Essential Ingredients for Trusteeship at Today’s Catholic Colleges

By William J. Byron, S.J.    //    Volume 19,  Number 5   //    September/October 2011
Innovation Through Collaboration: New Pathways to Success, September/October 2011

Over a span of 40 years, I’ve served on the boards of 10 Catholic colleges and universities, three Catholic high schools, and one Catholic hospital. I have seen all of them broaden their lay membership as they have worked to sharpen their articulation of institutional mission and identity. Thus, I find myself looking at the world of governance in nonprofit institutions not theoretically but through the “windows” of board committees.

From the outside looking in, I can see through these windows how the board operates. From the inside looking out of these same committee windows, the search begins for the kind of trustees that are needed to make sure that the institution is running well.

That can, in fact, be more challenging than ever because governance of Catholic colleges has changed fundamentally. In the late 1940s and throughout the decade of the ’50s, Catholic colleges began to shift governance control from members of the sponsoring religious community to lay men and women. Typically, a “one-third plus one” rule addressed the required presence of representatives of the religious community on the board, a measure intended to guarantee influence, if not absolute control, on key changes that would require a two-thirds vote for enactment.

That “safety” device has largely disappeared today with the decline in membership in religious communities and the increase of trust and confidence that the sponsoring religious communities have in their lay associates. At Georgetown University, for example, only three Jesuits now sit on a board of 35 members. The average religious-lay board-member composition for the nation’s 28 Jesuit colleges and universities is roughly 20 percent Jesuit, 80 percent lay.

This, in my view, is a good trend, but not without risk. It will add competence and enhance a board’s fundraising potential, but it could lower the level of board awareness of and commitment to the Catholic identity of the institution. Hence greater attention must now be paid to educating board members about the religious identity of the institutions they govern and the distinct role those institutions play in society.

The Ingredients of Trusteeship

What are the essential ingredients of trusteeship? First and foremost is the ability to ask the right questions at the right time. You must have in mind the qualities and competencies you hope to find, both when you look through the windows to find people who can best serve on the committees and help the board meet its fiduciary responsibilities as well as when you are outside looking in at the people charged with present trustee responsibilities. At a mission-driven Catholic university, for example, it is particularly important to have an academic-affairs committee made up of persons knowledgeable of, and committed to, the mission and Catholic identity of the institution.

More about mission and identity later. First, let me list some other important ingredients for effective trusteeship:

Commitment. The good trustee is personally committed to the advancement of the institution’s mission. That involves the fundamental fiduciary responsibility of ensuring that the institution remains faithful to its chartered responsibilities and reflects its basic identity. Commitment to the mission does not necessarily imply a personal faith commitment that matches that of a faith-based college or university. It does mean, however, respect for the institution’s religious identity and a desire to advance the institution’s faith-based mission.

Information. A good trustee is an informed trustee. Sources of information are plentiful, and a trustee should rely on no single one. Any question is a fair question if it adds to the store of knowledge of those entrusted with overoverseeing the direction that the institution takes.

Engagement. Trustees should be fully engaged. Their engagement with the institution will be reflected in regular attendance at meetings and public events, participation in policy discussions, careful reading of reports, visits to the campus, and informal conversations with those whom the institution serves and those who provide the services.

Generosity. Trusteeship involves generosity with time and treasure—yes, treasure, financial support. The weak excuse, “But we’re really a working board,” won’t do. Once on a board, the trustee should “give, get, or get off,” as the saying goes.

Competence. Competence in at least one important activity area like finance, planning, or academics is essential for good trusteeship—not so the trustee can exercise that competence by managing the institution, but so he or she can do what trustees are supposed to do: measure management, ask questions, and offer advice.

Humility. Trusteeship should not be for personal financial gain or for honor and esteem. The first half of the familiar, single-sentence summary of the mission of Jesus found in the Gospel of Matthew (20:28) is a good model for trusteeship: “[T]he Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Service, disinterested service, is the ideal.

