- Assessment addresses all aspects of the institution, including academic learning, the student experience, financial performance, and governance. Just as the institutions they govern, boards of trustees today are expected to assess their own effectiveness regularly to strengthen their performance.
- Today, boards face heightened expectations to exercise their fiduciary responsibility wisely, to manage risk effectively, and to ensure institutional success.
- The most frequent timing for assessment is annually, with more than a third of public institutions and a quarter of independent institutions
following that practice.
- The most often-cited strengths include the quality of the people on the board, their commitment to institutional mission/public accountability, and the board’s financial oversight.
- Most frequent areas of concern are a lack of strategic focus, an operational rather than fiduciary role, dysfunctional board culture
and discourse, and weak committee structure and functioning.
- As change proceeds, board leadership also needs to monitor its progress, how change is moving toward completion and whether it is realizing its intended purpose.
Over the last generation, higher education has developed a culture of assessment that is now embedded in the everyday practice of institutions across the country. Rather than taking their own effectiveness for granted or relying on a reputation for quality, colleges and universities now study how well they perform as institutions, using the results as a basis for ongoing self-improvement. Assessment addresses all aspects of the institution, including academic learning, the student experience, financial performance, and governance. Just as the institutions they govern, boards of trustees today are expected to assess their own effectiveness regularly to strengthen their performance. Considered a governance best practice, board assessment constitutes both an imperative and a significant opportunity to strengthen governance across higher education.
The imperative is expressed in the standards of the regional accrediting associations. Although they differ in how they express their expectations, all of them consider quality governance to include some type of board self-reflection as a mechanism for sustaining and enhancing quality. As stated succinctly in the Western Association standards, “the governing board engages in self-evaluation and development.” The New England Association provides a more fulsome expression of this expectation by stating that the board “systematically develops, ensures and enhances its own effectiveness through … effective self-assessment, and regular evaluation including an external perspective.” Likewise, the Community College Association ensures that “the governing board regularly evaluates its practices and performance,” and “the results are used to improve board performance.”
There are four very good reasons for making assessment an imperative, two internal to institutions and two external. Internally, institutions change over time and they need different leadership from their boards. When enrollments and revenues decline, for example, boards have different governance challenges from when times are good. Second, boards themselves change periodically, as experienced members rotate off and new members are brought onto the board. Of course, a lack of new members may also signal a need for assessment to determine whether the board is keeping up with new realities. Externally, the changing landscape of higher education and society can have significant impacts on every institution. The COVID-19 pandemic, demographic changes, and the elevated expectations regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion are prominent examples. Compounding those pressures on institutions and boards is the increased accountability of boards for effective governance. Today, boards face heightened expectations to exercise their fiduciary responsibility wisely, to manage risk effectively, and to ensure institutional success. When things go wrong, boards are usually in the crosshairs of the institution’s publics.
The imperative of assessment is complemented by the double opportunity it provides to enable boards to become “better and better” on a continuing basis. In the first instance, assessment provides a sterling opportunity for boards to educate themselves further about governance, both in principle and in practice. Because it is organized around best practices, assessment sharpens board members’ understanding of the general principles of good governance. Because it is applied to their particular board, it also deepens members’ understanding of how those principles can best be applied in their own practice. Second, building off their enhanced understanding, boards can leverage assessment to improve their effectiveness as a board and serve their institution better, internally and institutionally. Internal to the board, assessment provides the basis for organizing and carrying out fiduciary work more consistent with best practice and avoiding the pitfalls of misguided approaches. In consequence, boards gain the capacity to serve their institutions better, both in how they engage the institution and in the decisions they make.
Patterns of Board Assessment
Based on a 2014 AGB governance survey, Bobowick and Schwartz report that “more than half of all higher education boards conduct board assessments on a regular basis, and most make changes in board practices and policies as a result.” The most frequent timing for assessment is annually, with more than a third of public institutions and a quarter of independent institutions following that practice, which often involves just a brief survey or leadership review. Indeed, Bobowick and Schwartz note that their data do not permit them to determine if these annual assessments are genuinely “substantive and worthwhile.” While about 15 percent of both public and private institutions conduct assessments every one to two years, more independent institutions conduct comprehensive assessments every three to five years (20 percent) than do public institutions (just 9 percent). Still, around 40 percent of both types of institutions only conduct assessments “on an irregular basis.”
