serve their communities as leaders who understand the pressing scientific issues of our time and possess the skills to find collaborative solutions.