Catholic Trusteeship

Virtually everything that I’ve mentioned is applicable to trusteeship in any nonprofit setting. But, as Frank Butler, president of Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities (FADICA),asked me several years ago, “What are the essential ingredients for trusteeship in today’s Catholic colleges?” Most of FADICA’s members are small foundations, and the question is a natural one for consideration among those in the foundation community, who often give to Catholic causes and are interested in the Catholic nature and purpose of the organizations they support. The same question is on the minds of many people lately, especially in the broad community of college and university trusteeship, as they grapple with the changing nature of Catholic college boards.

So what are the essentials of the institution’s Catholic mission and identity that a trustee must protect, nurture, and advance?

In my view, those essentials include an acknowledgment that the institution is grounded in the person and teachings of Jesus Christ, who established a Church that has a tradition, creed, body of doctrine, moral code, and sacramental system that are crucial to the life and culture of the college or university. Because the institution is Catholic, instruction and formation in religion, rooted in both scripture and tradition, should cover Catholic faith and morals while opening the minds of all students to an ecumenical outlook and an appreciation of, and respect for, other faith traditions. Equally important, because the institution is Catholic, it should demonstrate compatibility between faith and reason and be open, in an environment of academic freedom, to the exploration of truth in all its forms.

A Catholic college or university should state that, because it is Catholic, it aims to educate men and women of competence, conscience, and a compassionate commitment to service, and that it hopes to convince its students that a good life is a life lived generously in the service of others. Individual institutions will have different ways of expressing that. Most will refer to the charism or spirit and mission of the founder of the original sponsoring religious body—Jesuit, Franciscan, or Benedictine, for example—in doing so.

It is important for all Catholic colleges to say something along those lines. Some will be more explicit than others, but all should address the question of Catholic identity and realize that identity can help the institution find its distinct place in the market for students, as well as give specific direction to its programs of instruction and research.

A trustee should first encounter that statement of identity at an individual or group orientation session in the process of becoming a member of the board. It is commonplace now for institutions to tap the wisdom and experience of veteran members of the sponsoring religious community to facilitate conversations with new or prospective trustees about the charism of the founder or foundress, the original vision of the community, the history of the community’s institutions, and the characteristics that set the community’s works apart from others. In some cases, colleges have been known to reserve a seat on the board for such an “elder,” or at least to have such a person in the room as a non-voting member when the board meets.

A personal responsibility of any board member is to read histories or biographies related to the institution’s founding. With the assistance of a qualified member of the religious community, a willing board member can personally assimilate elements of the spirituality that is embodied in both the history and the people who made that history.

Once on the board, any trustee should also expect to find at least a hint of the mission-and-identity essentials in the basic governance documents. The essentials find fuller and more explicit expression in the institution’s mission statement. Just as any new hire at a college or university should be expected to be familiar with—and committed to—the advancement of the institution’s stated mission, board members themselves should first make sure there is a mission statement to be committed to, and then, of course, be comfortably committed to that mission.

Thus, an important, but often neglected, board responsibility is to approve and provide for periodic updating of a statement that expresses the mission essentials. Board members should satisfy themselves that the mission statement is clear and sufficiently specific to speak to the heart of institutional identity. Every board should have the occasional experience—either in a retreat setting or an informal conversation at the board table—of filling in the blanks attached to the following statements:

“By Catholic, we mean _____________,” and “Because we are Catholic, we _________________.”

Management, mindful of wide-ranging faculty opinion on these points, as well as the possibility that specificity could discourage non-Catholic prospective students, tends to resist that kind of exercise, and board enthusiasm for it is predictably mixed. But the conversation should take place, and the comments that fill in the blanks should find their way into published commentary accompanying the broad statements of institutional purpose and identity.

Board members of Catholic institutions, like directors of business corporations, should be concerned about, and keep management mindful of, the importance of “brand building,” which involves what a business would call “product differentiation.” They should ensure that their institution’s name functions as a brand name conveying a clear Catholic identity. Just as Catholic hospitals cannot be content to define themselves by what they don’t do—abortions, for example—Catholic colleges should avoid the tendency to “baptize” humanistic and secular values and present them as specifically Catholic. For example, they specify “caring” or “community service” as characteristics that define Catholic identity. If the institution is Catholic, it will surely have a special style of caring and serving, but its board members might reasonably expect something more to be said in mission-statement language about the relationship of the institution to Christ, the Church, the Gospel, and sacramental life.

