Boards Need Strategic Goals to Add Value

View from the Board Chair

By Fred DuVal    //    Volume 32,  Number 1   //    January/February 2024

“There just isn’t enough board time.” How often have we all heard that? After all, the agenda of necessary and compelling board topics only seems to grow.

Then there is the annual year-end review when we wonder, “Where did our time go?” and “Did we accomplish our goals?”

And that begs the question: Do we actually have goals?

Asking Ourselves the Right Strategic Questions

As governing boards, we spend an enormous time assessing presidential and institutional performance and not enough time doing board self-assessment. It is worth asking, “Is the way we spend our time in alignment with what we seek to accomplish?”

In Arizona, the Board of Regents was established in the 1910 state constitution when there was one university and 27 students. Today, the same board size of 10 individuals governs three independent and very different universities—the University of Arizona (UArizona), Arizona State University (ASU), and Northern Arizona University (NAU)–with a combined student population of more than 220,000. We also govern their three foundations, two medical schools, and a myriad of P3s and strategic partnerships.

The growth of our board agendas reflected this increasing size and complexity. We would spend our 24 days of annual board time hearing reports and rubber-stamping an ever-expanding array of initiatives and programs. The board meeting books often exceeded 400 pages.

We were effectively monitoring our universities, selecting and accessing presidents, managing controversies, and playing endless defense in the public square. We were reacting to events and the institutional presidents’ decisions.

But were we optimizing our leadership role? No.

So we stopped and did a reset. We first asked: What do we want to accomplish? And what is the state of Arizona expecting of us?

That produced some answers and helped us identify several key initiatives.

We analyzed the workforce gaps in Arizona—for which we are responsible—and recognized that we needed a significant increase in engineers, doctors, nurses, and teachers.

We looked at our various institutions and their educational offerings. Arizona has three R1 research universities and 15 community colleges but nothing in between that is accessible and focused exclusively on classroom learning. A third, lower-priced option was clearly required.

Arizona has a growing nationally competitive posture in the life sciences, and the universities’ assets are drivers of it, but the programs in those fields are diffused.

Our degree attainment rate was stagnant and needed significant improvement.

And like so many other state universities, our public and political support was waning.

Making Changes to Focus on What Matters Most

We reset our intentions and our organizational design to address them. We took three steps to do this:

  1. We merged all our operational and governance committees into one mega Committee of the Whole which, with a high expectation that board members will still read all the necessary material, conducts most of its work through consent agendas.
  2. We created a Strategic Affairs Committee to focus on refreshing goals and strategies with a decade-long horizon and meeting the moment of higher education disruption and change that confronts us all. And it intentionally includes time on the agenda for open and regular discussion of self-assessment and priorities.
  3. We assigned a lead regent to each of the five identified initiatives.

The results? One year later, we have publicly announced plans to grow the College of Medicine at UArizona, while starting two new medical schools (one at ASU focused on the engineering of medicine and one at NAU that concentrates on rural and tribal general practitioners). We are also planning a significant expansion of our nursing schools, have set out to build the largest engineering school at ASU, and have grown an Arizona Teachers Academy with tuition support.

We have blessed NAU to pioneer a more affordable four-year “state college priced offering.”

We have begun to collaborate with the governor and all the life sciences partners in the state on a new and more effectively coordinated effort to push Arizona forward in bioscience.

In addition, we have built a self-funded Arizona Promise Program for college scholarships and secured some initial state support to bring it to scale, whether through the legislature or on the ballot.

Finally, we have committed to a sustained political effort to build allies and tell a better story.

Long-Term Strategies for Meaningful Goals

This approach is not without risks. We live with the anxiety that we will fail to meet our fiduciary duty—particularly around finances. And, frankly, the recent revelation of a significant budget shortfall at UArizona starkly reminded us of that concern.

But at the same time, we have created an environment that is attractive to strong presidents, as it gives them a maximum of managerial discretion and a minimum of operational intrusion.

It has also repositioned our board as a fiduciary leader in meeting state needs as our Constitutional framers envisioned. And it has given us positive momentum with the public for the support we need to build the higher education system our taxpayers deserve.

Fred DuVal is chair of the Arizona Board of Regents, serving his second term as a regent having been appointed by both Democratic and Republican governors. He is a former member of the AGB Board of Directors.

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