More recent data come from AGB Consulting, which usually conducts comprehensive three-to-five-year assessments. Over the past three fiscal years (2020–2022), AGB Consulting averaged 20 such assessment engagements per year, about evenly split between public and independents except for 2022 when 75 percent of the engagements were with independents. In the public sector, engagements included mostly universities but also several foundations and one statewide board. If we assume the same pattern for a five-year period—100 engagements—that would mean that only about 8 percent of AGB member institutions are conducting comprehensive assessments in any five-year period. It is encouraging to know that many institutions are conducting some form of assessment, but it appears that a substantial majority of colleges and universities are not undertaking comprehensive assessments on a regular basis.
That many boards engage in some level of assessment is likely a response to the accreditation imperative. But the relatively low frequency of comprehensive assessments suggests that boards usually undertake them primarily when they feel the need to address a problem of some sort rather than as part of an organized process of continuous improvement, which would be ideal. AGB consultants who have conducted assessments in the different sectors suggest that there does not appear to be much difference between public and independent institutions in this regard. If there is any difference, it may arise from the different board investment in their institutions and the conditions under which they work. Private boards, largely composed of alumni, are invested in the welfare of their institutions and are not required to share the results of any assessment. Public boards are invested more in public accountability and operate under sunshine laws that disclose assessment results. Those differences more often evoke greater candor in private college assessments and may promote a greater willingness to undertake significant change.
Nonetheless, assessment findings show some similarities across sectors. The most often-cited strengths include the quality of the people on the board, their commitment to institutional mission/public accountability, and the board’s financial oversight. Most frequent areas of concern are a lack of strategic focus, an operational rather than fiduciary role, dysfunctional board culture and discourse, and weak committee structure and functioning. Follow-up actions typically attempt to moderate tensions around difficulties in some way, to make some adjustments in board policies and practices, and to build greater understanding of appropriate board responsibilities. Major reforms are undertaken less often, as Bobowick and Schwartz report, for major change is always more difficult to implement. But even without dramatic change, persistent devotion to the practice of assessment can enable boards to move forward step by step over time.
The Purpose and Logic of Board Assessment
The purpose of board assessment is to understand how well the board is functioning and to enhance its effectiveness in governance. The assessment has a simple logic, expressed in four sequential steps that result in productive developmental outcomes: measuring performance, extracting important lessons, designing new practice, and implementing change. Completing all four steps in sequence is essential for productive assessment to fully realize its primary purposes. Neglect of any one step will limit the impact of the assessment and the board’s capacity to make meaningful improvements.
The first step is to measure board performance against best governance practices. The large objective of board assessment is to come closer to realizing the ideals of good governance and embedding best practices in the work of the board. To gain a purchase on that possibility requires that boards first measure how they stack up against those ideals at any given point in time. There are several ways to measure that reality, but to be useful, any measure must specify how well it works in relation to stated best practice, not just express a general sense of how well the board is working. Productive measurements will address how well the board fulfilled such specific ideals as focusing on strategic issues or building an effective partnership with the president, as AGB’s assessment surveys do. Whether quantified or qualitative, such measures will expose how close the board comes to realizing best practice in any given area of its work.
After measuring how it stands in relation to best practice, the board must draw out the most important lessons from the findings on board performance. There are two types of lessons boards can extract from the results of assessment: lessons on governance responsibilities and lessons about itself as a governing body. Focusing on governance ideals in light of the findings, boards will be able to deepen their understanding of what those ideals mean and what their robust practice would entail. Considering the board’s own standing in relation to the ideals enables the board to understand how it fulfilled or fell short of the ideals and how it can sustain or improve its practice. While the former type of understanding is fundamentally principled, the latter is more practical in nature, applying to a particular board at a specific time in its institution’s history. Both types of understanding are essential to inform the board’s discernment of what is most important in order to enhance its performance in the near-term.