When board members talk about these things, someone will probably repeat the old dictum, “No margin, no mission,” and suggest that they get practical. There is truth to that saying, but in Catholic institutions that maxim should never justify board-approved bottom-line strategies that deplete in a qualitative way the institution’s human assets: its students, employees, and others. Budget cuts and staff reductions are to be expected from time to time. But board members should think (and encourage management to think) of people—faculty and staff members and everyone else who supports the central mission—less as expenses and more as assets. Strategic investments must be made in those assets even as costs are being cut. It is fair to ask whether, given their mission, Catholic institutions should be more focused on this than other colleges and universities. I think they should.

Board members should always have an eye (and make sure administrators keep an eye) on what the management literature would call “end users.” Who are they? The students, of course, and also their parents. By logical extension, that kind of customer-focused thinking reaches out to alumni and others who ever benefited from the institution’s services. Businesses cultivate customer loyalty, and so should Catholic institutions.

It is normal for hotels to think of customers as guests. Board members should step back for a moment and wonder how management in the Catholic college or university for which they are responsible is treating student “guests.” Would simply thinking of students as guests help make the institution better, even more Catholic?

Board members at Catholic institutions should be concerned that their services offer something distinctly and recognizably Catholic to their “end users.” When asked for examples of such services typically associated with a Catholic campus and not always evident on other campuses, I think of instances where students received special care (the Jesuits speak of “cura personalis”) in times of crisis like a medical emergency or the death of a parent, intervention in situations of drug or alcohol abuse, help in a financial emergency, and assistance in moving on to employment or graduate school.

Some of the public issues that make headlines relative to selection of commencement speakers and honorary degree recipients are not unique to Catholic colleges. All boards should have a say in deciding who is honored and who will speak. This should not be left to the executive committee. I remember well when a board I served on rejected a president’s 11th-hour recommendation for a commencement speaker because the proposed speaker’s public image was judged to be inconsistent with the university’s Catholic identity, a conclusion I supported. Individual boards must make these kinds of decisions on a case-by-case basis, according to their institution’s mission and values.

The Lay Influence

Catholic institutions are relative newcomers to the world of lay-dominated, self-perpetuating, independent boards of trustees. As lay trustees gain more governance control, Catholic colleges and universities are looking to priests and religious leaders who once had control to exercise new influence now in preserving the tradition and revitalizing the mission. In this regard, foundations can offer concrete assistance, which is the reason why Frank Butler raised his question in the first place.

Undoubtedly, Catholic colleges and universities are now stronger providers of research and instruction, as well as community service, than they have ever been, largely due to the presence of lay persons at all levels of administration and instruction. Yet the levels of clarity and commitment relative to Catholic identity and its theological underpinnings remain in question.

That is why I suggested to Frank Butler that workshops, retreats, and training institutes are needed to help institutions familiarize their lay board members with the religious mission. AGB offers consulting services that can be tailored to this need.

Relatively small grants to underwrite the costs of researching, writing, and distributing monographs on institutional history and mission would be helpful. Also welcome would be subsidies to support staff positions for people, preferably members of the sponsoring religious community, who could be liaisons to the board while serving presidents as assistants for institutional mission and identity. Supporting research on the founding purpose of the college or university would be another way that foundations could help.

“Money talks,” the saying goes. Money can also serve to get people talking. That is precisely what is needed now at the board level of Catholic institutions: talk between those who understand the tradition and the board members—particularly the lay trustees who are responsible for preserving the tradition in contemporary but faithful expressions of Catholic mission and identity. And that’s why Frank Butler’s question should be raised in Catholic boardrooms today.

What are the essentials of trusteeship in Catholic institutions? Attention to that question in the boardroom will eventually help institutions clarify for themselves their own Catholic institutional identity. Their future, quite literally, depends on it.

