Board Restructuring to Eliminate Silos at a Small Liberal Arts Institution

By Nancy Berner and Eric Hartman    //    Volume 29,  Number 4   //    July/August 2021

In 2017, we read with interest the reflections of The College of New Jersey’s (TCNJ) president and board chair on their recent board committee restructuring.1 The University of the South (familiarly known as Sewanee) was facing some of the same issues that had faced TCNJ: transactional board meetings and siloed presentations that precluded deep conversation by our board. While TCNJ’s committee restructure was required by statutes passed by the state of New Jersey, we were impressed with the resulting elevation of discussion from operational action items to the challenges facing higher education in general.

Just a year prior, Sewanee had created a risk management committee on its board that helped focus the board and the senior leadership team on top strategic risks. The committee focused early on succession planning, accessibility, cybersecurity, developing and improving policies, and enrollment. These early considerations improved our collective capacity to think strategically. Our collective strategic thinking was also augmented by the earlier development of a robust long-term budgeting model that integrated our enrollment and retention goals with strategic targets on compensation, facility refurbishments, and other strategic initiatives.

Thus, our experience integrating our budget process and risk management, coupled with the improvement experienced by TCNJ’s board, prompted Sewanee to consider restructuring our board committees. Two years after that restructure we share our process, outcomes, and lessons learned.

Restructuring Process

Contrary to the experience of TCNJ, Sewanee’s board committee restructuring was driven by our institutional leadership. Sewanee’s then president began discussions in mid-2017 with the board chair at the time. Sewanee had nine committees and three subcommittees (twelve separate groups for only 18 board members). Early discussions centered around elevating the board’s discussion away from the challenges of individual senior administrators and streamlining their work. Additional board members on the Regents’ Affairs Committee were brought into the discussion through regular conference calls between board meetings.  A major consideration in the discussions on the part of board members was concern that the board committee structure not hamper the work of senior administrators. Several individual committees were combined to form new committees that would integrate related functions, cutting down on the need for multiple conference calls with overlapping membership to discuss the same information. The structural changes were discussed at two board meetings and finalized in February 2018.

The restructure resulted in four committees and four subcommittees (see table). We combined the buildings and grounds, budget and finance, and risk management committees to form the operations and maintenance committee, while maintaining the audit and the investment management subcommittees under this committee. The responsibility of this committee is to safeguard and monitor the university’s infrastructure, financial stability, and long-term economic health. Their focus is on business operation, budgeting, financial reporting, and financial reserves; tuition and room and board charges; endowment and other investments; infrastructure and facilities; and strategic risk management. The vice president for finance and treasurer is the committee liaison.

We further combined the advancement, School of Theology, and College of Arts and Sciences committees into the mission fulfillment committee. The responsibility of this committee is to assess the administration’s capacity and effectiveness at fulfilling the university’s central mission. Its focus is on academic and student affairs and enrollment management, fundraising, and the engagement and communications to alumni, and parent and church communities. The senior vice president and provost is the committee liaison. We maintained the executive committee and the Regents’ Affairs Committee, maintained the honorary degrees’ subcommittee, and made the innovation committee a subcommittee of the executive committee.

Outcomes

While board meetings are still largely characterized by administrative staff presentations that lead to board discussion, the presentations themselves are at a more strategic level and are more collaborative. Presentations are not retrospective except where necessary to remind the board of past conversations and to bring new members into the conversation.

These project updates remind the board of the issues we are addressing and include our intended next steps. The board’s role is to identify gaps and challenge our assumptions. We are not asking them to do the work, but to help focus our work in the right direction.

Outcomes for the board have been mixed. Board members agree that the resources and operations committee structure works very well. The combination of the buildings and grounds committee with the budget and finance committee has streamlined the work of the group given that fiduciary responsibility regarding facilities is often combined with financial issues such as budgeting for deferred maintenance and bond issuance for renovation and new facilities. The audit and investment management subcommittees are also clearly related to the board’s financial fiduciary responsibilities.

However, some board members have expressed feeling overwhelmed by the scope of the mission fulfillment committee. This is understandable given how the board and the administrative units previously had tended to function. Reports from senior leaders were siloed “happenings” since the last meeting, very rarely taking into account the broader context of the higher education landscape. When the board was getting individual reports from committees that each focused on a separate silo (admission, academics, student life, advancement, buildings and grounds, and budget) it was hard for them to have a strategic view of the entire institution at the 50,000-foot level. It is difficult to understand the “big picture” when you are given only one puzzle piece at a time and no framework for what the final picture is supposed to look like. Reports from staff constantly pulled them down into the weeds. Given a historical focus on management of siloes, refocusing on broad, cross-cutting, long-term strategic issues is a challenging undertaking.

While some board members may feel overwhelmed, they are asking for more outcomes and measures, and pushing the senior staff to be more strategic. For instance, they are more educated on the current challenges facing higher education so when they ask questions about revenue and recruitment performance, they do so in the context of how the university is creating demand for students and prioritizing student success. The board has fostered a mind-set of innovation to improve the institution’s adaptability to market changes. The expectation of the board to strengthen these institutional traits has and will likely continue to serve the institution well amid unpredictable times.

Whereas the board feels overwhelmed by the scope of the mission fulfillment committee, the administrative areas covered by this committee, while vast, have been forced to work more collaboratively. Putting together the agenda and presentations for the committee has necessitated more joint meetings of the senior staff in the areas covered by the committee. Because this committee encompasses so many areas, it is essential that we start by putting the information into the broader context of higher education in general, followed by the Sewanee context more specifically.

The Sewanee context is no longer split up into different committee meetings with the occasional reference to another committee. The presentation is done as one with multiple expert presenters, but in the context of strategic goals of the institution. We attempt to stay out of the weeds of each silo while indicating how each is integral to achieving our institutional strategic goals at the 50,000-foot level. In addition, the work of mission fulfillment has to be supported by resources and operations. Thus, the substantive discussion in the Mission Fulfillment Committee provides background for discussion of the budget, endowment draw, capital projects, and bond issuance in the resources and operations committee. These links are made intentionally for the board.

The resulting integration also impacted our work as a cabinet during our goal-setting exercise. Instead of having siloed initiatives, we took planned work from each area and articulated which would impact each of our institutional goals. This made it clear that many areas can, do, and should impact the same broad institutional goals, and that every area of the institution is responsible for achieving these goals. From this work we were able to put together a year-long agenda for the mission fulfillment committee of the board by indicating when we would give updates and final reports with future ideas.

Finally, the cross-divisional work, which initially allowed us to prepare integrated sets of information for the board, has paid off for deeper work related to our strategic enrollment planning process to address the upcoming demographic challenges that all colleges and universities are facing, and even our response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our understanding of the challenges faced by each area has improved, and we better appreciate how decisions made in one silo can impact the work in others.

Lessons Learned

While the board committee structure may reflect the culture of the board and the institution, the committee structure can also change the culture not only of the board, but also the institution. Asking the board to change is also a meaningful way to remind a traditional institution that change is necessary and healthy at all levels of the organization for a relevant educational experience.

Nancy Berner, PhD, is the provost at the University of the South. 

Eric Hartman is the vice president for risk management and institutional effectiveness at the University of the South. 

Endnotes

  1. Jorge Caballero and R. Barbara Gitenstein, “Deep Dive: Reflections on Committee Restructuring,” Trusteeship, March/April 2017, https://agb.org/trusteeship-article/deep-dive-reflections-on-committee-restructuring/.
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