After boards have identified the most important principles and practices to address, they then need to design new structures, processes, or practices that will enable them to improve in the areas of greatest significance. A common instinct among boards at this point is to undertake action before specifying a desired outcome or how to realize it. What productive assessment requires before taking action, however, is to lay out what the board wants its new practice to look like. To do so, it must first identify just how and why the board falls short in a particular area. For example, if committees are not very effective, is it because they just listen to reports, because they spend all their time discussing operational matters, or because they are misaligned with institutional needs? Then boards will need to consider what kind of change will actually work in their culture and context. Sometimes that is a matter of greater receptivity to one kind of change over another (for example, structure versus process), or it may involve finding ways to avoid overturning traditions while making productive change. Finally, the practical questions must also be addressed—for example, do we need to change the bylaws, are different agendas in order, is new leadership/membership required, and what training will be required?
Having addressed design issues, the board is then in a position to chart a course of action to implement the changes and enhance board performance. Making change real is a matter of mobilizing board commitment and building new habits that can sustain greater effectiveness. Building support for new practices is more likely when members are consulted about what the change should be and how to make it work and also when they are persuaded that their work will be more satisfying and fulfilling because it makes a stronger contribution to effective governance and institutional progress. New habits are built up by practice, something that boards often neglect in making change. For example, boards that want to have more in-depth, strategic discussions after years of addressing operational minutiae often fail to do so because they don’t practice having such focused intensive conversations. Successful implementation of better practices thus marks the realization of the purpose and promise of assessments.
The Practice of Assessment:
Building Board Understanding
Assessment should be a regular, ongoing aspect of board work, with comprehensive assessments scheduled every three to five years. In managing the assessment schedule, boards may want to vary the timing of assessment in response to significant institutional events and conditions, such as presidential or board leadership transitions, accreditation self-studies, strategic planning projects, and institutional or board crises. A good yardstick for maintaining regular assessment is to ensure that boards have at least two comprehensive assessments each decade. When things seem to be working reasonably well, boards may think that assessment is unnecessary, but even then, assessment will usually uncover some areas in which the board can improve its performance. With ongoing changes in the higher education context, institutional circumstances, and board membership, even good boards will need to adjust their practice regularly to remain effective.
A comprehensive assessment will address all major areas of board responsibilities: mission and strategy, leadership and shared governance, educational quality, institutional sustainability, board performance, and board culture. In addition, such assessments will identify significant board accomplishments or challenges and will also inventory board documents to ensure that all those required are in place and up to date. Between comprehensive assessments, boards may want to conduct more focused assessments of one or two aspects of their work—committee functioning, meeting agendas, strategic focus, presidential relations, and so forth—to address emerging concerns and opportunities or to inform future comprehensive assessments.
While assessment is a project of the full board, the governance committee ordinarily takes primary responsibility for carrying out the assessment, actively engaging all members, and senior administrators if desired. Ideally, the institution will engage an outside party to conduct any substantial assessment project to minimize bias and ensure a balanced perspective. Boards most often use some form of self-assessment to gather data, usually a survey in which members rate the degree to which the board lives up to the ideals of best practice. To gain more in-depth insight to survey responses, boards may also request an assessor to conduct member interviews as well. A second type of data may be generated from a document review by a consultant, potentially including board bylaws, minutes of committees and the full board, board policies, and board handbooks. Boards may also utilize outside observation of board meetings to assess how well the board functions in actual practice. The last two methods may also be combined to conduct case studies of how the board addressed one or more critical issues. To make these data useful, the assessor must carefully analyze and summarize the results to clarify the major patterns and highlight the most significant findings, culminating in a written report presented to the full board.