Money Matters and Catholic College Boards

One of the essential responsibilities of the board of a Catholic college or university, like that of any other higher-education institution, is to ensure the college or university’s fiscal integrity, preserve and protect its assets, and engage in fund raising and philanthropy. Trinity Washington University in Washington, D.C., founded in 1897 by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, faces many of the same struggles that other Catholic colleges and their boards do in terms of fund raising, and some new ones, as well. Historically a women’s college that attracted mostly the daughters of elite white, Irish families, Trinity today enrolls more than 2,500 students in four academic schools, sustaining the core women’s college while creating graduate and professional units that are coeducational. A majority of Trinity’s students are women of color from some of Washington’s poorest neighborhoods and most troubled public high schools.

Patricia A. McGuire, president for 23 years and herself a Trinity graduate (class of ’74), works with a 21-member board, including at present four Sisters of Notre Dame but with no stipulation that members be Catholic. Rather, McGuire is looking for good fund raisers, people who can “open up doors, not just give money or who love what the school does,” she said. Although, make no mistake, she wants them to support Trinity’s mission, too.

“The Catholic Church has not done a good job of connecting money to the need to do stewardship,” said McGuire, explaining that many Catholics, herself included, were educated in schools (primary, high school, and college) that were largely staffed by members of the founding religious congregation who worked for free, providing “contributed services” that allowed the institution to keep costs low. Students, she said, essentially “got something for which they did not pay their fair share.” There was no emphasis on giving back after graduation, so tapping into that base for fund raising has historically been challenging.

The Sisters of Notre Dame, like other religious orders, especially women’s orders, take vows of poverty and have no tradition of fund raising or accumulation of wealth. Trinity has eliminated contributed services since McGuire became president. Trinity’s salaries are now competitive with peer institutions.

Another challenge for Trinity is that it has undergone radical changes in terms of the population it serves, rendering it a very different place from the one that some alumnae remember. That can make them reluctant to contribute. But it has not dampened McGuire’s and her board’s enthusiasm for the institution’s mission to educate those who are less privileged than the women who first passed through Trinity’s doors.

“We are doing this mission out of a sense of the Gospel imperative to work for social justice,” said McGuire of the institution that was at the brink of bankruptcy when she took the helm and is now an urban success story, albeit one that still can’t take fund raising lightly. “It’s the same tradition that our alumnae experienced.”

—Julie Bourbon


Other Affiliations, Different Relationships

It may surprise readers to learn that the Methodist Church is second only to the Roman Catholic Church in terms of the number of colleges and universities with which it is affiliated in the United States: 120 at present count, including Boston University, Duke University, Emory University, and Syracuse University.

Jake Schrum, president of Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, and an ordained Methodist minister, has spent the majority of his career at Methodist institutions, notwithstanding an early stint at Yale Divinity School, where he served as chaplain to the Methodist students, and Muhlenberg College, which is Lutheran. It’s where he feels most comfortable.

“We don’t wear our Methodism on our sleeve,” Schrum said during a recent visit to Washington, D.C., for a joint conference of the National Association of Schools and Colleges of the United Methodist Church (NASCUMC) and its international counterpart. “But we don’t hide from it either.”

Of Southwestern’s 50 board members, two-thirds must be Methodist. Historically, 10 of those were required to be members of the clergy; the board recently voted to reduce that requirement but not the overall percentage of Methodists. It can be difficult for ministers to raise funds both for their parishes and for a college or university, Schrum said, thus the change.

The exact nature of the relationship between the church and the 120 colleges and universities nationwide varies from institution to institution, with some campuses, particularly those in the South, Schrum said, exuding a more overtly religious character than others.

“There is a hands-off relationship when it comes to the church telling [colleges] what to teach or what to do. That’s not done,” Schrum said. “We have always understood the difference between the church and the academy. This is an academic scholarly community and not the next step after Sunday school.”

Still, the affiliation and relationship to the church are important, and Southwestern has a chapel and chaplain on campus, as do many of its fellow Methodist institutions. Additionally, Southwestern will at times adopt some of the church’s positions to its own use—for instance, its stance on sustainability (for which the institution last year received a B+ from the Sustainable Endowments Institute) or social-justice issues.

—Julie Bourbon