View from the Board Chair: Exercising Our Most Important Fiduciary Responsibilities

By Stephen T. Golding    //    Volume 27,  Number 4   //    July/August 2019

I recently read that a high school student who graduates this year will have 11 ½ jobs in their lifetime and that 50 percent of those jobs do not yet exist. The authors of the article observed that many of the skill sets these new jobs will require are not known today, but by 2035 countless numbers of these 2019 graduating students will be paired with machinery driven by artificially intelligent systems. As the chair of the Washington College Board of Visitors and Governors, I am left to wonder about what these changes portend for my college, its students, and its faculty, and just as importantly, for the liberal arts curriculum we so judiciously protect as the corner-stone of our students’ educational experience. The uncertainty such colleges as mine are experiencing comes at a time when the relevance of a liberal arts education is being publicly debated and we see declining enrollments as students seek alternative pathways to future employment through professional degree programs.

While the current environment is challenging from a number of perspectives, I believe it is rich with opportunity. To take advantage of these opportunities we must first understand the external headwinds the college is facing and assess, in consultation with our broader community, whether we possess the political will and internal resilience to take them on. Across the higher education landscape experience suggests this is not an easy task as historical forces and biases within liberal arts colleges actively compete against what many see as the necessary forces of change.

While some may fear these challenges to the efficacy of a liberal arts education, I believe this new environment offers liberal arts colleges an opportunity to redefine themselves for a new generation of students and their parents. We can reimagine how to impart core tenets of a liberal arts education in a world in which students will need to engage in lifelong learning if they are to maintain their competitive advantage. In order to attract future generations of students, we are afforded the opportunity to accept that today’s students learn differently, have diverse new interests, and are seeking to tailor their educational experiences to meet their broader intellectual and career interests. Our new challenge will be to sculpt a liberal arts education that preserves its traditional values while promoting the flexibility to develop new program offerings to meet the needs of 21st-century students.

Some may question the role of the board of trustees in this discussion given its focus on an institution’s academic core mission, which has traditionally been left to the purview of faculty. As board members we are continuously reminded that in a shared governance model it is the faculty who must lead these pedagogical discussions and are in most institutions the final arbiters of a college’s curriculum. The inherent weakness in this model, as many have come to understand, is that many faculties do not have a comprehensive view of their students’ needs or an appreciation of the economic headwinds buffeting their institutions. It is exactly in these times of rapid change and market dislocations when board governance is most critical. Boards are essential to encouraging institutional leadership to honestly assess the market challenges confronting their institutions. They assist in creating an environment in which all parties can engage in frank dialogue and express divergent points of view. In this environment boards must be transparent with regard to their institution’s underlying economic business model and demonstrate a willingness to take measured risks while asking the same of the community at large. By initiating this dialogue, I believe as board members we are exercising our most important fiduciary responsibilities at a time when it is most required.

Stephen T. Golding is the chair of the Washington College Board of Visitors and Governors. 

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