The board itself must then process the findings to fully understand what they mean, to sift and sort to discern what is most significant for them. This is best done in a retreat setting where the outside facilitator presents the report, takes questions, and conducts an open discussion to help the board learn the most it can from the findings. Boards gain the most from such discussions when they focus on two objectives. First, it is important not to take the governance ideals for granted but to review them in light of the findings, both strengths and concerns, to deepen understanding of what those ideals mean and what their robust practice would entail. Second, the discussion should consider the board’s own standing in relation to the ideals: how did it fulfill or fall short of the ideals, how can it sustain or improve its practice here in this institution? Such a deep dive into the findings is repaid with greater understanding of the board’s responsibilities and its possibilities.
The Practice of Assessment:
Leveraging Board Development
At the same retreat, the board will want to spend time considering how it wants to improve. The first step is to specify and focus on the areas in which the board can benefit the most from changing its practice. Here is where the context of board work plays an important role in assessment, for boards will want to improve in those areas that best help them govern this particular institution at this point in its history. That may mean that they focus on improving solid but undistinguished areas that are critical to address institutional needs before tackling areas in which they do not perform as well but that don’t threaten institutional success so prominently. For example, even though most boards rate themselves the highest on financial management, some may need to make improvements there if the institution faces some difficult financial circumstances that require greater board attention. Once the first improvements are in place, boards can subsequently
undertake additional enhancements over time.
After determining what specific changes the board would like to implement, specific planning for change and development should be left to the governance committee or a special committee/task force appointed for that purpose. This group has a double role of designing the desired change and then mobilizing the board’s commitment to pursue the change. The design phase of its work will involve clarifying the objectives of change, specifying its desired outcomes, and laying out a plausible plan of implementation, including the development of new habits. Here is where the board’s sensitive reflection on the findings can find useful expression, for this new design links ideals to new practices that supersede less-effective ones. Commitment-building is a parallel track of activity, which involves consultation with the board as the design is developed to test its plausibility and acceptability. Such consultations may lead to adjustments in the design based on members’ receptivity and critiques. Once a design that appears to have support is completed, it is important to secure the board’s formal affirmation for the planned change to solidify commitment.
The practical process of implementing change likewise has two key dimensions: deploying effective agents of change and monitoring progress and success along the way. It is important that board leaders think carefully about who can best bring the project to fruition, and that may not be those who designed the change. Those who are well-positioned within the board’s structure may serve best, such as committee chairs when committees are being modified, or a good wordsmith if bylaws and charters are being revised. Beyond structure, informal leaders respected by their colleagues can make a big difference in realizing the vision of change. As change proceeds, board leadership also needs to monitor its progress, how change is moving toward completion and whether it is realizing its intended purpose. This doesn’t have to be complicated, for it can often be done informally by checking in with those implementing changes and members who are trying to adapt to new ways. The great virtue of monitoring is that it provides the opportunity to adjust the process to ensure success, perhaps slowing it down or speeding it up, perhaps trying different methods. Always, of course, board leadership must keep its eyes on the prize of realizing greater effectiveness in governance to ensure that change does not go awry.
While the principles of assessment are generally applicable, each board undertakes assessment in its own particular context to address the needs and challenges it faces at the time. Likewise, all well-done assessments will enable boards to strengthen their governing capacity in the specific ways that will help them the most at that point in time. The following examples of productive assessments led by AGB consultants display several diverse contexts within which boards have undertaken assessment, the various methodologies they used, and how each assessment enhanced their practice.
■ Building on Excellence—On the occasion of welcoming a new president, a small private university board recognized for successful governance thought it would be productive to address some long-standing practices in light of significant new institutional changes. Following the adoption of a new strategic plan, the board undertook a bylaw review and completed a focused survey on specific governance issues, the results of which were amplified and deepened in interviews with a sample of board members. Four major concerns emerged: a lack of member diversity in background and viewpoints; weak member engagement and insular leadership; committee structure misaligned with operational focus; and board meetings focused on reports, not in-depth discussion of big issues. In light of these findings, the board created an action plan to address each one.
