Focus on the Presidency: Do Ask, Don’t Tell-The Proper Board Recipe

By Edwin H. Welch    //    Volume 19,  Number 1   //    January/February 2011

Higher-education boards are responsible for the outcomes of their institutions. They are called to oversee academic quality, financial health, student services, and fundraising. But board members frequently feel ill prepared to fill this role. They yield power and responsibility to administrators because they feel inferior in institutional memory, specialized expertise, awareness of higher-education trends and practices, and earned degrees. Administrators, for their part, are happy to have a full range of freedom and authority. Thus they do not always push board members into more active roles of leadership, inquiry, and decision making.

How can board members find the proper balance between non-management and micromanagement—between taking no personal or collective responsibility under the guise of leaving administrators alone to do their jobs and dictating institutional decisions or policies? The answer just might be to adopt a “Do Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in each of the following areas:

Academic Quality

DO ASK what evidence the college has that its students are effectively and appropriately learning. Board members should expect to hear what tests and evaluative data provide benchmarking comparisons with other institutions. They should know how many students are tested, whether the tests are providing pre- and post-learning information, and if they are providing cohort or student-specific data.

DON’T TELL administrators how to measure student learning. They should decide the instruments to be used, when and where tests are given, who is tested, how the results are compiled, and the process for sharing test results. They are responsible for monitoring student learning, reporting their findings to the board, and for taking whatever initiatives they deem proper for improving performance.

Financial Health

DO ASK whether the college’s budget is properly aligned with institutional priorities. Board members should know how the budget is constructed, the assumptions that have been made, whether the budget is balanced, and if there’s an appropriate contingency.

DON’T TELL administrators how many dollars should be allocated to specific departmental budgets or what reporting systems to use. Don’t tell department heads how to prioritize or spend their budgets. Following the budget and living within it are clearly administrative, not oversight, responsibilities.

Student Services

DO ASK if the college’s retention rate is where it ought to be and if the right students are being retained. How does the retention rate compare to peer institutions? What are the student-satisfaction ratings for campus services and programs? What strategies is the institution using to address areas of dissatisfaction?

DON’T TELL student-life professionals how to interact with students or respond to issues raised by students. Trustees should not encourage students or other constituencies to bypass administrators and bring concerns directly to them. Nor should they allow themselves to be seen as taking ownership for how the institution will respond to complaints or publicly disagreeing with administrative decisions or actions.

Institutional Fundraising

DO ASK whether the college has the best possible “culture of philanthropy.” Board members should pay close attention to updates on fundraising and be involved in setting the major fundraising priorities for the institution. Each trustee should volunteer to share in giving and getting the financial resources necessary for the health of the institution. They need to be ambassadors of the university to the public in general and to potential donors in particular.

DON’T TELL the president how to staff or fund the advancement office. Leave it to professionals to manage fundraising campaigns and to set up the contact strategy for individual prospects. Don’t allow a separate foundation, alumni group, or other constituency to usurp the board’s and the administration’s authority to establish institutional priorities.

Do ask, don’t tell. It’s a practice that can properly align the board’s responsibility for oversight with the administration’s responsibility for institutional operations and goal attainment.

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