Datafile: Changes Presidents Would Make to Improve Board Engagement

By Merrill P. Schwartz    //    Volume 19,  Number 5   //    September/October 2011

AGB recently completed its “2011 Survey of Higher Education Governance,” which has a special focus on board engagement. Among other questions, the survey asked, “To improve your board’s engagement, what one change would you like to see?” College presidents, the primary survey respondents, gave a number of different answers.

In fact, the first takeaway is that there’s no runaway favorite. Board cultures, expectations, and contexts vary, and the proposed changes varied widely. (See Table 1.) The top two changes that presidents sought were greater involvement of board members in fund raising (16.3 percent) and more board education, development, or assessment (15.1 percent).

Presidents (predominantly from independent colleges) said they wanted board members who are ready and willing to assist in fund raising by identifying prospects, making calls on prospective donors, serving on an advancement committee, and personally supporting the institution. Presidents also said board engagement would benefit from enhanced or regular board-education activities, such as: orientation, workshops, conferences, and retreats; assessment of the performance of the board and individual members; clear expectations for new board members; and board members taking responsibility for their own behavior.

Third on the list was the suggestion that no change be made (11.8 percent). These presidents (especially those at public institutions) said their boards were actively, appropriately, or sufficiently engaged, or didn’t want to make any changes or had none to suggest. Presidents who said they were satisfied noted that board members attended meetings and functions, supported the institution financially, and were actively engaged. Fourth was better attendance at, preparation for, or participation in board meetings (10.1 percent). The top four items accounted for more than half of the responses (53.3 percent).

Rounding out the baker’s-dozen list of top changes that presidents would make were:

• Altering board composition or size (7.9 percent);

• Focusing the board’s attention on governance or strategic issues—not management issues (7.1 percent);

• Altering board or committee agendas or schedules, or the amount of time for board meetings (5.6 percent);

• Altering board committees (5.4 percent);

• Increasing the visibility of board members at campus events or improving the relationships of board members and campus constituents (5.2 percent);

• Improving (or replacing) the board chair (4.9 percent);

• Improving the relationship between the board and president or administration (3.2 percent);

• Increasing board members’ understanding of higher education or their attention to academic issues (3 percent); and

• Enhancing the effectiveness of advocacy or community relations by the board on behalf of the institution (2.6 percent).

There were some differences by sector. More board involvement in fund raising was first on the list of changes presidents of independent colleges and universities would make, while “no change” or “already sufficiently engaged” was the most common response of presidents of public institutions. This difference reflects the reliance of independent colleges and universities on private philanthropy and common expectation of giving from members of these boards, as well as the much more frequent meetings (and perhaps greater engagement) of boards of public institutions.

Presidents of independent colleges and universities were also more interested than their public peers in changes in board composition or size (particularly reducing the number of members), and in changes to the agenda, schedule, or time for meetings (particularly longer or more frequent meetings). Presidents of public colleges and universities were more concerned about focusing the board on governance or strategic issues and not management issues, as well as making changes to the chair of the board (a new chair, better leadership, or longer than one-year term).

Noticeably absent were dreams of revoking open-meeting laws, mentioned by only one president of a public institution, although another would like to see more communication among members in full board meetings. That public sector reality is well established, and apparently presidents don’t contemplate a change, even as sunshine laws seem to affect many aspects of board life. Also absent were aspirations for more money or staff for board operations. In the current economic environment, the recent trend at many institutions has been cutting staff positions and spending in the chief executive’s or board’s office to avoid criticism, share the pain, walk the talk, and stay within declining funding levels.

The full report of the “2011 Survey of Higher Education Governance,” by Susan Whealler Johnston, will be available in October. Visit the AGB Bookstore for online ordering information.  The study was supported by a grant from the TIAA-CREF Institute.

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