To strengthen and diversify membership, the board identified several key qualifications to seek in board prospects. They also formalized a program of engagement for each member and established a plan for leadership development and rotation for both board and committees. The board’s committees were reduced from ten functionally oriented bodies to five organized around the strategic plan and designed for strategic work. Finally, board meetings were restructured to devote one-third of each regular meeting to strategic discussions and board education.
■ Reforming Risk Management—The board of a large and growing public university was criticized by legislators disturbed by a case of deliberate misspending that the board had not known about. The university had used an account the legislature had designated for academic projects to fund a capital renewal project. The ensuing brouhaha led to the resignation of the board chair, the president, and several senior staff. Policy makers pushed the board to seek an external assessment of the governance practices that allowed these missteps to occur. The assessment included confidential interviews with trustees and senior staff, as well as legislative staff, providing the basis for a lengthy written report identifying flawed governance practices and presenting recommendations for improvement.
Among the recommendations subsequently implemented by the board were: a) institution of and trustee engagement with an enterprise risk management (ERM) process and crisis management protocols; b) closer ties between senior staff in finance, academic affairs, and capital planning with their respective board committees; c) heightened trustee awareness of their oversight responsibilities, while cautioning against descending into operations; and d) revised executive search protocols, including those for a new president, which underscore the board’s fiduciary responsibilities.
■ From Deference to Engagement—Long focused on maintaining good feelings, the board of a small private college experienced sometimes angry conflict over its then-current president. When the president departed, board leaders undertook an assessment to put the pieces back together. All board members and senior administrators completed AGB’s assessment survey and were interviewed by the consultant. The findings made clear that the board historically functioned in a very passive, nonconfrontational, accepting way by deferring to the chief executive in both happy and conflicted times. As a result, the board had long neglected to engage major institutional issues and thereby failed to fulfill its primary fiduciary responsibilities. As one member noted, “We don’t know how to govern.”
In response to the findings, the board undertook a program of getting back to governance basics: a) at a summer retreat, they held an extensive workshop on best practices; b) they designed and implemented a productive working relationship with the new president, a former board chair; c) over the course of two retreats, the board practiced strategic thinking and aligned their work with the development of a new strategic plan; and d) emerging from their previous conflict, the board renewed its culture of positive engagement, now within the framework of its fiduciary responsibility that encouraged and affirmed effective oversight and diverse perspectives.
The Fruits of Board Assessment
Good assessment is not the only way to develop good boards and it is not a cure-all for governance difficulties. But it does contribute significantly to greater board effectiveness in several important ways:
- It provides greater clarity about the board’s primary roles and responsibilities.
- It evokes a greater appreciation for board strengths and achievements.
- It creates an impetus for strengthening board effectiveness over time.
- It clarifies and solidifies board aspirations and intentions about its practice.
- It fosters greater alignment between board work and institutional challenges.
- It promotes greater fiduciary and strategic effectiveness.
Whether undertaken to solve a problem or to realize higher aspirations, regular board assessment is a productive tool for boards to become better and better at the important task of governing colleges and universities in this challenging era.
Theodore E. Long, PhD, is president emeritus of Elizabethtown College and a former trustee of Capital University. Currently, he serves as a senior fellow, senior consultant, and member ambassador for AGB.
The author wishes to thank his AGB consulting colleagues for sharing their insights and experience regarding board assessment.
1. Western Association of Schools and Colleges, Senior College and University Commission, Standard 4.7.
2. New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Commission on Higher Education, Standard 3.9.
3. Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, Standard IV.C.10.
4. Marla J. Bobowick and Merrill P. Schwartz, Assessing Board Performance: A Practical Guide for College, University, System and Foundation Boards, (Washington DC: AGB Press, 2018), p. 6.
5. Thanks to Barbara Gitenstein and Chloe O’Connor for making this information available.
6. Adapted from Terrence MacTaggart’s Crisis Leadership for Boards and Presidents, (Washington DC: AGB Press, 2020), pp. 77–79.